by Keenan Bennett
Keenan Bennett interviews Heather Raquel Phillips on the occasion of Phillips’ solo exhibition at James Oliver Gallery, containing new video, photography, textile, and sculptural works from the artist.
Keenan Bennett: What kind of artist are you?
Heather Raquel Phillips: Absurd, slightly unregulated, do-it-yourself, experimental. [vape pen liquid bubbles]
KB: In what media do you work most frequently?
HRP: My preferred medium is video. That’s the most exciting for me. My foundation is photography, but also flags and banners, so textiles with text: “Tex(T)iles”.
KB: You mentioned at the opening reception that these pendants are references to awards, to achieving something, to exclusivity, to advertising?
HRP: Thinking back to some of the first flags and banners I made, which were about owning insults, or distancing oneself from the larger population, they’re sort of like flying your freak flag. I don’t love that expression, but it’s kinda the most suitable way to describe them. The first flags I made said, “Rode Hard, Put Up Wet” and “Good From Far, Far From Good,” so these are serious insults that I’ve heard people say about other people, and I was thinking about cutting insults and the way language can oppress people, especially when we are young, like in high school. I thought about those words, and what if I just put them out there? What if I owned those words? Could that take power back?
Flagging Series: Pennants, 2018, felt, sequins, wood, paint
KB: So it was an act of reclaiming these pejorative statements with the goal to reach a space of empowerment?
KB: Were these statements that had been directed toward you, or were these statements you pulled from a wider net of observations?
HRP: Wider net. I mean, I’ve had a fair share of nasty words directed my way, whether I’ve heard them or not. But the thing about words and language is that they’re very powerful and, depending on how you put them out there, they can’t be taken back. They can affect people for life. Slurs and insults are this language of oppression, and here’s the thing about that: if someone is willing to slur you in conversation with me, as soon as I step away, they will likely slur me as well. So, I’ve always just taken all slurs as personal insults. Beyond that, slurs are a tactic, they are a distancing tactic, they are a power tactic, they are an other-ing tactic. Why not take those words, own them and, as a result, take the power back?
KB: You refer to the pendants and banners as distinct projects. Can you talk about how they relate to each other, or, if they’re different, how they are?
HRP: The banners and pendants are distinct. The banners are about power. They’re about the celebration of an undermined identity, the Femme identity. All things Femme being seen as weak or less than its masculine counterpart—with the direct result of misogyny, homophobia, misogynoir, and often transphobia. So the banners are about empowerment, pride, and protection. The pendants, on the other hand, are a call to flagging—the hanky code—which is a great way to own, celebrate, and recognize what you want, sexually. If I go out with a lime-green hanky in my right pocket, somebody is going to know that I’m a food-play top, and that’s pretty liberating. I think it makes people better because of it—less shame, less powerlessness—it is centered in community.
Put Forth/Armor Banner, 2018, satin, fringe, felt, cooper, chainlink
KB: It seems like a celebration of a person’s truth.
KB: What else is in the space?
HRP: Down the middle is The History of Non-Binary Heels objects: casts, trophies… whatever you want to call them. Three heels are on three yellow pedestals and an installation is on a pink platform.
KB: Heels have had a place in your work before, right? Can you talk about your interest in heels?
HRP: I had acquired all these fetish heels and, since they’re definitely not for walking, I started thinking about what these and other heels mean in terms of womanhood, both in a basic binary sense of womanhood and the general marketing of heels. Heels are a rite of passage, you get to a certain age, if you’re socialized as a girl, you get heels. I personally always loved them. I wasn’t fucking around with pumps. I’d get 3 1/2 inches, the tallest you could get at the time. I love the expression of over-the-top femininity. That’s the Femme identity to me: it’s a weapon. It crosses over. It’s not user-friendly. It’s like, “No, this is mine, I own this.” I can run in a pair of heels, I can do gymnastics in them. So, I took these fetish heels…. okay, [snaps finger], what am I going to do with these? I experimented, I set them in cement because they’re hard to walk in. I did a performance in them where I did gymnastics. Then, looking deeper, I found that the first accounts of heels had actually been made for men, for equestrians in ancient Persia. Then around the 1630s there was a time when androgyny was en vogue, so wearing heels and slacks was a non-binary expression. Shortly after that, King Louis XIV adopted the heel for himself and for his royal court. He was the originator of the red-bottom shoe, which is that first shoe on the pedestal in the exhibit.
