"For a given graphic situation, I quest after its color G-spot," says John Phillips. "I want to push pleasure buttons in the viewer." Phillips--whose retrospective of 36 mostly abstract paintings and drawings is showing at the Columbia College A + D Gallery--also aims for a balance "somewhere between reverence and irreverence." In Having Little Heart Attacks for You, pink biomorphic forms are connected like sausages on strings by wavy lines that vary from light to dark red. "I wanted these to be provocative shapes--I wanted it to be sort of sexy," Phillips says. Appealing and often funny, his works induce shifts in perception through their subtle color combinations.
A Chicago native who grew up in the suburbs, Phillips says that music is a huge part of his life. He discovered blues and soul in his teens and says he likes music that's upbeat, aggressive, and humorous. "Some of the stuff that I like the best," he adds, "is when people kind of don't know what they're doing. Jerry McCain made ridiculous low-budget records like 'The Bell in My Heart,' in which there was an alarm clock going off for the whole song. I collect black party music from the 50s and black instrumentals that sound like stripper music." An occasional DJ since 1979, he likes to do "really surprising mixes."
In his freshman year of college, Phillips got "turned on to northern Renaissance painting--Schongauer, Durer, and Grunewald--and started drawing cool monsters," ending up an art major. He also sketched favorite musicians, Frank Zappa among them, and soon was expanding his technique, aiming to replicate "the amazing tour de forces of hatched lines" in Rembrandt's etchings. Moving back to Chicago, he earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute in 1979.
In 1988 Phillips's art changed. After working with planar abstractions for a decade, he was struck by a page of ribbon forms--used in Renaissance paintings and manuscripts to display text--in a decorative-arts resource book. "They were flat, but they were spatial," he says. "They were abstract but kind of cartoony and figurative. They were degendered but sort of sexual in that they had folds." He began painting ribbons and curves derived from them, such as the green lines in a diptych here, Do the Do. Phillips says he tried to make the lines "neutrally buoyant," a scuba diving term for being weighted correctly, neither sinking nor rising. Like many of his titles, this one comes from a song in his collection.
Since 1990 Phillips has started his paintings on a computer, where he draws basic forms with a mouse, then traces them from a projection on the canvas. Color choices are crucial. The first color is often intuitive, he says, and the next is chosen in relation to it. "I've been cranking Day-Glo into some of my colors," he says of his work on canvas. "If I mix a black there's a little Day-Glo yellow in it, which puts a buzz on the color." He adds that, with his colors, he wants to "hit the viewer over the head and feel them up at the same time." The most recent painting here, Ice Cream Man (named after a 1953 John Brim blues song), began with a computer drawing he finished in "about three minutes." First he laid down 3 shapes of the same color, then 3 shapes all in a different color, until he had 27 shapes in 11 colors. He changed the colors later, both on-screen and on canvas. "The structure happens really fast," he says, "and the color is not something that happens fast at all. I wanted to have a simple system so that the viewer can realize that there's a brain behind it, not just shapes coalesced out of taste."
The results can be supple and funny. "Humor is a great communicator," Phillips says. "It bridges gaps. You can be with a total stranger, and if you've got the right joke, you're friends." But he wants to achieve more than fun--he says he's aiming for "references piled on each other," comparing his lines and shapes against colored backdrops to the relationship of figure to ground. In Shy Guy his characteristic curvy lines are rendered in green against a field that passes smoothly from pink at the bottom to a medium red at the top. The green looks more intense as the background hue darkens, mirroring the changes in perception we experience in daily life. "If you're driving the car listening to the radio, the radio is the figure and the driving is the ground," Phillips says. "But if an animal runs in front of the car, the relationship flip-flops."
Columbia College A + D Gallery
72 E. 11th
through November 6
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni, Fred Camper.