Jerry Phillips

original pictures

thoughts about my work

My work is largely a collection of found images (usually photos, but also sometimes handwritten texts and drawings) which I then draw and assemble into groupings that are hung to suggest a quasi-narrative which is really more of a visual poetic essay than a thesis. Generally, I collect images, draw them, then present them in groupings where juxtapositions invite the viewer to intuit meaning through proximity. This is my primary interest. I believe that through these visual setups we find interpretive freedom. Because so much of the way we consume images is largely mediated by those in control of dissemination. I want to create an arena where the viewer is the agent of interpretation. 

My drawing technique has evolved considerably over time. In graduate school I worked as quickly as possible and didn't give technique much thought. Eventually, I found myself focusing increasingly on the application of graphite as a method of seduction. Over the years that surface has become more and more burnished as I start with softer pencils, then add to the surface using harder pencils. Technique has always been a contentious subject for me. I try to retain a sense of neutrality with the medium so that it doesn't get bogged down in "mark making" which isn't something I want to explore too much. But admittedly this is a kind of marking and I can't completely disavow the craftiness of it. When I began drawing I had no interest in issues of style, but over time this technique has evolved organically and it has snuck up on me. And I admit that the graphite work can be a useful method for convincing people to take a closer look.

I have an affinity for the ragpickers who scavenge through discards looking for items of value. There is a high degree of randomness to my project in that I often don't know what I will use next until it presents itself, often haphazardly. At the same time, in the midst of assembling a new collection I may have an idea for a type of image that will add to the mix in a percussive way. Given that my practice is largely additive, I am always thinking about how each new piece is an attempt to engage with past work and to articulate something new to those pieces that came before.

Regarding scribbles: I always make a little scribble with my pencil after sharpening to get rid of any jaggies on the tip, and I decided to make a series of drawings of these copied marks. When closely examined, they are painstaking recreations of the originals, drawn using graphite layers to form the delicate lines. I find that using labor-intensive processes to reproduce spontaneous gestural moments pleases me in an absurdist way, as it creates a tension between the implied importance of such a commitment of labor and the whimsy of the throw-away subject matter. 

Recently, I have been studying reconsidered texts from historical manuscripts. I focus on excerpts where extensive edits had been made, as my interest is in trying to understand each writer's thought process as a generative, protean practice. Ideas about revision and rethinking have been going through my mind, so I have been making some work that directly quotes from other people's manuscripts and sketchbooks. I often utilize quotation as a strategy to initiate a dialogue with the remnants of others, and these drawings represent an attempt to convey my identification with their processes. I relate this to the practice of many artists who take sketch pads to art museums and spend hours copying the work of the old masters on display. It brings one into an uncanny moment of identification that I didn't fully understand until I tried it myself. 

Q&A with Hudson of Feature Inc. 4.17.02

Is your whole as vague as your parts?

There is an interest in openness that prevents me from making too many demands on the parts. The whole remains unfettered and supple, since it is continually revisited and revised.

Your image selection seems to be expanding. Are you creating an arc or a dictionary?

If I think of an arc not as a curve but as "a luminous discharge between two electrodes,” then I can relate that concept to the collection as a whole, and to the selection process, because the choice of each new image is mediated by my experience of the previous drawing, and the resulting relationship between images generates an exchange which in turn influences my decision for the next image. I guess I could go back to q1 and state that my whole is an expansive abundance of these luminous discharges. On the other hand, sometimes I come across an image so promising that I stop what I'm doing and work with it right away.

What determines installation sequencing?

The arrangement is orchestrated to convey a sense of the overarching process of exchange and selection. I hang certain pieces together because the sequence of their production really clicked for me, and their proximity recalls that experience. Some pieces invite interesting formal comparisons when grouped together. Alternatively, occasionally a piece may be used to insert a pause - a moment apart from the larger collection of pictures. That said, I must admit that the strategy changes every time I arrange the group.

I understand that you frequently work from photocopies of images rather than the found image itself; why do that?

There is an element of chance in the discovery of images, and the photocopier enhances that by introducing certain random alterations to the imagery which contribute to the translation process - especially an older copier which has not been well-maintained. The quality of the reproduction is unpredictable, and the resulting changes in contrast and graphic textures inspire departures.

Do you dream in black & white?

I don't notice the presence or absence of color in my dreams. My recollections are more about the sequences of events and the transitions.

Q&A with Hudson of Feature Inc. 4.15.00

What is it about parts?

I think of these drawings as a collection of parts. The project is a continuous search, largely random, for small details that send my mind wandering. Parts possess so much potential. There is always something beyond their edges, something unseen but implied that serves as a point of departure. It’s that rabbit hole of which I am so fond.

