Canadian artist Brad Phillips' artwork elicits an immediate visceral reaction - like realizing your entire life is a joke and only God knows the punch line. His text-based works, which are composed in watercolor, are quickly becoming what he is best known for. But behind the striking, stinging, slap-you-in-the-face puns and plays on words, Phillips is a writer and a poet at heart - a writer that uses a grander lexicon to explore the darker meaning of life. On top of being a writer, Phillips is also a photographer. His new book of photography – Mother Nature Mother Creature – puts a twist on 1970s naturalist photography by following two women who undress and romp through a forest in the nude. You can also view Phillips’ stunning text-based work at Harper’s Books in the Hamptons. In the following interview, Brad Phillips talks about his obsession with literature and poking fun at Ryan McGinley.
AUTRE: Your works deals with a lot of love, death and suicide – why are those themes meaningful to you?
BRAD PHILLIPS: Well, I suppose these are classic 'big themes' - and for me my work is always personal, and love death and suicide are all things that I have had vast personal experiences with.
AUTRE: Your watercolors are predominantly text based – like subversive poems – how do those quotes come to you?
PHILLIPS: My watercolors are only predominantly text based in the last few months, primarily my watercolors have been figurative. Some of the paintings of text are taken from other sources, like the bible, but for the most part, I can't say exactly how they come to me. I'm far more interested in writing than I am in art. I publish a lot of writing, I've been obsessed with literature and language my whole life and also comedy. So much of it just comes to me spontaneously – sudden puns I come up with, bad jokes, one liners, like art in general, the source is usually a mystery to me, except that I know it begins somewhere in some dark recess of my mind.
AUTRE: You have a new book – called Mother Nature Mother Creature – can you tell us a little bit about your new publication?
PHILLIPS: I've painted from photographs for my entire career, but I don't think photography has much currency as an art anymore. I think it's been done to death. So I'd taken these photographs of my friends before I moved back to Toronto from Vancouver. I guess I was interested in making a parody of 'naturalist photography' from the seventies. I don't know that it comes across as being parody and also I wanted to sort of poke at artists like Ryan McGinley, who hire attractive models to appear to be his friends and then photograph them frolicking in the nude. For me it was a way to document two women: one is my best friend's wive, a mother of two kids, who were both raised in the west coast, just being naked hippies in the forest. It's pretty simplistic, which is what I see as one of the problems with photography. So for me photographs right now are ideally suited to being seen in books, not on gallery walls.
AUTRE: Is everything a joke or is the joke everything?
PHILLIPS: I'm not sure about this – some things are jokes, some things are deadly serious. The interesting part is to make what's deadly serious and turn it into a joke, and to take what's superficial and light and make it look serious.