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Painter Richard Phillips' presence is strongly felt in New York City this month. He just opened a new exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, which features large-scale, hyper-realistic works of Lindsay Lohan, Sasha Grey, and Adriana Lima — muses that follow in the theme of "wasted beauty" throughout his work. Last night, the Rauschenberg Foundation revealed Phillips' giant wall portrait of Mitt Romney for a group show titled We The People, appropriately timed for the 2012 elections and tonight's first presidential debate in Denver. Both instances of his latest paintings raise questions about his cultural and political assertions, or perhaps a problematic lack of them.
Phillips told GalleristNY that, despite any assumptions otherwise, he will vote Democrat, which seems ironic given initially unbiased explanations of the Romney painting's significance. He says, "No matter what my opinions are, there are much larger forces at play, but that’s the subject of the painting. Portraiture deals with that confrontation, especially when you use a certain type of realism." He compares the satire of his work to Andy Warhol's Vote McGovern portrait of Richard Nixon, which didn't stop Nixon from winning the election. Phillips himself admits that, regardless of the artist's intent, "In the end, ironies can backfire."
Phillips says, "I wanted to get away from what, to me, seems like a hackneyed response to 'this is bad, this is good,'" and this statement precisely embodies the problem. Phillips suggests a territory without lines, without the necessity to define bad or good, and without a definition of art itself, recalling the introduction to his Gagosian exhibit — "When we can’t determine what art is—when we get to that point where we’re not sure, that’s the strongest likelihood that we’re actually experiencing something great." While a paradigm conforming to ideas of hyperreality and pop art mysticism is often applied to culture, it should not necessarily be applied to politics.
If Phillips were oscillating on matters outside of politics, perhaps this space of distanced criticism would be acceptable, but given Mitt Romney's stance on the arts in America, it's not. Mitt Romney made headlines last August when he told Fortune magazine that, if elected, he would eliminate government funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. At a time when veteran artists like John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, and Frank Gehry have created limited edition prints to raise $4.2 million directly benefitting Obama's campaign, or when graffiti artist SABER reacts by creating an aerial "Defend the Arts" message in the New York City sky, it's hard to see Phillips' contributions as apolitical.
Artists like to be impartial and nonchalant when it serves them, and frankly, so do politicians. Richard Phillips doesn't need to defend himself against the fact that his gallerist, Larry Gagosian, has given $5,000 to the Romney campaign, or that he could be potentially glorifying a candidate who he himself doesn't even support. Even if his premise appears to be offering an argument for others to confront, it is highly imperative that all artists, Phillips included, demand the government's support of the arts, so that there's no longer a possibility of ironies backfiring for the worst.
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