Reading Is Fundamental

Brad Phillips, a Canadian artist, makes visual art often using text as subject matter
Brad Phillips’s “For All Women, but Mainly for Sex Workers & Single Mothers” from 2013, a watercolor on paper Harper's Books

“Law & Order,” a show in its last week at Harper’s Books in East Hampton, is perfectly appropriate for the milieu. Brad Phillips, a Canadian artist, makes visual art often using text as subject matter, and not just any text but deeply evocative, assertive, assaulting, and sometimes disturbing text.

He chooses a rather repetitive format. None of the works on paper in the show exceed 22 by 15 inches, and the paintings on canvas are only fractionally larger. The paper looks torn from sketchbooks and so the idea of loosening something bound is subtly reinforced.

His oil paintings may use words to replicate an old paperback book cover, as in one titled “Personal Work‚” with the artist cast as author. Or a watercolor may portray a woman in a sexualized position (“compromising” seems unnecessarily judgmental, as she appears clearly in control of what she wants to display with her hand and finger placed just so). The work, “Against Courbet, Flipped,” apparently refers back to Gustave Courbet’s “Origin of the World,” a controversial painting of its time and in later eras for portraying its subject’s sex organs with only a portion of the torso rounding out the composition. The sheet over the top of the body implies sleep or even death of the subject and seems deeply salacious on several levels.

Through words, Mr. Phillips has effectively taken any feminist critique off the table with his text painting “The Male Gays.” By deflating the decades-old critique of female objectification by male artists, he seems to imply a post-post feminist viewpoint: We have all come to terms with the portrayal of women as objects, and women have taken these portrayals back and used them for their own empowerment. Now, in an era of Tracey Emin, who also uses text in her work, and naked selfie sexting, perhaps some male artists feel comfortable returning to business as usual with a twist.

Does women’s ownership of their own sexualization preclude critique of what could be argued is a natural tendency of males to objectify them? In other words, does a watercolor titled “Bends Before Breaking” of an unclad woman standing on a chair in a contorted pose that implies cooperation and enjoyment of the exercise mean anything anymore? Or is it just a banal part of the cultural landscape?

Mr. Phillips is a good artist, not only in the academic sense. He can reproduce the figure and objects with deftness, and he chooses his subject matter the way Michelangelo might have been said to have chosen his for the Sistine Chapel, understanding that the nudes he populated his paintings with in a restrictive setting did not always need to be unclothed.

Why are some of the torsos disrobing themselves emaciated? Is it a critique or a sign of approval? This is hard to know just by looking. As true as the artist is in some respects to his subjects/objects, he tends to get overwrought and abstracted in many of their features.

There are very few faces here. Mr. Phillips is reminiscent of a Mannerist artist with all of the tools of the prior eras available to him, yet content to use them in a way that highlights the decadence of his era. The flowers he paints in “For All Women, but Mainly for Sex Workers & Single Mothers” are post-still life, slightly wilted carnations, already implying death and decay.

Because he paints the words in his word paintings, there is an ambiguity as to whether one should look at or read them. The text, which plays with aphorisms and other sayings, expressions, lyrics, and titles, grabs the viewer’s attention by disrupting those tried-and-truisms to come up with something cheeky and subversive.

“Gentleman Prefer High End Hookers,” in a loopy, watercolor cursive on paper, stops the visual flow by playing with expectations, offering a more corrosive alternative to the already objectionable original movie title. The mood might seem a bit “Space-Age Bachelor Pad” here, but each work is its own manifesto. Take “Bed, Bath, and Bullshit” or “There’s No Business Like No Business,” which could be Marxist or capitalist depending on who is doing the interpretation.

In looking at these works, an image came to me of several artists who have used text placed together in a classroom setting. Lawrence Weiner, the dean, is at the front lecturing in his complex, erudite style, Richard Prince sits at a desk copying jokes in the margins of a Playboy magazine he has hidden in a textbook, Sean Landers madly scribbles away notes on a legal pad, and Christopher Wool and Mel Bochner are painting signs for some anti-pep rally in the back. Somewhere off to the side is Brad Phillips shooting spitballs of crumpled-up pages of J.D. Salinger at all of them.

With his world-weariness and provocation, he is definitely on to something rank in the current zeitgeist. It is not entirely clear whether his approach has any lasting meaning as cultural critique, or whether he cares.

The show closes Monday.

"I Got Stoned in the Middle East," a watercolor on paper from 2014
"Sex, Drugs, and Then Please Leave," a watercolor on paper from 2014