For the second time, 200% meets the artist Richard Phillips and interviewed him on his latest White Cube exhibition ‘Most Wanted’ – a series of ten paintings of "ten of America's most instantly recognizable celebrities".
We spoke with Phillips what triggered him to come up with the idea of ‘Most Wanted’; the rehearsed, red-carpet expressions of powerful stars; the competing interests that corporate luxury and entertainment systems have in shaping and deciding what constitutes contemporary art; and his view on MoMA’s status as a place of great popular interest, “not unlike a Planet Hollywood or a Hard Rock Café”.
200%: Was there a specific cultural experience, observation or fascination that triggered you to come up with the idea of 'Most Wanted'?
Richard Phillips: The initial inspirations for my ‘Most Wanted’ series came from a combination of experiences involving art, politics, media, luxury, and celebrity endorsement. During a visit to the Venice biennial I visited the Doges Palace and within it the large Hall of Doges. Ringing the room were portraits of the Doges, who ruled the city-state over the years. These portraits, all in similar scale and painted by Tintoretto and his son, served a political purpose beyond their record of legacy, which was to communicate an image of stability, intimidation and authority to any visiting dignitary who entered the chamber. Here, painting is used as an articulation of secular power and wealth.
Later, I attended a fundraiser for ‘The Kitchen’, the avant-garde performance space in New York. At the entrance was a step-and-repeat logo backdrop intended to create endorsement opportunities for visiting celebrities who were attending the event, to lend popular legitimacy to The Kitchen’s program and to create a context of exceptional importance for the attendees.
200%: What do you mean by “popular legitimacy”?
Richard Phillips: By having celebrities pose in front of the brand logo of ‘The Kitchen’, the institution and its members are granted a photographically verifiable status of being celebrity worthy. The proximity of a celebrity to The Kitchen’s fundraising apparatus lends a sense of legitimacy within popular culture at large. Without this celebrity endorsement, the institution would be left outside of, or seen as illegitimate within, the context of the dominant popular culture that associatively determines its worthiness of attendance.
200%: Were there any further experiences that contributed to the idea of 'Most Wanted'?
Richard Phillips: Yes. Within this time frame I was asked to license two of my painting images for the CW television network's production of the hit show ‘Gossip Girl’. When visiting the show’s new set where my paintings were installed, the way in which the producers, directors, actors and crew worked so responsively together to synthesize a first production of pop culture using real time cultural information from all sectors had a lasting impression on me. The painting facsimiles served as a visual backdrop for this dramatic synthesis and appeared a form of cultural collateral that now had a chance to reach large audiences around the world.
Following the ‘Gossip Girl’ collaboration, I was approached by MAC Cosmetics regarding a commission, painting for their artist series. As I was in the middle of a deadline for an exhibition, I was unable to make a dedicated painting for them. Thus, I proposed hiring the best-known photo retoucher, Pascal Dangin, to digitally retouch one of my paintings to create the appearance that MAC products had been applied within the image of that painting. The completed digital painting was used as point-of-sale advertisement in over 1,200 store locations around the world. The integration of a commercial brand product in an existing painting, to be sold as the “Richard Phillips” line of cosmetics, deepened the connections between that which had been previously segregated – art’s need to remain distinct in its relation to commercial objectives. Now, the sanctity of both art and, in this case, fashion could co-promote their exceptional roles in consumer culture.
One last influential experience occurred in the MoMA lobby during the opening night of the Tim Burton exhibition. I was standing next to a trustee, and we observed the large crowd gathered near the entrance and the crush of photographers lined up in front of the step-and-repeat backdrop emblazoned with MoMA and luxury brand logos. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp walked in; the crowd screamed and the photo flashes blasted off at a blinding rate. The trustee turned to me and said that this was an important moment for the museum. I agreed and said that the power of celebrity had finally merged completely with the institution of modern art, where all of the work in the museum would be put firmly into context with the power of the global entertainment system, not just as conferrer of celebrity legitimacy by proximity but as content and product. The presence of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp within the Museum of Modern Art not only meant that by going to MoMA one may be entering a celebrity approved environment and engaging in celebrity approved activities, but in the case of this specific show, the content and products within the exhibition and therefore institution were solely focused on the promotion of celebrities themselves. The art within the rest of the museum could now be seen within the context of official celebrity production that in turn raises MoMA’s status as a place of great popular interest, not unlike a Planet Hollywood or a Hard Rock Café. The exhibition went on to set all attendance records and inaugurated MoMA into the present.
The combination of these experiences led me to make the decision to dedicate this body of work to the irreducible logic of art’s total subordination to luxury brands and celebrity endorsement.
200%: What was your selection criteria to select these as “ten of America's most instantly recognizable celebrities...", as people would suggest that there are others more 'instantly recognizable' than Taylor Momsen... as opposed to, say, Scarlett Johansson.
