Interview with Phillip Adams

By J. Louise Makary



Painter and muralist Phillip Adams took me to lunch at Ray’s Café on a cold February afternoon. Afterwards, we walked to his top-story studio in a Chinatown building that also houses active factory floors, where we had the following discussion—a continuation of an earlier conversation in which I discovered that Adams’s work is influenced by his pursuit of sublime and physically challenging experiences in nature as a rock-climber, surfer, and general adventurer. I was looking for a little advice on surfing, in a roundabout way, by talking with him about what contending with nature can offer the artist, personally and creatively.


 J. Louise Makary: You say that your work reflects your experience of looking at and responding to the world. Do you stumble upon something, when you’re not in artist mode, find that you’re interested in it, and then bring it back into the studio? Or do you go on a mission to look for something?


Phillip Adams: There’s a little bit of both. Curiosity spawns both of those things—seeking but also finding.


As a figurative artist I am dealing with abstract ideas but also explaining them in a very realistic way. When something makes me curious, sometimes I just want to understand it, or want to explain it, to myself or on a surface. My work relates to the medium I choose, conceptually. Like this current series—I wouldn’t have ever thought of drawing with charcoal, but I slowly realized that I love the nature of charcoal. Carbon is elemental. It’s so simple and fragile a medium that I can manipulate it to make it precise, even though it feels abstract up close. It started to get deeper for me, where I am using the medium itself to express and explore. But while I’m making it, it’s just a bunch of smudges and marks.


JLM: How do you work with charcoal and acrylic for this series?


PA: I prepare wood panel with gesso and sand it down until it’s almost like an egg tempera panel, just a really smooth surface. Then I use a stick of compressed charcoal with little smudge sticks. The mountains are a composite of different places—beautiful landscapes devoid of anything besides rock, ice, and snow. There’s a heavy dose of the sublime but there’s also the feeling of what we try to do to it. That’s when I started to paint on top of it. The furthest thing from nature is something plastic, like acrylic paint.


There’s a constant impulse to control, especially when you realize you can’t. I’m controlling that landscape, that scene, that feeling, but there’s a tension. I always loved doing charcoal drawings but I was filled with worry – like, “Don’t get too close, it’s gonna smudge!” It’s an internal feeling, like being in a glass shop with a big bag on your shoulder. Within the work, there was tension, and some of it is purely physical.


JLM: And you’re designing a mountain. These are finely detailed black and white mountainscapes, each with a quirky detail in color—a playground merry-go-round, a patio umbrella, pink flamingos, a plastic bucket. They juxtapose the immense and sublime with the insignificant, playful, or mundane, using something as a stand-in for a human being.


PA: The series started with a little drawing I did titled Love at the Matterhorn. The Matterhorn is one of the most majestic mountains in the Alps. It’s iconic and beautiful. It’s also a Disneyland ride. So you can turn something that is incredibly deadly and beautiful into a jokey, fun thing, making light of it. When I first started the series, I thought “What if this massive slab of a glacier actually was a slide?” Later it went from lightness to something heavier—that we’re actually trying to control nature.


JLM: I can see the shift from pieces like the slide and the plastic flamingos, which have a touch of the absurd and the playful, to the pieces with the bucket and the flagpole, and the tram car. I see them as a comment on our relative insignificance against these immense, unknowable, sublime natural structures. I see the shift from the absurd and silly to something that strikes more in the heart.


PA: This is the thing that’s interesting about working in a series rather than making just one piece—there’s an evolution of how I as an artist am processing ideas. That heaviness wasn’t as apparent to me. It was there in the absurd, in the idea that there’s this thing that is very real, scary, beautiful, murderous. And counter to that is man’s attitude: “We will win. We can do.” There’s no place that we haven’t been. What you have left is a yellow construction cone—the leftover, the aftermath. I’m asking, “Where is my place in this?”


JLM: What’s remarkable to me about the style of this series is that, when you step away from it, it does look meticulous. But it’s not rigid. There’s a quality to the gesture that is loose or playful even while it’s completely detailed. It doesn’t leave the viewer with the feeling of it being overly exacting or empty of emotion in the service of making something photo-realistic. In all of that detail, there is an embedded emotional gesture and an embedded intellectual gesture that’s not just about getting it right.