Front: From: The Non-Binary History of Heels; 1930, 2018, plaster, glitter, satin ribbon, wood, paint. Back: SpeciMen, No. 2-5, 2016-18, Digital Archival Prints
KB: Which is upside-down.
HRP: Right, because, you know, that’s what I’m highlighting [laughs]. And so everybody in his court had the red-bottom shoe, and you weren’t supposed to have them if you were not part of the aristocracy. But, of course, with exclusivity comes knock-offs. I found that super intriguing.
KB: So the first heel on the pedestal is a reference to the red-bottom heel of Louis the XIV?
KB: What do the other two heels on the pedestals reference?
HRP: The green shoe is the Persian equestrian heel, which were a kind of a textured, green shoe. The gold solid color shoe with a satin ribbon tied around the front was the style early 17th century.
KB: Were all these shoes made for all genders?
HRP: Yes, with the exception of the Persian shoe, which was made specifically for men.
KB: How do the concrete shoes on the pink platform relate to the heels on the yellow pedestals?
HRP: The concrete shoes are 1953 to 2015, 2015 being my estimation of heels being marketed to men, like a real market. The stiletto was invented in 1953, it’s also post-war market, a time when women went from the wartime work force, and then society doubled down to get them back into the kitchen with family values of the 1950s. It’s no wonder we see this stiletto come into fashion, which is, of course, more difficult to navigate than a short, sensible heel. It says something about that transition to me. Presently, I see that there are masculine folx wearing heels, really queering them, and saying fuck gender codes, and I think it’s really fabulous.
From The Non-Binary History of Heels: These don’t Work Well 1953-2015, 2018, plaster, concrete, wood platform, paint. 3’ x 3’
KB: I’m interested in this relationship between retooling the heel as a weapon to tear down a gendering system and retooling slurs to tear down generally-oppressive systems.
HRP: That’s completely accurate. Whether I come from this way or that way, I’m always resisting being told what I should or shouldn’t do or be, but I’m also a rule follower. I have this weird duality. I hear the message very loud, “This is what you’re supposed to do,” and it’s seductive because it comes in many forms: it’s walking through the mall and seeing the new trends, it’s television, it’s your parents, it’s institutions. I’m working out ways in which we can keep what works, or reconfigure it to work for us, while at the same time breaking down the systems that keep us—and really everyone—in bondage.
KB: So these are instances where the world is telling you who you are?
HRP: Right, or telling you rather who you’re supposed to be. The resistance of status quo is embedded in me. I don’t need to be told what is right and what is wrong when I’m a person who can navigate those things through my conscience. And a person’s identity is neither right nor wrong, it just is. And it can shift, and be fluid, and that’s for no one but the person to decide. So whether it’s subverting, or going directly into expressing that, it is going to come through expressly in the work.
KB: Let’s talk about the merkins.
KB: What are merkins?
HRP: Pubic wigs.
KB: When would someone use a merkin?
HRP: The merkin was originally created for prostitutes who had pubic lice and had to shave their pubic hair. Since pubic hair was desirable, the merkin was created. Today, merkins are used by actors doing a nude scene, so there’s a sense of autonomy. I have encountered several times in readings that pubic hair is a power source for women. I first read about this in the book Cunt, which I read in my twenties. The author talks about how she shaved her pubic hair, and she couldn’t stop talking like a baby. [laughs] I never forgot that. I thought that was absolutely fascinating. I read again, a few years later, that pubic hair is a mark of power. Hair is interesting in what it contains: energy, dead cells, DNA. There’s mythology surrounding hair. Some Native Americans say you never cut your hair because you cut off the energy source that’s flowing through it. It contains shame for some people. It contains power. It’s a source of pride. It can be fetishized. So I was thinking about hair, and even other materials that could be used as a pubic wig, and how that translates. The piece, The Matriarch, is much like my grandmother’s hair. [laughs]
The Matriarch, 2016, dress form mannequin, paint, synthetic hair
KB: It’s an excessive merkin.
HRP: Right, or luxurious, I would say It’s a luxurious merkin.
KB: And also absurd, right?
HRP: Right, it’d be weird to fit into pants or leggings.
KB: Would it be fair to say you are invoking the histories of merkins and heels for similar ends, dragging them into the present as a way to disrupt contemporary normative gender structures, or impositions?
