Phillip Reeves

Phillip Reeves

Super great interview here with London-based artist Phillip Reeves, who uses unusual techniques for applying pigment to surfaces, and thrills in the experimental aspect of painting. More at the links below!

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First, I'd love to know a little bit about you. Can you introduce yourself?

Hello. I’m Phillip Reeves. I have spent most of the last decade around East London. I make paintings, and on occasions live performative events or ephemeral occurrences. I refer to them as ‘Live Action Pieces.’

One aspect of your work investigates the processes or application of paint to the surface. Is oil your primary medium? What do you enjoy about it most? What challenges you about it?

Oil is now a primary medium. Years previously my mediums where indiscriminate – tooth paste, shaving foam, curry powder, glycerin, bleach, nail varnish, anything in sight. I would supplement these with inks and paint to induce colour. I started injecting air into mediums such as wet concrete on the surface of the canvas. I would visit the drop-in centre on the Cambridge Heath Road to get hypodermic needles from the needle exchange, using these to carefully pierce through a plastic membrane injecting bubbles of air and water. Allowing time to set, the removal of the plastic membrane would reveal fossilised layers below. Another technique I tried involved creating a sealed lip around the edges of the canvas, flooding the canvas with water and laying down floating oils. Creating my own rudimentary vacuum forming machines, I could then decompress the water away leaving the oil to set on the canvas. I made paintings based purely on experimental processes and the notion of colour. The forms created on the canvas by the different ways I manipulated the material would be the soul objective. By around 2009, I felt flummoxed and quite numb, like painting this way was only using a small part of my mind. Perhaps I’d reached a natural conclusion and gotten bored.

With intrigue, I started using these techniques to make up textural backgrounds and then overlaying figures of people and objects. Self-indulgently, I could escape down a new avenue, and enter a world that involved observation, composition and storytelling. I felt more complete in what I was doing, more purposeful. I became increasingly fascinated with costumes and the relationship between my sitters and objects with in a theatrical setting. Gradually the figures and the narratives began to be my main concern. I started to do away with the unorthodox painting mediums. This is where I find myself today, using mainly oils in a subtler way to record a scene. I still like to dick around with patinations and effects, but they are more stripped back and placid in this moment.

What is your process like? Do you plan in advance, or do you experiment as you go?

With painting, I don’t like to put too much emphasis now on sticking to the original plan. From experience, I’ve learnt that no matter what I’ve conjured up as the final outcome in my mind, or how many preliminary sketches I’ve made or the number of photographic references I have stuck to a wall, it will never end up looking exactly how I imagine it. Whereas before I used to see this as something to agonise over, now I’m more inclined to just go with it. How you imagine needn’t be how it ought. Often now I am happy to conclude that a subsequent buildup in layers of mistakes can be a more interesting way to convey ideas than simply hitting it right first time. How can you have satisfaction without obstacle? 

Your subjects are often figurative, and range from historical figures to sci-fi-inspired astronauts and scientists. Can you elaborate a bit on why you're interested in these subjects?

I primarily work with stories and narratives. Sometimes I make work surrounding themes of adventure, heroic figures and past events. Sci-Fi is a funny one. I generally despise Sci-Fi as a genre of film or book, but I do find Sci-Fi visually alluring in terms interior settings. There is something in the clinical and starkness that appeals to me. More so recently, I have become increasingly interested in the portraiture of influential historic figures, such as Bismarck and Garibaldi, as well as literature figures such as Edgar Allan Poe. I am interested in how clothing and uniform become a sort of costume for characters to be ‘recognised’ in. I like to feature people and objects in my work multiple times, seeing them as a reoccurring entity within different scenarios, perhaps akin to a time traveling soap opera.                 

I like making work about things I’ve heard or things I’ve read. Sometimes I get my ideas from things I over hear when I am out. If the tales have been falsely elaborated - then I like them even more. Making a record of history, a third hand account, perhaps wayward from the truth excites me, but not with all my works. Some of my works are a private joke.

What kind of research or preparation do you do before or in the process of making your work?