You seem particularly fond of dragging the softish lead over the tooth of the paper, and helping the viewer vicariously experience this.

It’s a seduction--and to take such care in applying the graphite to these images is radical to me. To devote such a huge amount of time applying layer after layer of graphite to what many people would never even have noticed is liberating. It’s also a way of disavowing the "rational." And if I achieve a certain surface quality, then I may be able to capture the viewer’s imagination for a bit longer.

Any comment on the relationship between over-exposure and the blank paper?

In adapting the found image--usually photographic--my focus shifts depending on what I’m trying to take from the source image. Once I begin drawing, the elements of the image that originally caught my attention may dominate or recede depending on how the subject begins to occupy the paper. Often, the degree of abstraction is influenced by the drawing I completed prior. As for over-exposure...the pipe is a good example because the contrast between dark and light began to take an almost pornographic quality and a starkness that I think would have been softened if I had filled it out and moderated the tones. 

Do you have a favorite pencil number and brand? Do you always use the same paper?

I am quite fond of H. I suppose it’s my favorite. I never go softer than HB; softer graphite has a grainier appearance and I don’t want the images to look too expressionistic. For the same reason I use a paper that is relatively smooth so that the work isn’t so much about the mark. It’s true that I’ve developed a fairly consistent technique, but it has happened so gradually, over so much time, that I don’t really think of my execution as technique. It’s just a process. The process is for me the personalization of the found image as it evolves through rendering.

I understand that one of your recent drawings is after some unrecognizable thing you noticed on a scrap of paper you had used as a bookmark. Did not really knowing what it was or its source create any particular difficulty, curiosity, etc.?

The scrap was really unintelligible as a representation, so I didn’t have anything recognizable to refer to, which was problematic because even with a complete abstraction I like to retain a little of the referent. It’s so hard to describe, but if an image begins as an abstraction, it can become a mess, while if the image has its beginning in something representational, it retains a kind of tangibility, even through the process of abstraction. For me it is the tension between abstraction and representation that makes images like this compelling. With the scrap, I let the element of chance lead me through the rendering just as it had brought me upon the image initially. It evolved slowly and I let the picture take shape gradually. I wasn’t really convinced it would work until it was finished.

How are you interested by the way drawing from a printed image furthers the drawing’s viewer’s distance from the initial existence while also lessening the differences between the objects or images which were photographed, printed, drawn, and finally seen?

The drawing process transfers the imagery from one fiction to another. I find these images in various places, then I personalize them--sometimes by subverting the subject and focusing on the peripheral details, or by abstracting the image into something completely different. In most cases each piece results, and further articulates something, from the piece preceding, though I don’t think the drawings are necessarily interdependent. I make associations according to whatever chains of meaning occur in my head, and while the image’s initial existence may add another level to the richness of the piece (it does to me anyway) I don’t think it necessarily contributes meaning to the resulting collection of drawings.

Q&A with Hudson of Feature Inc. 10.10.98

Do you continue to draw images found in magazines and books?

Yes. They give me the comforting illusion that I’m participating in some kind of cultural exchange.

Any specificity to the type of book or magazine?

Not really--I mean, in past series, yes. I had very specific parameters for a couple of projects--medieval embellishments, for example--but recently, no, whatever catches my eye at any given moment. Whatever sneaks up on me.

What initially attracted you to draw from details of pictures in books, and has this changed over recent years?

Actually, I think I’ve come full circle since I began using found images because I once again find myself concentrating on their evocative qualities. There were a few projects that became bogged down in their attempt to make a more directed statement, but thankfully I’ve gotten past that. Not that I don’t have an agenda of sorts, but I want to keep the work open.

Is getting lost in looking at the details of an image rather like getting lost in the physical process of drawing?

It’s like going down a rabbit hole.

What are some of your favorite things about the repetitive aspects of applying graphite onto the surface of a piece of paper?

The process is satisfyingly protean. And oddly, the more I draw, the longer it takes. I love focusing on minutia and I work so slowly that a couple of inches of paper can take hours to cover. That’s entrancing--a lot of mental play time.

Do you consider your drawings an invitation for the viewer to enjoy their sub-conscious?

That’s all I can hope for. I mean, I want the drawings to be self-contented yet entirely open. The last thing I want is to coax the viewer into a cage.

Are these thirteen drawings and their salon style installation meant to provoke a narrative of sorts?

I think of these drawings as a kind of collection of samples and the salon-style arrangement is just one way of assembling them. The implied narrative which results is a welcome, though indirect, effect of the installation.

Why the frames with no glazing?

Glass seals off the drawings--it distances them--and I want the viewer to experience the sensuality of the graphite on paper.

What’s your thing with paper?

In addition to the fact that it feels really good, I like the vulnerability of the material.

Any interest in painting?

Too noisy.