HRP: Most of them, I would say, are recent impositions—a hundred years or so, which is recent in terms of history. We have plenty of accounts of non-binary existence before then. It’s not until the end of the Industrial Age and onset of modern capitalist society that we get all these social mores put upon us. We get distinctions by who is in the work force and who stays home to take care of the children. The conflation of sex (biological), sexuality and gender expression happens in the late 19th century through medicine. But, what is given so much cultural care to create these binaries (which align masculinity with men and femininity with women) cease to acknowledge that non-binaries continue to exist in contemporary cultures whether or not it allows for inclusivity. In the end, this isn’t a particularly new conversation, this is one that has been cycled around and avoided by the larger part of society, which in turn allows the general populous to easily dismiss the NB identity.
KB: There seems to be a different tone with the portraits. Maybe they feel more direct, like they don’t use humor in the same way as the other works in the exhibition. Can you talk a little about how the portraits relate to the other works in the show?
HRP: The humor in the portraits is really only in the titles, which are not for everybody to understand. They are little private jokes for my subjects. Otherwise, they serve to represent. The really large portrait, called Tinfoil In A Plastic Tube, is my friend Justin, who is very genderqueer and also stunning. I wanted to place something first and foremost, right when you enter, that would fuck with someone’s perception of what it means to be Femme, feminine. I wanted somebody to be a bit confused as to why they were attracted to that body. I want to fuck with perception. That was my starting point: capturing people who are really strong and walk in their truth in a society that is less than supportive or embracing, a society that can be downright violent when it comes to disrupting the status quo. The next portrait, This Man’s In Love With You On Repeat, is an amazingly beautiful and brilliant human being, Wit Lopez; I’m in awe of them. How strong and powerful people can be. I just wanted to create visibility. I want people to know: if you’re not mingling with people who are fucking with the system, here they are, being themselves, standing right in their skin, existing, living, thriving, not up for consumption, but sovereign. Any of these people could be anyone you might know, because sometimes it takes someone half of their lifetime to figure out or to have the courage or the support or the ability to say, “Fuck it, I’m going to do my thing.” I mean, think about it, people still live under the thumbs of their parents values, let alone breaking societal standards. It’s akin to prison.
Tin Foil in a Plastic Tube, 2018, Digital Photograph on Adhesive, 42” x 60”
KB: Can you talk about the relationship between the portraits and the other works in the show?
HRP: Yea, I think the similarity is they’re all about truth and power, that’s the bottom line. I think the difference is that I’m specifically referring to black and brown bodies when I’m making [the portraits]. I’m specifically referring to people who fuck up the binary system of gender. Where the other works in the show contain humor, I’m not making a joke [with the portraits]. They offer a moment to pause and reflect before you walk in. They offer a look at humanity to consider the rest of the work. You can escape in this other work: often it’s pretty, it’s colorful, it’s shiny, it contains humor. I don’t think you necessarily have to look deep into it to be visually stimulated, but you have to look at the photo subjects while they confront you, that’s what I like about portraits. My portraits have always been about ownership, power, and confrontation.
KB: Can you talk about the relationship between fucking with the system and absurdity.
HRP: My use of humor is dark, it always has been. It’s black humor, which falls somewhere in between a dire need for systemic change and comedic relief. The shit that we deal with in society, walking outside alone can be an act of resistance. It can be harrowing, depending on where you are in your life, where you are geographically, if you don’t have a community or if you don’t know other people like you. And these systems are absolutely absurd. It’s absurd for people to not be able to just be. This world is interesting because people are and do differently. Yet, there are still all these parameters. In all these different spaces you have to fit into categories to make people feel comfortable, and how do you fucking manage that, as a human being. I don’t want to change. I don’t want to have to code-switch. I just want to be, you know? But, the fact of the matter is, even in the most liberal spaces there are serious implications of what you’re supposed to be and, if we contain multitudes, are we supposed to restrict ourselves in all these different spaces? It’s absolutely absurd not to fuck with that.
KB: Is the absurdity of the work calling out the absurdity of these rules?
HRP: My use of absurdity is liberation from these restrictions. If you think about a time when you’re not constricting yourself to whatever, and you just let go. You’re just kind of free and giddy, silly, or whatever the case may be. Those moments are freedom, even if it’s only from your own restraints. This is pretty much the purpose of my videos.
KB: You have three videos in here. Can you talk about them a little?