Richard Phillips: My selection criteria evolved from an initial conversation with Stephan Gan and Dominic Sidhu of VMAN magazine for a proposed layout of the top ten male celebrities working today. Due to deadlines, the original proposal of ten men was reduced to five, and the medium was changed from paint to pastels. The first group proposed comprised more established actors such as Brad Pitt, Viggo Mortensen and George Clooney. I urged that we consider younger actors who were involved in various disciplines of television, cinema and music. My relation to 'Gossip Girl' had a roll in the inclusion of Chase Crawford, and from there it was a matter of discussion regarding which stars hold the highest degree of influence and popularity in the various mediums and represent the biggest brands in entertainment such as Disney. Their roles as tween and teen idols were also factored in. Held over from the original list was Leonardo DiCaprio, who casts a long shadow having arisen from preteen television stardom to teen heartthrob and then to respected Oscar-winning actor. He literally serves as the template for the kind of success to which any of the other young actors could aspire. The young women followed the selection of the men using similar criteria, with the additional stipulation that they be born after 1990. I felt it important to connect to a younger generation and to create a distinction between the thresholds of pop acumen. Chase Crawford, Taylor Momsen and Zac Efron may be unknown to you, but only if you're too old!
200%: From where did you select the poses of the celebrities?
Richard Phillips: The poses were selected from an aggregation of red carpet images drawn from celebrity blogs. The exact poses are the ones each of the stars creates when standing on the red carpet in front of step-and-repeats. Their expressions are rehearsed and coached so that they can print a stable presentation that functions for any endorsement opportunity. To start the process, my studio managers and I individually gathered images on our computers, which we narrowed down to our own top three shots for each star. We then got together and selected the winning pose from the final nine. This last image served as the basis to create a working composite image.
200%: Is there a particular point with this body of work about which you would like the public to ponder?
Richard Phillips: The point I would like people to pause and consider is their relationship to the competing interests that corporate luxury and entertainment systems have in shaping and deciding what constitutes contemporary art, as they exert financial pressure and determine legitimacy by proximity to their products and celebrity brands. The convention of large scale figurative portraiture that negates the instant assimilation of the photo serves to present the contraction of physical human presence when considering the irrational desires initiated by the image of celebrity and fashion brands. The logo-covered front and back walls of the step-and-repeat emphasize the omnipresence of the almost celestial, and certainly inescapable, influence of these brands on all cultural praxis.
200%: On the press release of 'Most Wanted' it is stated that you "selected ten of America’s most instantly recognizable celebrities to create distilled portraits of powerful stars exhibiting their rehearsed, red-carpet expressions” – do you know if celebrities actually rehearse red-carpet expressions with a coach beforehand for the cameras?
Richard Phillips: As I mentioned above, many of the celebrities do rehearse their expressions with the aid of coaches, just as they might work with acting or stunt coaches on the set of or in preparation for a film. When building a celebrity brand it is essential that the projected image of a star remain consistent for endorsement purposes.
200%: How did the paparazzi pictures and 'external' information (from the tabloids or other mediums) influence your depiction of these stars in your paintings?
Richard Phillips: The source photos that inspired the paintings influenced the images in a couple of ways. The distance of the subject to the lens and the relative clarity of the images were important because they establish the feeling of hard or soft focus in relation to the step-and-repeat. The universal use of the strobe flash suppressed the illusion of volume in the portraits. Because of the scale of the paintings, being nearly 2.5 meters tall, these factors are greatly exaggerated when standing in front of the works.
200%: Did the external information about these people, i.e. gossip in magazines, sound-bites on entertainment shows, public image etc, influence your depiction of them on the canvas?
Richard Phillips: The depictions of the celebrities were influenced by the external information about these people in so far as the choice of the best red carpet expression needed to match the overall projection of the popular image of the star that is constantly promoted in the magazines and entertainment shows.
200%: Did you paint these celebrities against 'step and repeat' backdrops to illustrate that these celebrities are used as pawns to sell products?
Richard Phillips: No. They are by no means pawns. The presence of a celebrity at an event is the result of a carefully orchestrated deal, where a brand’s celebrity relations representative has reached out to the star’s manager as well as their publicist and set the conditions for a compensatory agreement. There is an implicit understanding that celebrities must perform in these endorsement situations not only for financial gain but for maintenance of a level of influence.
TO BE CONTINUED
In the second part of our interview with Richard Phillips he shares his thoughts on: why society is obsessed with celebrity culture; Kim Kadarshian’s talent; how his painting method has changed over the past year; and why Warhol's ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ no longer has relevance.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers, with contribution by Marie Drysdale.
Painting: Richard Phillips, Taylor Momsen, 2010, Oil on Linen, 95 x 78 in. (241.3 x 198.1 cm)
© the artist Courtesy White Cube
Richard Phillips, 'Most Wanted', 28 January - 5 March 2011, White Cube, Hoxton Square
More Richard Phillips in the first issue of 200%: