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