HRP: Sure, there is Hair Cycle, Sextra Curricular Activity, and Thirst Trap. Hair Cycle, which relates to the close-up photographs of hair, takes some short video clips of hair being engaged in different ways: shaving, scratching, painting. The vignettes are fairly close up to create some ambiguity. Sextra Curricular Activity (2016) and Thirst Trap (2018) are the two other videos, on loop. They are related and extend out of the concept under the umbrella of work called (S)Extra. In a nutshell, the videos are a place to get weird and be free. I have some fundamental concepts that I explore, and that inform how I lay out the story. I choose from an array of people who I utilize as actors. Most of the folx that work with me add their own edge to the characters I assign them. I provide a stage, a wardrobe, and a concept behind a character; then I let the magic happen. I am continually amazed at the organic way pieces fall into place. I use people that are marginalized, I take the -ism’s of oppression and cast from there. I utilize a time hop by referring to analogue processes; this gives my characters a place in history from which they are often otherwise excluded. The analogue (ie. landlines and film cameras) give the story a way for me to connect all of the characters, to find the commonalities. Scenes are created from double entendres, and the sound is offset to create an eeriness. These are some of the tactics I employ. I didn’t want Thirst Trap to end as climactically as Sextra Curricular Activity. I wanted it to roll on, and maybe I’ll get better at that open-endedness, that’s a goal. I want everybody to be able to take something away from the videos, to go as deep as they want into the theory behind it, or you just to watch and follow the characters.
KB: Can you talk about the title of the show, (S)Extra: Bait and Switches?
HRP: (S)Extra is what I’ve been calling the body of work that surrounds the subject in and around the world of sex. It started with the title of the video and, as I made more work, I was like, “this is sextra.” Bait and Switches refers to the different things that are in here. So like, advertising, bait, it’s bait, period. Am I going to take the bait? Am I surrendering to the heel, or am I using the heel, right? Which one is it? Then there are the switches. There’s a lot of them in here. You think you are going to see a nude photo and in comes the ol’ switcheroo: it’s a body stocking. Switch is also an insult. A switch-hitter is an insult to bisexuality. So the switch is what we’ve been talking about, taking these things, leaning the other way, subverting them. I was trying to find something that would fit into that double meaning that I love so much, and this fit perfectly.
KB: Is there anything in the show that isn’t a switch?
HRP: Um, no. [laughs]
KB: You were Ms. Philadelphia Leather last year, you joined Napoleon this spring, and you have this solo exhibition at JOG. What’s next?
HRP: Rest. I just want to chill out a bit. A couple collaborative projects, and I’m going to continue with this work. I want to make a full-length film. This last one, [Thirst Trap,] was 35-minutes. So I want to film slower, over time, and make one that’s longer, make one that’s weirder.
(S)Extra: Bait and Switches
James Oliver Gallery, 723 Chestnut Street, 4th floor, Philadelphia
Through June 16th, 2018
Closing reception: June 16th, 6-9pm
Gallery hours: Wednesday through Friday, 5-8 pm, Saturday, 1-8 pm, and Sunday through Tuesday, by appointment.
Heather Raquel Phillips is a multidisciplinary artist working in performance, video, text and photography. A native of Philadelphia, Heather Raquel received her BFA from Tyler School of Art (2008) and her MFA from University of Pennsylvania (2016) where she was the recipient of the prestigious Toby Devon Lewis Fellowship & the Stuart Egnal Scholarship Award. She has recently exhibited at Mama Gallery, Los Angeles, the Ice Box Project Space and Grizzly Grizzly, Philadelphia, BLAM Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, The Leather Archives & Museum, Chicago and Hyphen Gallery In D.C. Her current body of work, (S)Extra, a solo exhibition is now on display at James Oliver Gallery, Philadelphia. Phillips is a lecturer of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania, a member of the artist collective Napoleon, Ms. Philadelphia Leather 2017 and a 2017 recipient of the Leeway Foundation Art and Change Grant.
Keenan Bennett is an interdisciplinary artist based in Philadelphia. They hold an MFA from University of Pennsylvania and a BA in Studio Art from St. Olaf College. They are a member of the William Way LGBT Community Center Art Gallery Committee of the Board of Directors and previously worked as a graduate lecturer at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. They have had solo exhibitions at Gallery 224 at University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA, and RAC Project Space, Spokane, WA. They have been included in exhibitions at Little Berlin Annex, Space 1026, and New Boon(e), Philadelphia, PA; Viridian Artists and The Greenpoint Gallery, New York, NY; and MAMA Gallery, Los Angeles, CA. Their participatory performance project Service Art was awarded a First Night grant by FIGMENT for two consecutive years, in 2013 and 2014. They have been an artist in residence at Vermont Studio Center, Johnson VT; Officina Stamperia Del Notaio, Tusa, Italy; Ox-Bow, Saugatuck, MI; The Church Studios, Philadelphia, PA; Laboratory, Spokane, WA; and Wassaic Project, Wassaic, NY.