Richard Phillips sits at the pinnacle of commercial art fame. In his studio overlooking New York City we are surrounded by paintings of hyper-realistic, beautiful women, bold pop aesthetics and what the artist’s loudest critics decry as crass depictions of the emptiness of American culture.
Yet Phillips is a man with a vibrantly entrepreneurial spirit, widely known for his carefully chosen, high profile collaborations and glossy - often eerie - images. For Phillips, a painting at its best emphasizes corporeal experience. The artist’s approach to life, as he explained during our conversation, is to push himself beyond his comfort zone and explore the boundaries of expression.
We followed Phillips to the Heinlein Racing Development Garage in New Jersey, where he is concentrating on a so called “kinetic sculpture”, which takes the form of a Porsche Cayman RSR. As part of his creative process, the artist is striving to build the perfect car. After a season of testing, Phillips is now looking to legitimize the performance values of the work. For the sculpture to be completed, its functionality must match its aesthetic, balancing two aspects of perfection.
Bridging the gap between painting as artistic practice and cars as a medium is not something one typically sees during an artist’s career. What’s your take on the connection between these mediums?
It’s very humbling working with motorsport, because I’m such a beginner and yet I have a knack for it. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. They’re similar. Motorsport is a portraiture of a certain type of passion and intent, articulated very precisely not only its aesthetic form, but its emotional heart. I think when we turn the car on, the thing comes alive and you can hear that it’s not like a normal thing. The real experience of the paintings is that sense of being present with them, it’s the same thing with a car. You can photograph or film it and it looks pretty incredible, but the real sense of it, that sense of realism, or reality or hyperreality is the full expression of it in our corporeal state. Because what we are really talking about is expression within form. Painting is the same thing. Painting is absorbed sensitivity.
Is this interest in cars new for you?
I've always kind of been interested in them. My friend Neville Wakefield took me for a ride in his 1991 Porsche 964 C2 Turbo, I couldn’t believe the power and speed. We pulled over to the side of the highway and he said, “Okay now you try it.” I got into the driver’s seat and just mashed the throttle and we took off at such a high speed, it was unbelievable. When you get in that car and it goes up into boost, it’s like going into a hyperspace.
Later on, I identified the Porsche Cayman as the car most suited to my abilities and something that I could learn with, but I wanted to build it as an ultimate form. The Cayman as a car is a brilliant design by Porsche, but they can’t ever have it surpass the performance value of the 911, which is their marquee brand. I decided to build one that would compete directly by using all of the best components from the 911 and putting them into a Cayman. I did this extra thing, turning it into kind of a racing version with a super wide body. The early white turbo and my racing car were two of the biggest inspirations that went into creating this kinetic sculpture, this kind of hybridized form of the Cayman RSR. There was a gap between where it was aesthetically, and where it needed to be in terms of its performance and engineering.
From a technical standpoint, how do you integrate cars into your work?
I actually never talked about this in an interview, but my approach to art making and motorsport is united by the importance to understand the full dimensions of what you are doing, because otherwise you won’t be able to communicate with the engineers who make it possible.
"I think it's one thing to be a painter, but I actually don't necessarily think that painting is always art, even if it looks like art."
Do you think you move beyond contemporary boundaries in art?
I think it's one thing to be a painter, but I actually don't necessarily think that painting is always art, even if it looks like art. And that's important, it's really a form that has no guarantees. There is no inherent guarantee that art is being made. You have to really put everything to a stress test and see what the limits are and where there’s potential. If there is a capacity to change cultural discourse and the relationship to creative expression, the demands of contemporary art, or art in general, that's a tougher question that has to be addressed from day one. When I hear romantic stories of painters throwing themselves into their studios, l respect them for that because I have to do that myself. At the same time, it's easy to get caught up and think that the act itself is valuable and it may not be.
It seems you really push for a creative space that’s not always comfortable. Do you do this intentionally?
Painting can be like a comfort zone, that zone of being on rails, where everything is cruising. And it's at that point where there is a critical question being asked: are you willing to go back to the form and push it to the point where it is no longer comfortable? If you ever watch in-car footage of an extremely skilled race driver, you will see them constantly teasing the car past the point of controllability.
Do you feel like you're stepping into your studio when you go into the motorsport shop?
Yeah, I do – but there it’s more about the object. A car is this inert thing that is really beautiful, but when it gets turned on it's so loud and so frightening. You can't help it, you feel the energy. It's such an intense feeling, you can't even imagine!