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Friday, July 1, 2011

Finding the Right Line

A Conversation with Jenny Phillips

Jenny Phillips is showing her encaustic artwork at the Inclusions Gallery in Bernal Heights from July 8-August 14. Although her pieces retain traces of her background in graphic design, they reveal multiple sensibilities at play.

Q: When did you start making art?

Phillips: Before high school. I have been painting for a very long time. Some of the work was figurative and some was spare and abstract—I haven’t really developed much, have I? In college I combined photography and printmaking, but it wasn’t terribly interesting. I also did a lot of silk screening, which led me to graphic design and away from fine art. Recently, I’ve been working with issues of scale, changing the scale of details, most often those found in nature.

Q: Where are you showing your work?

Phillips: At a small gallery in Bernal Heights called Inclusions. I had been in a group show there and they asked me to do a solo show. But I can’t produce a lot of work with the graphic design business and family obligations, so I suggested a joint show with another encaustic artist.

Q: What’s your goal with this work? Why do you do it?

Phillips: My goal? To do more and more art. I do it for the pure joy. It’s embarrassing to talk about it. When I am into it I just love the process of creating. I try to get everything to its most simple state, and derive energy from the work’s silence.

Q: Which artists inspire you?

Phillips: I feel connected to Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, but I don’t have a complex theory about their work. I remember walking into a Ryman exhibition and hearing the ocean. When art moves you, several senses come into play.

I think Martin’s work is akin to textile in its simplicity, which I love. Yet, it’s also mysterious. The historical context of when she was working is inspiring; at that time, abstract expressionists like Motherwell were pursuing just the opposite. I think she was brave.

I also really love Ben Nicholson.

Q: But didn’t he do a lot of figurative work?

Phillips: He did a lot of pieces that are just linework. It is simple, but he layers. I think he influences me.

I work a lot on paper. There is no conscious intention when I am making a piece. I mostly want to feel that line, and have the confidence that I know where that line should go. When I don’t sense that, the piece doesn’t work out well. But when it comes together, I feel it inside. That’s where the confidence comes from.

Q: How did you start working in encaustic?

Phillips: I attended a workshop at class at the Kala Institute in Berkeley. Besides the luminosity, I love the sensuous, tactile nature of the material, and the way it smells. I used to worry about all those odors but then I just opened the windows and told the family to get used to it! Every sense is going when I am working in this medium.

Q: Is it hard to work with?

Phillips: It isn’t hard, but it depends on what you are trying to do with it. You have to understand what it can and cannot do. I am impatient so I don’t like the heat gun, and will use the torch instead. Like when I am cooking dinner, if it says put the oven on 150, I’ll put it on 450. The time thing gets in my way.

I like the material’s inconsistency but I don’t like the bubbles which develop if you rush encaustic. This piece in front of me isn’t working; I have put on 40 layers because I can’t get what I want.

I am also trying a more sculptural piece that has a lot of texture, to get away from this smooth surface. I built up this piece, white on white, and just lines. I want it to be very tactile and emotive. But I am not there yet.

In all my encaustic work, I really care that the surface feels good.

Line Weave 16 x 20

Works on Paper

Q: Did you get going right after the workshop?

Phillips: There was a studio in Santa Cruz where you could do this kind of work, but that was too far to travel, so I started working in my office. That was not OK. You need to stay super clean for graphic design, and I was getting wax on my comps and my tools and everything was getting smudged. I had to separate the two kinds of work. The studio space just got finished; I am taking over the family room!

Q: Did you practice art while you were a graphic designer?

Phillips: Whenever I finished a job I would take a few months off and take another art class. Every break from graphic work meant time for painting.

Q: So what drew you to graphic design in the first place?

Phillips: When I graduated from college I came home and my mother asked me what I wanted to do. The only thing I liked was making stuff, and I didn’t think I had a natural talent but I said, “graphic design.” I looked in the Times and there was an ad for an entry level graphic designer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She said, “You don’t know a thing, you’ll be perfect.”

I had no portfolio just silkscreen posters from college and it wasn’t a great interview. Then the woman asked me my birthday. When I said, “December 18th,” she said, “Oh you’re a Sagittarius. That’s perfect.” And so I was hired.

She showed me how to use an X-acto blade. I thought you were supposed to change it every time you used it—it was just laughable! But it worked. The Brooklyn Academy of Music was the best. We got free tickets to every show in the city and I went to theater every night.

Q: What drives your minimalist approach in your work?

Phillips: I am really attracted to the spare. I am obsessed with stones. I collect them at the beach. I am just trying to find the simplicity and complexity of this one rock in this painting. But again, I haven’t quite gotten it yet.

I am not a draftsperson, and cannot draw well. My whole life I wanted to be an artist and wanted to draw well. I have taken more life drawing classes than you can imagine. I’ve made a little progress, but I never feel exhilarated the way I do when I am painting or using encaustic.

Chalk Spine 12 x 24

Wave (16 x 20 each)

White Lines on Black 6 x 12

Q: Joan Mitchell didn’t draw well either. It’s not necessary. What about color?

Phillips: Right now I am working in greys, whites, blacks, and browns. But I work with eight shades of white. Every time I try to use color I don’t like it. I have some pieces with dark saturated color, but that’s not where I am going right now so I have put them aside. Eventually, something will happen and they will be useful.

Q: Is your minimal palette a response to all the color in graphic design?

Phillips: Maybe. In one piece I thought one red line would bring it all together but oh my God, it didn’t work at all. I do use color in the paper pieces, but not in the paintings.

Q: Can you describe your process more?

Phillips: I use an encaustic base with many different whites and some yellow. I used to use string, but I kept burning it. I use X-acto blades to carve into the surface, and make many of my lines with an X-acto blade. I love my X-acto blades. I have all these blades that have been worn differently and which make different kinds of grooves. I cut the line, then I cover the board with oil paint and wipe off the excess. It’s like printing. I brush on some more wax and then torch it. After each layer you have to fuse the wax. I also work with India ink, and graphite.

Right now I am working on this really simple piece and I cannot get it right. One day this week I worked for five continuous hours on this one concept: A white line. But I couldn’t get what is in my head. So I melt the whole thing down and start over. The thing is, my pieces are extremely simple and when I start to overwork them they start to fall apart. If the piece is going to happen, it happens quickly.

Q: What do your kids think?

Phillips: Well, they lost their playroom. My youngest one says, “Don’t you think you can get away from scribble scrabble? I can do a better job!” But my son connects with the sensibility and he hangs out with me and does some work. He is totally into it and has good suggestions. Quite often he will say, "When I grow up I want to be an artist," and my response is always, "me too."

Jenny and Fin at the beach.

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