Funky folk art? Gutsy expressionism? Feminist fabric art? Or is it "contemporary crafts"? Such are the questions surrounding Gina Phillips Recent Works show at Marguerite Oestreicher, and if the easiest answer is "all of the above," such a pat categorization might not quite suffice. Beyond all those folk, expressionist and feminist twists, Phillips is above all a Phillips-ist.
Unlike the technical or conceptual machinations that define so many former graduate students' efforts, Phillips' work is a direct reflection of herself, her old Kentucky home and her kin who reside there in the hills and valleys of Appalachia. Her use of fabric goes back to that. A former architecture student who turned to painting, Phillips discovered early on that, as a native of quilt country, fabric was her natural medium. Most of this Recent Work show falls into that category, yet it is the paintings that go a long way toward explaining the rest.
Like the stitched animals and cartoonish hill-country folk that line the walls and even the floor, Phillips' oil painting, Self Portrait With Rat, looks pretty funny at first. Here a young woman with a dreamily sullen expression reclines on a red sofa in front of a wood-frame house. Both the woman and the house lay in the shade of a big tree from which a fat rat surveys the scene.
Look twice and the sofa appears to float amid the branches, lending the whole thing a dreamlike perspective. Yet, it's her expression that gets you, dreamy yet strangely dour, unexpectedly spooky and almost chilling. It's a lurking edge that underlies many of Phillips' images. Even her babies are like that: Gothic, surreal, spooky.
Which sort of shines a whole new light on those meticulously stitched Ma and Pa Kettle types that looked so cute just moments ago. But you have to look twice; the big, fat, possum-size rat on the tree limb gives it a jocular cast, as do the stuffed fabric dogs dozing on the floor, yet the devil is, as always, in the details. Worried Mama and Worried Daddy are a pair of fabric caricatures of hardscrabble country folk who look like they've seen their share of tough times. They seem clownish at first, but every picture tells a story, and close scrutiny of the stitching of their fabric and fake fur features reveals a darker quality, something as grim and foreboding as anything a German expressionist like George Grosz might have concocted.
But grim is how life can be up yonder in Appalachia, as anyone who has spent time there must know. The grim and the humorous exist cheek by jowl; the preacher exhorts his flock to hew to the straight and narrow, but the devil lurks at the crossroads and there is always hell to pay. It's enough to make a soul turn to quilting for solace, and in this show Phillips does just that -- with a vengeance and, sometimes, a twist.
More twists and stories turn up in the work of Sarah Ashley Longshore just down the street at the Steve Martin Gallery. If Gina Phillips' stuff seems deceptively cute, Longshore's flamboyantly hued acrylics are subversive in their own way. Her figures, some
with spooky, oversized Picasso eyes and exaggeratedly red lips, seem clownishly zany and might easily be dismissed as somebody's weird attempt at the kind of annoyingly cloying clown art that infests French Quarter shops. Up close they are more like over-amped modern personality types, hyper-kinetic impressions of people who live on the edge. Clownish, but with a freaky expressiveness.
Longshore is a young (25), self-taught painter and performance artist who says she took up art during her parents' divorce, a time when she was acutely aware of intense emotions. "I am interested in capturing a mood whether it's jealousy, lust, anger or frustration," she says, and on that score she often succeeds. As long on theatrics as they are rudimentary in technique, Longshore's images, sometimes burdened with inane titles, are noteworthy for their expressionist edginess, a visceral, let-it-all-hang-out quality that sometimes underlies their psycho-dramatic giddiness.
While there are a few historical art influences -- Picasso and Egon Schiele come to mind -- this stuff is weirder than it seems, a rare instance of mainstream Middle American self-taught visionary art. (Imagine our Angola-educated Jim Sohr reincarnated as an MTV-generation suburban girl.) Curious, curious. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.
- Gina Phillips' Self Portrait With Rat may at first seem funny, but there's a chilling undertone that catches the viewer's attention.