The Aesthete

Constants and Variables

Whether he's navigating his Porsche 964 around a racetrack or meticulously painting Lindsay Lohan's freckles, art star Richard Phillips always remains calm and methodical

by Adrian Mainella film Baldomero Fernandez

Richard Phillips’s hyper-realistic, 11-foot-high paintings of three women who define obsession, celebrity and notoriety (supermodel Adriana Lima, Lindsay Lohan and adult film star Sasha Grey) caused an audible buzz at the Gagosian Gallery last fall, further confiming his art star status. His love of motor sports finds him steering around the track at exultant speeds. Searching for parallels between the two, we spoke to the Massachusetts-born artist about his process, his passion and his drive. 

ADRIAN MAINELLA: I’d like to understand more about your method. What's your relationship with trial and error when you’re painting?

"There's a sense that time becomes irrelevant and that you are experiencing life in a new way, in a way that is exceptional."

RICHARD PHILLIPS: I've said it a lot that my paintings are the sum total of acceptable mistakes that coalesce into an experience that goes beyond intentionality. In my last exhibition, I had this painting of Lindsay Lohan in a wetsuit holding a surfboard. The shoulder of the wetsuit was this kind of marshmallow pink, and the wetsuit material is soft, but it has form to it. So, with all intentionality, I set out to paint it. I created the form and everything looked right, but then somehow it just didn't feel like the material that I was trying to get. No matter how I painted it over and over and over again, it would look as vividly real as possible, but it still wasn't quite right. Eventually I took this knife and literally scraped off all of the paint that was there. The residue is what you see in the painting. The removal of all the paint to reveal just the stain and residue underneath was exactly the texture that I needed, exactly the sense of light and form that I needed. I could have sat there and painted for days and I would have never have found that out unless I just took a chance to remove it all.

AM: Tell us a little bit about your most recent subjects. What about them inspired you?

RP: At no point in time did I sit down and say OK, the three people that I really want to work with are Lindsay Lohan, Sasha Grey and Adriana Lima; it's simply that that never was the case. It only happened by one thing, which was basically the word yes. Saying yes to possibility.

AM: “When I'm driving I am…”

RP: It’s an experience that changes my relationship to time. It compresses time on one hand, but on the other, it eradicates it. Any sport or action that has consequences to it involves one’s total focus and concentration. There's a sense that time becomes irrelevant and that you are experiencing life in a new way, in a way that is exceptional.

AM: “When I'm painting I…”

RP: It’s a similar type of experience. However, it's one that's fraught with interruption and it's not such a fluid type of experience.

AM: There's got to be a moment in motor sports when there's a sense of vulnerability...

RP: Having not raced, I don't know yet what that is. Fortunately (knock on wood over here), I haven't made any contact or had any incidents. A lot of things that instructors will talk about is keeping one’s eyes up and being able to be ahead of the car because if you're with the car and things are happening very, very fast, they're difficult to react to. But, if your eyes are up and you're looking to where you're going, things are actually happening slower. If you're looking at the wall that you don't want to hit, you will go and hit it.

AM: How do you challenge yourself?

RP: It’s going to sound a bit corny so you'll forgive me, but the way that I challenge myself, it's as simple as, and I think it's as simple as saying yes, you know? It really has to do with availing oneself to the unknown and availing oneself to possibility. 

AM: Would you describe yourself as a perfectionist?

RP: It’s of course yes and no. Perfectionism is actually a weakness in the sense that you assume that there's an end point that you can get to and completely resolve. You need to hold high-level standards as your goal, but you need to be flexible to the degree that you don't know necessarily what it's going to end up being…that the perfect result isn’t necessarily the best result. I couldn't pretend to have perfection as a goal because that would be a hindrance in terms of being able to do what I want to do. But you know it's like there's the perfect wave or the perfect lap...it's fleeting. Something can be done perfectly, like Adriana's skin tone can be perfect and I want to push myself so that it appears that way. I'll do anything to get to that point. So yeah, in another way you could say I am.

"I actually don't have the words to describe what happens when painting is going well."

AM: That sounds very methodical. Would you say that's an accurate description?

RP: Yeah…it's not really a whimsical thing that I do. I love the idea of coming to the studio with a blank canvas and, “Oh, I've got an idea today I'm going to make a painting,” and I put my colors on the palette and I just come up with a painting. That's not what I do. It has absolutely nothing to do with that fantasy. I wish it were the case.

AM: How long does it take you? I imagine each one is different.

RP: You want to know how long it takes to make a painting? Everyone asks me that, I can tell you the answer. That one took less than ten days.

AM: No, really? You had to be like ten days of just...that's a massive amount of work.

RP: That's why I identified with endurance racing, because in order to make these paintings it's a lot like endurance sport: You have to put yourself up to it to do it and stick with it because continuity between how the painting comes together cannot be broken. So that means long hours in the studio; it's like checking out on life. There's no social life, there's no home life, there’s a void for long periods of time where I only see a few people…The fact is that painting's quite difficult to do. When it's going well, it's kind of beyond description. I actually don't have the words to describe what happens when painting is going well.

This is the second in a series called “Transcendence,” examining the lives of aesthetes and their dedication, passion and intensity for something other than what they are known for.

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Follow Richard Phillips on Twitter @RichardPhillips