Someone sending me a photograph or telling a story can set me off on a chain of research. Perhaps I will come across an image I like in a book, onscreen or in the paper. Sometimes it’s a setting I am interested in. I recently flew to Vienna for a day just to take a photograph of a specific abandoned shop front. I love the sentiment of a long journey to do something for a moment. If I can justify to myself the extravagance of a trip simply to take a photograph then it is one of the more wonderful times I have being an artist. If I have an idea for a model, I’ll lure them to the studio with the promise of biscuits, or perhaps go and shoot somewhere more specific to the backdrop in the painting. Sometimes I’ll collate a mixture of these different references into one painting.

One of my favourite parts of making a painting is working out the compositions. Once I have collected all my ideas for a piece, I make cut out paper figures. If you can imagine I am making a painting of three men for example, then I would make three cut out figures, a bit like ginger bread men. I then place them on the canvas, moving them around until I am happy with how they look – that is how I work out where things should go. Sometimes by this point I am a puppeteer, or I’m directing some weird low budget stop motion film.

How would you describe your studio or workspace?

I like to wake up in it. I’ve always gotten on better with my work when I sleep in the same space. I like knowing all my things are around me and I don’t like to separate my possessions. For the majority, what I own I deem useful for the studio. If I’m working through the night, then it is also nice to be close to bed. I have always put emphasis on having space to make work above anything else. This has often meant living in hilarious yet semi disastrous and pitiful conditions. I see this as a necessary trade-off between affording space to make work and staying in London. Sign of the times. The huge downside to this is that these spaces are often temporary with no real security of stay. I seem to be perpetually waiting to be ‘moved on.’ I have had many adventures though, and been lucky at points to have acres of space, at times entire floors of buildings at my disposal. I’ve lived in warehouse squats, a few railway arches, a cursed shipwreck of a boat, the stair case of a former tram depot, even a caravan in Peckham. I’m currently in an old office building in Hackney. On the inside, recent observations from visitors have been the den where the lost boys from peter pan live, scrooge’s bed chambers and bed knobs and broom sticks. I’m not sure what the latter was referring to, maybe a flying bed up high on the mezzanine.

What is the best advice you've received so far?

I think fondly of the advice given to me by one of my dearest friends, a French erotic novelist who goes by the name of Tam. Being a decade or so older than me, Tam takes it upon himself to advise me on occasions. Particularly when I was younger, Tam would take me under his wing and nurture me. Seeing my own malaise at times, Tam would soothe me by telling me of his own early career frustrations. He encouraged me by stating that the longer he persevered with his writing, so the people around him of his own generation would gradually fall away. For whatever their reason being - wanting a secure income, having a family, a change of heart or lack of self-conviction, and of course life has other plans for us sometimes. Tam assured me if you keep going, gradually along the line there will be less and less people who started out with you still in the same racket, and so it becomes potentially easier to poke your head out that little bit more. The war of attrition. Recently I have started to notice this now myself - people around me falling away.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on a forth coming solo show at Vesterbro Showroom in Copenhagen, which opens in June. The show is called ‘Sausage Pile Up.’ I became slightly obsessed with pigs a couple of years ago after I painted one staring into an oven. I am planning to work with pigs next year, but this exhibition will feature a machine that produces an almost endless string of pastel coloured sausages in the main space. I had a bash at making my own sausages recently and it was surprisingly easy but I still feel the potential for something to malfunction during the exhibition is huge. I’m excited about the prospect of it all going wrong and making a big sausagey mess.

Alongside the sausage installation, some of the larger paintings I have been making are based around some recent things I have experienced. Some are anecdotal. I am also interested in conveying a sense of over the top pomposity. Delusions of grandeur fascinate me. I love the notion that ‘No one sits higher than the King.’ This phrase is taken from the film – Disney’s Robin Hood. King John is upset by caped snake Sir Hiss for sitting up taller than himself. I love the idea that a head chef wears a taller hat than those below him in the kitchen and yet in essence how funny as a spectacle the hat appears. I am interested in the ridiculousness of old-fashioned protocols and traditions, and that they may still exist today. I like people’s idea of their own self-importance; and I play on this theme in some of the new paintings. In ‘Water Damage’ I have made a painting depicting some army officers being carried ashore by servants from a photograph found in a book. These big, strong, leaders of men are being piggy backed by their minions over water after stepping off a row boat in the sea, just so that they can avoid the devastation of getting their feet wet. Like a kitten avoiding a puddle. There is some of that going on in my work at the moment. 

Anything else you would like to add? 

Not a sausage.

Find more at phillipreeves.co.uk and on Instagram @phillipreeves_!

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