Larry Bob Phillips: Paintings of the Electric Night
“I was told that my color wasn’t good early on, but the truth is that I worked too fast and was lazy about how I used it, so I kind of fell prey to the standard pitfalls of being a young painter,” says Larry Bob Phillips as he gestures to an enormous ink drawing tacked to his studio wall. We’re standing in his South Valley Albuquerque studio, a space that doesn’t resemble so much a studio as a wood shop; there are drawings and studies strewn about almost entirely covering a behemoth of a table saw in the center of the room. Numerous picture frames Phillips has built for clients hang on the wall amongst stacks of rough cut lumber, and his neat, hand-lettered script identifies drawers of repurposed cabinets containing various tools and other miscellaneous equipment used for carpentry and sign painting. Phillips offers, “I definitely had to work at it though, so I definitely don’t feel like color is a weakness, I’m just at that point that I feel like color stops some of the complexities that happens when you’re working with black and white.” – Claude Smith, Albuquerque/Santa Fe Contributor
Inside his studio, I found him busy preparing for an upcoming solo exhibition at PHIL SPACE in Santa Fe. Larry Bob Phillips: Paintings of the Electric Night is his first solo effort in New Mexico since 2010. While acknowledging he was a bit nervous, his concern wasn’t so much for making the work, but rather finding time to build all of the frames. “We decided that things needed to be framed, so once I’m done stressing about the work, I can start stressing about the frames”, he said grimacing, “We’ll get it done though.” While the final decisions as to what would make the final cut for inclusion in the exhibition had yet to be made, Phillips told me he was enjoying a particularly high level of productivity, adding, “I feel like I’m drawing better than I ever have, and it’s great when things just start clicking.”
As we talked about his work, he began to wrestle with a several massive sheets of paper that have been tacked to the wall, each of them covered in his iconic black line work. “In the work right now, there’s a pretty good fluctuation of stripy, psychedelic, Bridget Riley type space and a more stylized, German woodcut attitude toward image, all with a little nature painting thrown in”, he tells me adding, “I’m really enjoying how all these disparate sources are fusing together.” Phillips describes himself as a “coveter” of diverse techniques and processes, citing his perpetual curiosity and desire to know the various technical tricks artists use in their work. This perpetual drive to push his abilities lends him great command over the visual experiences and effects he is able to create for viewers. Phillips is also a great student of art history and frequently pulls from a great depth of art historical references–specifically those that pertain to the American West–effectively disguising memorable moments in painting history using his own blend of technically difficult, optically-charged compositions.
Immediately recognizable amongst a swirl of hypnotic black and white lines is James Walker’s masterpiece, Cowboys Roping a Bear. “This piece is so gnarly!” Phillips says with laugh, “There are some things I need to resolve yet, but this was always one of my favorite works.” Pulling it aside, he shows another drawing nearing completion: an idyllic landscape featuring two skinny dippers relaxing in a pool below a majestic waterfall. A female figure chats away on a cell phone while the male counterpart extends his hand across the picture plane, seemingly to offer her a beer, a pose that calls to mind God’s reaching out to Adam in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. It’s in these scenarios that we find Phillips comfortably inventing his own versions of Social Realism or contemporary genre painting, where his characters exhibit what he referred to as a, “Shakespearian idea that all the possibilities within the picture and all the characters have full autonomy and can speak over time.”
“I usually work on several pieces at a time,” Phillips says, his voice trailing off into the next room where he reemerges with an armload of large, half-rolled drawings. He sets them out atop his table saw and unrolls them, smoothing out the surface with his hand telling me, “Sometimes I’ll work something out on one drawing and realize how to solve a problem or finish a section on another drawing.” Several unfinished drawings reveal pencil sketches meandering beneath bands of black India ink, but to my surprise, Phillips reveals he doesn’t always sketch out ideas before committing to the finality of the ink. “I’d never finish a drawing if I sketched everything out beforehand, I guess I’m kind of impatient that way, I just don’t have time. I usually figure things out as I go, sometimes I’ll mess it up and have to throw it out, but most of the time it works itself out, “ he says with a laugh.
Also included in the exhibition are several works that could be considered portraits of sorts, in which the anonymous central figure(s) appear turned inside out as if disintegrating or being pulled apart. Citing personal experiences that stem from paranoia, Phillips reveals, “I’m a bit of a hypochondriac, so I started drawing these figures that looked like they were inside out, which I guess stems from my phobia with getting x-rays; I hate it, I don’t want to know what’s on the inside!” These drawings showcase both his impressive technical abilities and his keen understanding of optics. “I’m really interested in limitation and trans-mutation”, he tells me, “I love to see what black and white can do, because there’s ways to trick the eye using the inherent mechanisms of the eye to evoke things outside the realm of normal perception,” adding, “I’m always trying to get a material to be the thing that it’s not, so I really love the possibilities that drawing presents me in those terms.”
Larry Bob Phillips: Paintings of the Electric Night is on view through October 31st.
Larry Bob Phillips received his BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and MFA from the University of New Mexico. His work has been exhibited in many galleries and institutions both nationally and internationally including the Houston Arts League, Recess Activities (NYC), Good/Bad Art Collective (Brooklyn), New Mexico State University Art Museum, Roswell Museum of Art, Entrance Gallery (Prague), Center for Contemporary Art (Santa Fe), and most recently he presented two large, site-specific murals at the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History. In addition to his fine art practice, Phillips has completed numerous large-scale mural projects in a variety of locations across the Southwest and beyond. He lives and works in Albuquerque.
Claude Smith is an Albuquerque-based arts administrator, curator and writer.