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  • Interview by Rosie Osborne

Matt Phillips

Matt Phillips' studio.

Tell us a little bit about where you grew up and the atmospheres that you were surrounded by.

I grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. A small city surrounded by the Blue Ridge mountains. I lived with my mom and my two sisters. I had a lot of interests as a kid. I played and listened to rock music. I was excited by the visual culture that surrounded the music and loved the covers of the records as much as the music itself. My room was covered in posters… Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, REM and Jane’s Addiction. I was pretty obsessed with making a space that was saturated with imagery. More recently I have been thinking about how I was also interested in quieter and more contemplative hobbies. I made a lot of origami and played on the chess team.

What are you currently fascinated by and how is it feeding into your work?

I just got back from a week and a half in Italy after having a solo show at Studio Raffaelli in Trento. I travelled around quite a bit and finally saw some of the works in person that I have loved for some time now. Seeing the Arena Chapel in Padua and the San Marco Monastery in Florence were two highlights. Giotto and Fra Angelico both destroyed me. It is hard to put into words exactly, but there is just such an incredible depth of feeling in these paintings. Their grace, the devotion of the painters, and the palpable desire to will something new into existence. Going back into the studio after looking at these paintings for a week will surely be a strange experience.

Bluff. Matt Phillips. 2017.

Do you have any rituals that you follow when you're painting, or is it very spontaneous?

The primary ritual is just to get into the studio and paint - I try to go every day. From the outside it would all probably seem pretty repetitive. Wake up, eat breakfast, walk the dog, eat second breakfast, get into studio, read or look at stuff on iPhone, turn on music, and work for as long as I can. Within these rituals though I feel that there is room for a lot of discovery and variation. Some days I work on as many as 5 paintings and other times I will dig into a single work for several consecutive days. Some days I will just work in a sketchbook and try to move paintings along through drawing. In the end, most of my rituals are about fishing for those moments in the studio where my decisions feel like they have urgency and real consequences within my work.

Matt Phillips' studio.

Do you tend to sketch out your work first, or does it just form itself naturally as you paint?

Both. Many of my works have no preconceived image or preliminary drawings. I just begin working directly. Then by adjusting the composition, revising color, erasing, and course-correcting, a painting begins to tighten its orbit around a subject. If I get stuck, sometimes I try to move a painting along by making quick sketches, but these drawings mostly help me cope with fear and confusion. I also will occasionally revisit an image in successive paintings. These works may be a way to see a painting at a different scale, to think about the role color plays within the image, or as a means to try and see my own imagery with objectivity.

Do you remember a moment you had in front of a particular painting that will always stay with you?

I remember seeing a show of British painters at the Yale British Museum in 2000 that was incredible. I had been painting for about 2 years at that point and the exhibit was a total revelation. There were so many blockbuster paintings under the roof of this relatively small museum. I met the whole crew that day… Lucien Freud, Leon Kosoff, Frank Auerbach, and Euan Uglow. There was a Uglow portrait of a woman in front of a green wall. The illusionistic space of that picture opened up in a way that I had never seen before. I really caught the painting bug at the museum that day and, in some ways, I think I am still painting about this experience. That day is still quite vivid in my mind - I can remember the cup of coffee I had after seeing that show.

Bricklayers' Union. Matt Phillips. 2017.

What was the last exhibition that you went to?

Some of the more memorable shows I’ve seen recently were EJ Hauser at Regina Rex, Donna Nelson at Thomas Erben, and Richard Mosse at Jack Shainman. I am looking forward to seeing Elizabeth Atterbury’s upcoming show at Mrs. Gallery. I recently had the pleasure of curating a show of Clare Grill’s paintings at FIT (NY,NY) where I teach. I am a big fan of Clare’s work and it was such a delight to have the chance to work with her on that show.

Do you remember the first piece of art that you sold?

I sold a small oil painting in college to my friend Guy Yanai. I think he bought it for $30. My second sale was probably 5 years later.

San Marco. Matt Phillips. 2015.

Which materials would you like to explore working with in the future?

I would like to make some paintings/collages on paper in the near future. Sculpture would also be an interesting challenge because I have no clue what I would make. And I always have fantasy projects in my mind… like building a sailboat and painting the sails or making painted tents to sleep in.

What’s the best piece of advice you have heard and try to repeat to others when you can?

My grandmother once told me that no matter what I do “everyone is replaceable.” I actually think this was such profound and loving advice though I wouldn’t give it to everyone.

Bo Peep. Matt Phillips. 2017.

Which artists would you say have inspired you the most?

Howard Hodgkin has been an incredibly important artist for me (especially his work from the 1990s). I can’t really think of another artist whose paintings operate in the way that a great Hodgkin functions – things in his paintings are really laid bare for the viewer, and yet there is this incredible distance between his subject and the visual language he employs. I love the way he reconciles this contradiction.

Is there a special place that you go to when you want to unwind and seek inspiration?

I often unwind and replenish by listening to records at home. Sometimes I will go on a long run, see an art exhibit, or cook a meal with friends. I also get surprisingly moved and emotional about space and astronomy, so I like watching science documentaries like Cosmos or listening to Radio Lab.

Which piece of art from history would you choose to have on your wall right now, (with no budget!) if you could pick any one?

I really love the late paintings of Braque. I might choose Atelier V (1949). That painting has never ceased to amaze me. The way everything comes alive…. The painted bird takes flight, day and night coexist in the same moment, the painted and the real become one in the same. I would also be happy to live with a Bonnard.

If you could choose one artist from history to paint your portrait, who would you choose?

In the past I think I would have wanted to sit for Giacometti. But right now I might be inclined to say Bellinni. His paintings are just so insane. I love his Pieta at the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice.

Bungalow (Spring). Matt Phillips. 2016.

When do you feel most free?

I tend to believe that freedom is always right here, directly in front of us, just waiting for us to notice it.

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