The Miserable Quips of Brad Phillips

Brad Phillips, "I Didn’t Retire, I Surrendered" (installation shot), at 8-11 Gallery, 2014. Credit: Yuula Benivolski.

Love makes love, hate makes hate, and disdain has a strange way of eliciting both. Brad Phillips’s show I Didn’t Retire, I Surrendered, a cynical collection of one-liners tossed off in thin watercolor on paper, inspires the sort of pensive confusion that could easily turn to flattery. These paintings are so abrasive, they must be great. But what animates Phillips’s witticisms isn’t comedy, but betrayal.

My first reaction to the show was distaste, then disorientation. “I must have an emotional disorder,” I wrote to my friend afterwards, as I tumbled out Toronto’s 8-11 Gallery still gasping from Phillips’s arid wit, “Because it felt like every single painting in that show was telling me to go fuck myself.”

Turns out, I wasn’t off the mark. “What I enjoy is the fuck you,” Phillips wrote in a review of Bunny Rogers’s book Cunny Poems, describing one aspect of that artist’s relationship to her viewers. He explained this sentiment further in an interview about I Didn’t Retire, I Surrendered on Grolsch’s art site Canvas: “I want to confuse the shit out of people and not have them know if this is real or not; I have a kind of animosity for the audience.”

It shows. While some of Phillps’s quips give the appearance of slicing through the bullshit (Prisoner of Prison), others pile it on (Bullshit Marathon, for example). A few of the paintings show a bit of clever inspiration, like Waiting to Exhume, though many more demonstrate a clear desire to repel, such as I’ve got 99 problems and every last one is a bitch. Some are puerile (Kate’s Bush), some are weary (Don’t Mind If I Don’t), some are vaguely malevolent (I Had the Time of Your Life). All of them are exhaustingly coy.

To confront such a dense array of bullying epigrams really does create a feeling of confusion and self-doubt, as Phillips likely intended. There’s a sense of being tested: If I mimic his brittle poise, will I have passed, or failed? But since nothing is at stake in this work, any investment is a misstep. Phillips banishes from his audience the impulse to connect or respond, under penalty of whatever punishment irony assigns.

Scorn makes a distorted reflection for its object. Unless equivalently armoured, the temptation is to follow the judgment backwards and find some lack in yourself – of judgment, intellect, or appreciation. It’s important, under these circumstances, to return continually to the facts, which are rarely so damning. In this case, one simple truth is that these paintings aren’t actually funny. Funny things make you laugh. These are more like avant-groaners (cue the groan).

The jokes in I Didn’t Retire, I Surrendered seem to emerge from the same half-baked realm of invention as “That’d be a good name for a band,” or, “We should put that on a T-Shirt.” (In fact, Phillips’s various Abandoned Book Idea and Abandoned T-Shirt Idea paintings are generally funnier.) That is, these works are fun to talk about, but there’s a reason they get left behind in casual banter.

Pointing out the mirthlessness of his surreal wisecracks is not to denigrate Phillips’s effort — he isn’t actually trying to be funny any more than he’s trying to appease a wide audience — but to set aside the distracting conclusion that I Didn’t Retire is a comedic show. Some may chuckle and snort at his convoluted ambivalence, but to tie this exhibition off with a smirk deflects the underlying aggression, where the paintings actually open up.

By taking ill-considered quips for his material, Phillips makes I Didn’t Retire into a feat of failure. That must have been his intention, because the deadening effect of the one-liner — how the text lurches immediately to a stop, leaving the image to ride out whatever momentum remains — overshadows all else. Phillips has every right to expect his audience to make some effort, and the work we do is to savour that very particular and distilled moment of disappointment. Paintings normally abide, but these ones stop as soon as they start.

It’s an experience that deserves interrogation, as Richard Prince has continually done since the mid-1980s with his joke paintings. Both artists create environments of discomfort, but the territory that Prince explores is more familiar, reverberating ominously out of the pit where punchlines are kept. Prince’s paintings amplify the latent bitterness and cruelty of much traditional joke-telling; they perspire like meaty fists.

