She's got baked ribs and candied yams / Those sugar-cured Virginia hams / Basement full of those berry jams / An' that's what I like about the South ... " The lyrics to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys' "That's What I Like About the South" rang true back in 1942 when those lines were written. Since then, much of the region has been transformed into a vast, rolling suburbia of big box malls and office parks, and any berry jams in the basement probably came from Wal-Mart. But things were apparently a little slower to change in the remote Kentucky countryside where painter and fabric artist Gina Phillips grew up. A New Orleans resident for the past 10 years, Phillips has drawn on her colorfully rustic past in paintings and tapestries that come across like vignettes or short stories in the grand old, down-home tradition.
Phillips' figurative style has a lot in common with Southern writers ranging from William Faulkner to Harry Crews and the late Larry Brown. Droll irony is a common thread, but, speaking of threads, it's her way with stitching that makes her stuff so unusual. And while her tapestries have previously turned up in galleries like country photo albums magically transformed into the craziest of quilts, this is probably the first exhibit that allows easy comparison between her stitched and painted styles. From a distance you can't always tell which is which, such is her flair for threads that read like brush strokes. For instance, Self-Portrait is a painted, oil-on-panel likeness of the artist at age 30, and a savvy reader of faces can see in the wry half-smile, pale eyes, ginger hair and vaguely pixielike demeanor a sort of genetic history of rural Southerners as they exist from West Virginia to Winn Parish. Here, Phillips depicts herself as one of her own colorful and sardonic characters, almost as an addendum to a gallery of good ole' boys (and a good ole' girl) appearing in tapestries titled Early, Daytona, Alice King and Greg, respectively.
Greg is a Southern sub-species; that stoically haggard fellow usually found in the oil-soaked shadows of a mechanic's shop, muttering something about stickin' valves or slippin' differentials, and here Phillips has him nailed, right down to the shell-shocked eyes, drooping moustache, crooked teeth and the spidery network of capillaries on his perpetually flushed face. But Daytona is a different sort, more in the Richard Petty or Jerry Lee Lewis vein of NASCAR and lounge music playboys rarely seen without their trademark shades and slicked-back hair. Poor Alice King still bears the imprint of life's setbacks, her daughter's sorry choices and her untimely transition to convenience store clerk from manager of the Family Dollar before the Wal-Mart ran it out of business a while back -- or something like that. It's all written on her face. As in Southern fiction, we can laugh at their folly while identifying with their humanity. Considering that it's all just colored cloth and frenetic zigzags of thread, it would be hard not to appreciate the expressionistic realism of her handiwork.
Based on those images, one might get the impression Phillips was still living in Kentucky, at least mentally. But no, her world isn't all chitlins and hominy grits, although the transition to the bayous didn't happen overnight. Fishing, a painting of a youngish couple fooling around on the banks of a bayou, could almost be anywhere in Dixie; only the tin-roofed structure on stilts and the slate skies and eerie stillness of the Cajun prairie in winter hint at its setting. But it is Dauphine and Gallier 1957, a nostalgic street scene tapestry that is one of her most recent -- and most striking -- departures of all. Here two young guys in a two-tone '56 Chevy troll the narrow, Creole shotgun-studded streets of the Ninth Ward in search of adventure in the form, perhaps, of the prim worldly looking babe on the sidewalk, a Holy Angels Academy sort of charmer with a Mona Lisa smirk on her face. Occupying a cultural space somewhere between Botticelli and Bud Rip's Bar, Dauphine and Gallier is Phillips' most incisive evocation of local ambience to date. If she keeps this up, she might someday pass for a Holy Angels graduate herself.
- Gina Phillips' nostalgic tapestry, Dauphine and Gallier 1957, occupies a cultural space somewhere between Botticelli and Bud Rip's Bar.