PA: When you’re creating a gesture, it still has to be convincing. So within these drawings, even the small rocks have reflective light in them. But drawing is just mark-making. The preciousness is important—but it’s also not important.


JLM: You mentioned the Matterhorn being a Disneyland ride, and it made me realize that we do miniaturize things. It’s one of the cultural ways that we control things that are really immense and scary. We look at things on the Internet or in magazines and we rarely have the opportunity to be with the thing in its presence. So your use of these objects to represent us inserts us into this sense of space and scale that we don’t often feel in our everyday lives. We are really cut off from these experiences that knock us down to size. Seeing these works reminds me of that in a serious and playful way at the same time.


You also did a charcoal wall installation in 2009 at Tiger Strikes Asteroid of Barack Obama bodysurfing in a giant, room-sized wave. Libby Rosof wrote in The Artblog that the “monumental tube suggest[s] how temporary is the space in which the viewer stands, anticipating and fearing what’s about to happen.” Even from the images, I could get that sensation. You get the sense of being physically engulfed because of the size of the installation. I’m wondering how many of these kinds of places have you been to?


PA: Quite a few. This past June I went to India, to the northern region and the Himalayas. I hiked the Drakensberg in South Africa, Chimanimani in Zimbabwe, and Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Recently I volcano-boarded and surfed in Nicaragua. I’m headed to Mt. Zion, Canyonlands, and a few other national parks in May.


JLM: Why do you seek out that type of experience?


PA: There’s nothing like it. Not to get too hokey, but it’s really this moment where you get a greater sense of what life means. You become so small and insignificant. It floors you. And it’s also exhausting, where you’re constantly struggling with both body and mind wanting to stop. You have to reconcile both. It differentiates us from animals because it’s that place where you get to be conscious.


JLM: The other day I was telling you that I am learning to surf for a project, because I’m going to be making site-specific work in Santa Monica. But I don’t have a level of comfort with the ocean. I’ve had some unpleasant experiences. I’m very curious to see what the lack of that innate desire to be in powerful water is going to do to the more philosophical or spiritual questions that go along with these kinds of sports. How do I reach a level of comfort with danger and power outside of myself? How do I continue to exert some level of control so that I stay safe and can achieve some version of grace? I won’t be training to the point where I get good at surfing, but I hope that I can have my own version of grace in attempting to do something new and difficult.


PA: If you’re aware, you’ll understand it. I love that idea: I just want to be able to do it with my own grace. I think that’s what most of us should figure out in our lives. You have to figure out what you are going to do, in your own way. Right now I’m trying to learn how to slackline—tightrope walking. It’s amazing how cerebral I become about trying to figure out what am I doing: do I need to work as a pendulum, relax the legs, lift the arms? All of these are things that you are trying to think of to get better at it. But sometimes it needs to be more about instinct and trying to block the mental part that makes you not do.


JLM: I am already thinking about how I’m going to be vulnerable to it, or letting go, and what that part of the sport is, and what that means to people who pursue it with that level of desire that I don’t have for it. I hope I get something out of it, despite being scared shitless.


PA: Does that fear play into your work at all?


JLM: It does more so, now. Before it was always fear that I didn’t know what I was doing. Now I’m starting to embrace that kind of fear, and getting over that particular fear is allowing me to bring a different kind of fear into the work that I think is more palpable and is more part of the content, rather than my personal insecurities. When I first started working with the other performer for the last piece that I did, which was about sheep shearing, the physicality of it was scary. I was able to tap into that with some of the things you were talking about—like letting the gesture take over or just looking at how the camera moved and how we moved within the frame. It’s harnessing that movement through the frame and making it happen very quickly, creating a sense of rhythm with the cuts. That opened up something kind of wild, and full of a visceral sense of fear. It opens up a space to let go of control in my work.


PA: It comes down to challenging yourself. Like in the charcoal series, sometimes it’s the small things, not the monumental things. It feels good, when you challenge yourself—just the trying for it, not hitting a home run. No matter how much we overthink things, the impulse is still there, and impulse is what makes it unique to you.




Phillip Adams is a painter and muralist living and working in Philadelphia. He received his MFA from the University of Pennsylvania and is represented by Seraphin Gallery in Philadelphia.


J. Louise Makary is a filmmaker and visual artist dreaming of California. She is a 2013 Pew Fellow in the Arts.


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