Phillips, who’s shown Prince’s influence throughout his career, assumes the motif, but he doesn’t dwell on the questionable sense of permission that jokes confer, with which people can force others into unwanted complicity. Where Prince reminds us of being victimized by bad humor, Philips recreates the experience by perpetrating fresh puns.

In some ways, Phillips’s use of the device satisfies more than Prince’s — the latter mainly couches his silkscreened text in dour monochromes, whereas Phillips executes his hand-painted lettering in a cheerful palette, creating a winsome contrast with the overall nihilistic tone. But the ground is essentially the same. Namely, it’s a sinkhole: you step out of it, and suddenly it disappears.

That perfunctory, over-determined quality also assails Douglas Coupland’s Slogans for the Twenty-First Century (2011), a sprawling collection of sans-serif mini-statements about the Millennial experience (e.g. Let’s Meet in Real Life) that bog down in attempted wit and poignancy. Phillips and Coupland occupy opposite ends of the sincerity spectrum, but Phillips’s disaffected one-liners probably express the zeitgeist better (where Coupland attempts to capture it, Phillips inhabits ). Both artists seek to compensate for the instability of any individual phrase-painting by massing them together in quantity. The art of clever dictums sings best in a choir.

Toronto’s newly inaugurated 8-11 makes an ideal venue for such an assembly, as well as the perfect lair for a troll. Tucked back from the road on a depressed stretch in Chinatown, the upstart gallery takes a prank approach to commercial culture — its various member cards imitate popular brand logos, and its website replicates the Craigslist homepage — and welcomes a steady stream of projects with a similar sense of humor (i.e. Bridget Moser, Brad Tinmouth, and others). The apparent hastiness of I Didn’t Retire matches the gallery’s atmosphere of impulse and experimentation.

That feeling of vertigo moves us toward the confused encounter with the artist that Phillips clearly invites. “I’m interested in trying to fuck with this idea of the mentally unstable, drug-addicted male artist cliché,” he has said, “so I want [the paintings] to be touching, but they’re not sincere.” (For truly audacious text art that antagonizes stereotypes and still manages to achieve both humor and honesty, see almost anything by Tracey Emin.) When artists seek to “fuck” with their audience, one can’t help wondering if a relationship of collective codependency has somehow been created. Phillips tells us that we’re not worth his sincerity, and in turn we are compelled to justify the insult (lest we be forced to absorb it.) He shows us his contempt and we like it.

Of course, Phillips’s art has always demonstrated intense self-scrutiny, and this poisoned dynamic certainly hasn’t eluded his observation. A sharp and entertaining writer, he has often complained about the absence of negative criticism in the artworld. (Referring to the problematic dominance of art fairs, he writes, “Something that would interrupt this cannibalizing art spectacle would be criticism, however in 2014 there seems to be almost none left.”) Petulant as it appears, I Didn’t Retire suggests a punishing response to an already dishonest viewership. Maybe this is what we deserve. If we can’t engage authentically, why should Phillips continue to offer the kind of raw, self-exposed work that’s earned him so many fans?

When discussing Bunny Rogers’s book, Phillips issues an observation fitting of his own practice: “Everything is high theatrics and crushing autobiography at once.” I confess I’m easily mesmerized by the mentally-unstable-artist cliché, too, and I’ve been swept up by Phillips’s complicated depiction of himself in his deeply personal and sometimes wittily overwrought paintings (he scrawls “Call 911” in Note for a Door). For Phillips, the time has come to disabuse us of this attraction. Compared to his former posture of self-disclosure, what’s most novel and striking in I Didn’t Retire is his elision from the frame.

Whatever Phillips is doing, he doesn’t appear to be having fun. To take the snideness of these paintings at face value and to smirk along with them would be a depressing confirmation of Phillips’s aggression against the viewer. Phillips has previously mined his long acquaintance with desperation, but for a show entirely consisting of puns and wordplay, I Didn’t Retire, I Surrendered may be his darkest work yet.

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