Tom Phillips: Wise words from a free spirit

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

At 76, English painter Tom Phillips still delights in an anarchic approach to making art. Michael Glover savours a preview of his new show

A few days before the exhibition of new oil collages by Tom Phillips opens in Cork Street, I see it in his studio in south London. Half of it is laid across the ping-pong table that dominates the first-floor space. A bizarre method of display? Not exactly. In fact, quite  appropriate given the nature of the  artist. Tom Phillips has been engaged in a kind of mad, off-kilter art-play all his life – he was 76 this year – a practice that consists of the perpetual refining, revisiting and recircling of favourite themes. He was once loosely aligned with the young British Pop artists of the 1960s, but he seemed to sidle away after a while. Not for him the kind of solid consistency of manner and style designed to woo the collector or make a great deal of money. In fact, as he would be the first to tell us if asked, his work seems to be the very epitome of stylelessness. There is no consistent Phillips manner. 

He built up quite a reputation for himself as a portraitist a few years ago – his pleasingly cool-to-the-point-of-glacial likeness of the novelist Iris Murdoch hangs in the National Portrait Gallery – but he soon tired of all that. In fact, he often found himself wishing that there would be a  telephone call telling him that the sitter was indisposed on that particular afternoon. It seldom came. He wanted to continue to do what he wanted to do, which was to follow his nose along strange, aleatory paths. So he  announced his retirement from  portraiture, and he has been a freer, happier and poorer man ever since.

One of his difficulties is that he  continues to have far too many interests. He is just as much engaged by text as image, for example, and they often appear in tandem in his art, counterpointing each other, telling their slightly different stories. Nothing strange about that, he would argue – images are the things that words are trying to picture. He is a singer, a quilter, a maker of album covers and mud drawings, a composer of opera and song, a fabricator of stage sets, a translator of Dante and Rilke (the Rilke, it must be said, is very much a work in progress) and, notably, a curator.

During the time that he was in charge of curating at the Royal Academy, he was responsible for one of the best shows in its recent history, a compendious survey of the art of Africa, which was on display in 1995. He took sole charge of that show. No one else would do it. No one else thought that it could be done, that you could actually capture the spirit of African art in the bottle of a single  exhibition. But he did it. And the spirit of that brilliant exhibition seems to  define the nature of his own approach to art making. It was an exhibition  almost recklessly foolhardy in the breadth of its ambition, a show that displayed the utile beside the useless, the object of veneration beside the spoon. In short, it was a show which seemed to collapse into one great  shout, affirming our desperate  attempts to divide off the decorative from the fine arts. That free-ranging, anarchic spirit is very much alive in Phillips’s own work.

The works spread on this sun-struck ping-pong table, for example, all seven of them, feel – and undoubtedly are – a touch perverse. They are both works to beguile us and works that seem deliberately to cock a snook at the rich collector. For a start they are all extremely small, much smaller than you would imagine if you had seen them only in reproduction. No dealer really wants small paintings. Making small is not a good career move. You can’t charge enough for a start. (Yes, that is one of the rough-and-ready ways that dealers habitually use when they are pricing a work by an artist, its size.)

These look like works which seem to be mocking or referring to other works, works much larger than the ones currently under scrutiny. They feel like physically constrained versions of emotionally grandiose oil paintings that really belong in some great gallery. Except that they are far too small to be such things, and I am looking directly down on them here, displayed on the hard, green, rebarbative surface of a ping-pong table – which in itself feels like an additional act of deliberate irreverence. They are described as oil collages, but that makes them sound relatively conventional in their facture. Not at all. Collages are things that Phillips loves to do most of all because you never know quite where you will end up when you make a collage. These  collages began as fragments from  plastic palettes, those things on which you mix your paints.

Phillips was introduced to plastic palettes by a female portrait painter he happened to encounter on the King’s Road one day. They were both out shopping for artist’s materials. She sang their virtues to him. He  became interested. He bought some. Being a natural recycler, he knew that he could probably do something with the bits of paint adhering to the  palette after the day’s serious work was done, but what of the palettes themselves? Could not they too, once past their useful life as aids to the painter, also yield up material for art? So he began to cut up those used  palettes with the aid of a scalpel. And then he began to assemble those jewel-like fragments on surfaces, and embed them in resin. When that was done, the whole thing was varnished. There was no additional paint added. That would have been cheating.

So now we stare down at tiny, iridescent, jewel-like surfaces which resemble... well, stained glass and mosaic, for a start. Phillips knows a thing or two about those disciplines too – he has work in both Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral. Being an atheist with an unshakeable belief in the sacredness of art, he felt it important to touch both bases. But when you look more closely at these tiny oil collages, embedded rather importantly in their often solidly sepulchral frames, you can see that they are  indeed assembled from skin-thin  fragments of palette, all conjoined or overlapping. And what kind of images do these delightfully playful collages build up into? Well, they seem to hover midway between the abstract and the figurative, hinting at, nudging in the direction of, both simultaneously. Hinting in the direction of old-masterishness – or perhaps playing delicate variants upon that theme. The titles are a tad mock-grandiose too – like a single great trumpet blast, which then hangs in the air, dying off, slightly embarrassed. Here are some of those titles: Redemption, The Last Supper, Oracle, The Screens (Triptych), In the Days That Remain.

The last of these shocks us because, unlike almost all the rest, it is comfortingly large. It combines image with text. The overall surface has the dappled, ever shifting, cloudy radiance of a stained-glass window. (Not half bad for a man who thinks that he is  hopeless with colour, we think to ourselves.) Emerging from that surface – well, part emerging from and part embedded in (you often do not quite know – and perhaps were not intended to know – whether the text is behind the image or in front of it or at one with it visually) float two lines of text. The upper (and larger) reads WASTE NOT, the lower (and much less easily  readable) reads: THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. This second line of text is repeated along a border at the top of the painting which is only spotted after some very careful scrutineering – he does like to part-hide things, turning our looking into a game of hide-and-seek.

Now what do we make of this message? It looks like street-sloganeering plonked shamelessly down on top of this reverent surface. “Waste Not”  reminds us of the fact that the work was made from the spent, the  sidelined, the rejected. But given Phillips’s appetite for literary reference, we also see in it the ghost of an allusion to T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. And the second line of text? The title of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, of course – which was itself stolen from Freud.

But the title of the painting itself is a variant upon this line, which in turn  reminds us of Andrew Marvell’s “time’s winged chariot” – in short, the mortality of the work’s own maker. Phillips seems to be reminding us that these are his own latter days, and how better to spend them than in a studio in south London in pursuit of the kind of self-delight that art-making can induce?

So much wonderfully madcap play to a serious end.

Tom Phillips, Flowers Gallery, London W1 (020 7439 7766)  4 September to 12 October

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam