When I let on that I’m interested in art or listen to obscure music, my students sometimes peg me as a hipster, so I have to explain to them that, if I’m anything, I’m a slacker. They’re too young to remember the 1990s and none of them have seen Richard Linklater’s first film, but I break it down to a simple binary by explaining that the hipster embraces the variety of culture and ignores division by throwing it all together while the slacker polices those divisions and remains sceptical of any attempt to exploit his (and it’s almost always a he) fields of interest. In music, this manifests itself in the now meaningless mainstream/underground distinction and the purposeful rejection of the former to avoid any accusation of selling out. In visual art, a similar sort of rejection or deferral — even within the institutions of the established art world — characterises the slacker artist. It’s the final phase of the avant-garde/punk/critical position that lead the so-called resistances of the 20th Century (only to be absorbed into acceptance with each generation) until the internet happened and youngsters finally asked, “What are we fighting for?”
Brad Phillips, Two photographs taken at different times connected only in my mind, 2016, archival inkjet print
Brad Phillips, whose exhibition at Division Gallery was recently extended through to August, is closer to my age than he is to the Millennials and his work relies on a deferral that is quintessentially slacker (and, now that I think of it, might also have something to do with his being a straight white male, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish). His paintings are suspicious of identity and obscure meaning in decontextualized still lives or mysterious figures with hidden faces doing inexplicable things. The undercutting of his own authority continues with his photographs of found texts that combine self-awareness with diffidence (“The greatest art is to endure” or “Shit! I’m an artist’s artist.”). Jokes are a running theme and they provide the artist with a defence that is another deferral — that he’s not serious, even when he’s trying to be funny. As one of his texts has it: “Not every joke can be gold. It’s okay.”
Brad Phillips, Source Material, 2016, archival inkjet print
But if a joke isn’t funny, then what is it? A snapshot of someone ironically supplicating before a wax figure of Mother Theresa has this scrawled along the top: “A joke is always an assertion of superiority.” Therein lies the purposeful frustration with this work. The joker can’t be mocked or held accountable, leaving the viewer in on the joke or the butt of it. Phillips manages this untouchably cool position through clever wordplay reminiscent of Ed Ruscha — another untouchably cool artist who leaves me cold. They both establish the disarming reserve of the straight man and then stand back to let the semiotics shiver. Phillips has a bit more humanity and it comes through in his writing. For a painter, he’s got a way with words and, in the end, that’s where he reveals himself even when he tries to hide.
Division Gallery: http://bit.ly/29kAtv6
Brad Phillips: First Last Chance continues until August 13.
Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.
Subscribe to get updates on Canadian art happenings.