We pour over the works of the great artists. Curators write rapturous descriptions of those same works and their supposed meanings. And critics surely analyze them far too vigorously. But what if we were able to really get inside of the minds of Van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol, Basquiat? How would it evolve the way we see both them and their art?
Those are the questions that New York painter John Ransom Phillips undertook - and fascinatingly succeeded - to answer with his revelatory new series, Lives of Artists - which will be on exhibit at the BlackBook Presents gallery in Brooklyn starting October 24.
Known for his metaphysical abstractions, like his captivating series on Walt Whitman, inspiration this time came by way of his artistic engagement with the Bardo, an Eastern concept defining the place where souls remain in limbo, awaiting reincarnation.
"I perceived that some of these artists from my dreams wanted their stories to be told," he explains.
And so Frida Kahlo's spinal anguish, which drove so much of her artistic output, is given new voice, as is Jackson Pollock's wild, volatile expressionism, and Jean-Michel Basquiat's tense navigation between the street and the formalities of the art world. Interestingly, Phillips himself has said before that the profession of artist had actually chosen him, rather than he choosing it. And so did his selection of artists for inclusion in the series, in a sense, come to him - by way of a kind of suprahuman communication.
There was certainly a matter-of-fact generational affinity with Andy Warhol - whose iconic shock of bleached hair is perhaps the closest thing to being presented in a clearly representational way in the series. But Phillips reveals that while he was likely most philosophically aligned with the likes of William Blake and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a mystic and a philosopher, respectively, and not particularly fond of Salvador Dalí's work, he was nonetheless creatively energized by exploring the great surrealist's fantasies and nightmares.
"While I have certain favorites, those I identify with," he admits, "others I have no predilection for. But their demands simply persisted regardless of my opinion of them - and I discovered I have an enormous reservoir of empathy for artists who are very different from me. So, I listened and accepted their guidance."
And it was that wholly unique happenstance of inspiration that led him to cast aside his personal proclivities, in order to explore artists' stories that resonated decidedly more profoundly within him. By doing that, he was then able to create work that is at once enigmatic and enlightening, allowing us to see these towering geniuses in a remarkably intimate new way.
And that's what 'Lives of Artists' so generously offers the viewer - a chance to be a fly on the wall of the dreaming world of so many of the great artists who shaped the modern and contemporary eras. They, in-effect, invaded John Ransom Phillips' dreams, so that he may invade theirs. And then with those spiritual barriers removed, he interpreted the exchange in a way that is utterly revelatory, to say the least.
"I hope that people will feel invited to enter into other people’s dreams, as I have," he enthuses. "Sharing experiences like these broadens our perspective and can help us grow."
John Ransom Phillips' Lives of Artists opens October 24 at the BlackBook Presents gallery in DUMBO, Brooklyn.