Michael Phillips: Recent Works on Paper

For Michael Phillips – Recent Works on Paper, the artist and curator Beth Jackson have formulated a collection of minimalist installations. Throughout the exhibition, Phillips experiments with the form of the grid by manipulating colour, line, and space (for the purposes of this review the grid is defined as a flat image with ordered and identical lines which demarcate and separate space into identical segments). [1]

This is not such a radical statement, as many of the works in the exhibition explicitly represent grids or components of them. What is engaging is that the formulaic and banal grid is taken by Phillips as the basis for a series of visual experiments that produces diverse, visually engaging artworks. The grid loses its identity as a manufactured image and has its visual value reinscribed through works of art that engage with ideas of individuality, physical space, and time. Yet, the viewer never loses sight of the grid itself, and this is the duality that energises Recent Works.

Untitled (Letters from Tarkine), 2016, is one of the strictest and most complete grids in the exhibition, and the work closest to the gallery’s entrance. The installation presents a five-by-five grid of dark blue rectangles made of Indian paper (four other works in the show use this medium). Each paper sheet is handmade and is hence slightly different from its neighbours. Variously irregular surfaces and rough edges differentiate them from one another. The surface of the wall acts as the line which divides these blue segments.  Unlike the other works in the show, these spaces sit atop this demarcating line, rather than the line being laid atop them.

Although affixed to the wall with two small silver nails in their top corners, each piece of paper slightly peels off this supporting surface. This disrupts the expected flatness of the grid. By physically moving off the wall the paper has a tentative three-dimensionality. As Phillips explains to Jackson, the sheets in Tarkine have a basecoat of yellow, followed by brown, followed by either two or three coats of blue. [2] The lighter blues create a U-shape within the grid.

Phillips’ painterly process emphasises the uniqueness of each sheet of Indian paper. The grid, which is ordinarily just the repetition of the two identical forms of line and space, is now reimagined as a collection of individual visual moments. Layers of ink were applied to the sheets at specific intervals and different times dependant on each object’s drying rate and how many layers of paint each one required. As a unique component of the installation, each sheet represents an alternate temporal point in the making of the grid.

The next work in the show, Untitled (Tree Sitters), 2016, is not as radical a break from Tarkine as first appears. Phillips has here connected sheets of Indian paper to create a  single row or column. It has no end or beginning, and is a tangled loop which has two distinct but intertwined bodies: an open bottom section and closed top section. It is hung off a white t-shaped stand. Tree Sitters’ sheets are inked in a vibrant orange, and each is connected by a white line. Unlike Tarkine, the line which divides space is here layered over the orange space/visual moment.

The three-dimensionality of Tree Sitters was premeditated by Tarkine. The exhibition’s first work, with its slight separation from the wall, was a tentative sculpture. It began to have a physical presence as a grid, but was not overtly invading the viewer’s space. Tree Sitters transmutes and amplifies the prior peeling. With a portion of the lifeless grid the work creates a three-dimensional sculpture. It is a body engaging in a dialogue with the same space as the viewer. Yet, the work barely looks like a grid. It cyclically digests itself in an endless repetition of line and space (yet the controlled repetition of line and space is precisely what constructs a grid).

Following the perimeter of the gallery would now lead to Untitled (Vanished Rooms Newtown for Shirley and Colless), 2016, the large piece which faces Side Gallery’s entrance. But Tree Sitters’ relationship with Newtown is not as clear as its relationship with Untitled (Raise the Green Flag!), 2016, which sits opposite Tarkine and diagonally across from Tree Sitters. Dialogues appear in unconventional patterns in the exhibition as a by-product of Side Gallery’s intimate space.

The support which leant languidly against the wall in Tree Sitters is straight and flush against the wall in Green Flag. The post’s timber surface is unadorned except for a jet-black section which meets the wall’s bottom skirting. This post holds up a piece of handmade Indian paper which is coated in a deep red ink.

Tree Sitters and this work speak to each other through their twin use of the supporting timber pole and the similarity between the vibrant tones of orange and red. Both pieces isolate components of the grid. In a more extreme case of separation, Green Flag upholds a lone grid segment, segregates a single portion of a grid’s space. Tree Sitters represents an entire row/column. Instead of the languid lean of Tree Sitters, Green Flag is erect, disciplined, and isolated, seemingly iconic in its flag-like upholding of the lonesome red space.

The work is an antithesis to the visual language of the majority of the exhibition’s pieces. Without repetition there is the highlighting of a single aesthetic moment: one instance of Phillips’ artistic practice imbued on a single sheet of handmade paper. The isolation of Green Flag actually negates the individuality of this sheet. As it has no other grid segments to compare itself to, a lack of surrounding and unique moments in space and time, the red segment that is Green Flag is unique only its loneliness. Throughout the show, the uniqueness of the sheets in Phillips’ grids is contingent on the multiplication of unique moments. Take the prior analysis of Tarkine, for example. Only through comparison within a work itself does the idiosyncrasy of each sheet of paper surface. Or, in other words, individuality is often defined in Recent Works by the formulaic image of the grid.

Moving clockwise towards the back wall, the viewer next encounters Untitled (The Melt), 2016. Here Phillips has begun the restitution of the grid after the simplification and isolation of Green Flag. Repetition returns. Lines return.

Sheets of Indian paper are again connected by white strips. The work is a single column of six spaces. A large chunk of paper is missing at the white join between the second and third bottom sheets. Combined with the paper’s rough edges, this gives the appearance that the work is ripped from a larger grid (of course this is also a by-product of the paper’s handmade quality).

The top sheet is dark green, and the five bottom sheets are all black. The addition of this top colour disrupts the clean contrast of black and white. Not only does the bold green differentiate itself from the colouration of the other works, it is differentiated from the constituent parts of its own column. It alienates itself from the form it is part of as an isolated and unique colour compared to the interrelated contrast of black and white.

As a “melt,” the work feasibly began as this green segment before unfolding downwards into the black and white sections. The chunk which is missing from the bottom segments refers back to the melt’s original green moment, and implies a process of creation which does not rely on a manufactured formula. That is, the grid in the hands of Phillips is reimagined as an object which is not logically constructed but is illogically and organically formed through his own artistic practice. Black and white have their source in green just as the order and construction of the banal grid relies on the contrast of paper sheets which are individual moments in time and space.

The power of The Melt’s top section also lies in its ability to link the work to the exhibition’s final piece, Untitled (Vanished Rooms Newtown for Shirley and Colless), 2016. Dark and absolute green links to the latter’s ambiguous yellow/green background hue (colour’s importance to the exhibition is stressed by the linking of Tree Sitters to Green Flag and of the connection between The Melt and Newtown).

Newtown does not lie flat against the wall and unfolds and curves down from the ceiling. The horizontal post which weighs the bottom of the work down is visible. The paper used is not the same Indian variety as the other works. It is much larger, and its sheets are connected by three zig-zagging perforation lines. There are triangular folds and crumples visible on the relatively smooth paper, and this texture begins to emulate the rough surface of the Indian paper.

Whereas each work, aside from Green Flag, has thus far relied on the contrast of white line with an uncompromising colour, such as blue for Tarkine or green and black for The Melt, the background of Newtown is an ambiguous green/yellow hue. Whereas the prior works assert themselves through a deep tone, Newtown is remarkable for its background colour’s unassumingness. The boldness of Tree Sitters is replaced by the overwhelming neutrality of Newtown’s lime hue.

The work’s lines hence become the subject of the viewer’s attention. The brown, orange, and two silver tones which demarcate space in Newtown paradoxically lay over and under one another: brown is overlapped by light silver, light silver travels under orange, and brown somehow then overlaps orange. The two silvers, especially the lighter tone, vividly reflect the gallery’s abundant natural and artificial light. The inversion of the viewer’s focus onto the lines which demarcate the grid truly relegates the background colour to the background of the viewer’s attention. Phillips uses the repetition of fine, wavering lines in varying colours to create a grid which is not very grid-like at all. There is only line and no space. The grid’s background is a void of colouristic emptiness that is overwhelmed by the energy and dynamism of Newtown’s lines and its unfurling energy.

The strata of aesthetic concepts contained in Phillips’ works attest to his ability to reimagine the manufactured space of the grid as an experimental platform for space, time, and individuality. In Recent Works, the manufactured and banal coexists with the illogical and the visually engaging. Hence, the artworks are continuously caught in a process of transformation as they simultaneously represent two binaries without fully embodying either.

Written by Simon Brigden

[1] For a more detailed definition of the grid in art history see Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1985), 8-22.

[2] Beth Jackson, “In Conversation: Michael Phillips; Artist Michael Phillips in conversation with curator Beth Jackson, 4 November 2016,” Side Gallery, published on November 8, 2016, http://sidegallery.com.au/news/in

Exhibition: Michael Phillips – Recent Works on Paper. November 18 – December 2, 2016.
Side Gallery, Red Hill.