There are giggles at the Gagosian Gallery. It’s the first Saturday since the opening of Richard Phillips’ new self-titled show, and it’s crowded. From the center of the main room, every 11-foot-tall painting of vamping Lindsay Lohan and reclining Adriana Lima looks as if a visitor is lodged in a gigantic cleavage or pressed against a massive reclining silhouette. They’re “lush” alright.
Is it art? These are very technically proficient paintings. They look like advertisements. It’s one thing to scoff at a JPG of water-soaked, white-bikini’ed tabloid princess and quite another to be confronted with a gigantic, immaculately hyperrealistic painting. To the backdrop of tranquil aqua water, Lindsay’s irises are as big as your fists and they’re quivering with a familiar mania. Naturally, if you think the whole affair of painting pop culture icons is silly and contrived, you will scoff at this too, just as you would at another “Lindsay Gone Wild” tabloid headline, no matter how theatrically tragic, but let’s play along.
“My pictures involve a kind of wasted beauty — that’s always been a thread in my work,” Richard Phillips has been quoted as saying over and over, later praising Lohan’s emotional intensity and glorifying her as a “collaborator” and not a model. She’s not a wasted beauty now, see? If we’re meant to meditate on Lohan as a concept, than she’s the perfect example of Phillips’ “thread” — scrambling and sliding in her role as the grown-up child star, beautiful but self-battered, the pop culture punching bag, the eternal teenager on the verge of cougardom — in short, a loaded “wasted beauty” muse. Now look at all those deliberate brushstrokes on her face, the strokes on her shoulders. Bow to your sacrificial starlet. The relationship isn’t exactly parasitical, but heavily Warholian. Just don’t tell Lindsay she might be Phillips’ Edie.
In the screening room, Richard Phillips’ films are showing Lohan emerging out of an infinity pool, scowling at breaking waves, pouting at a camera, emoting enthusiastically, and, in almost every shot, looking either on the verge of tears or about to pounce. She’s kittenish even as she tries to walk slowly across a beach. Phillips perfectly captured her true nature — or, at least, the public’s perception of her true nature. Fade to Phillips’ other muse, ex-porn star Sasha Grey, who languidly strolls through her swank dwellings to an ambient track. These are “motion portraits.” We’re meant to observe. Let’s observe. Sasha is calm, almost frozen, and therefore less stirring, slipping under the emotional radar. All eyes are on Lindsay. All eyes are on Lindsay’s gigantic chest. It’s comical, really. Here were are, alone in this dark Chelsea screening room, this mini chapel of the art world, watching a “babe” bouncing in slow motion on a beach. We’re punked by Phillips, clearly.
And there she is, Lindsay Lohan in Lindsay Lohan, giving cinephiles ample masturbatory fodder by reenacting Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson’s roles from Ingmar Bergman’s 1965 film Persona and Maureen Stapleton’s walk into the ocean from Woody Allen’s Interiors. She’s dipping into commercial Baywatch imagery and “high art” at the same time. Technically, she’s doing the most serious acting of her life… in a small, white bikini.
“When we can’t determine what art is — when we get to that point where we’re not sure, that’s the strongest likelihood that we’re actually experiencing something great,” Richard Phillips writes in the notes for the exhibit, psyching himself up. ”That’s what the art world is most afraid of, because we don’t know how to assign value, whether it’s cultural or otherwise. In a way the films were meant to be a destabilizing artwork. They exist in another area, a zone where we were free to work.”
He’s right. This whole “low culture” vs. “high culture” argument is redundant, infinite, and circular, but it’s easy for Phillips to dismiss haters, scathing scoffs, and aggressive ambivalence when he’s got a solo exhibit at the Gagosian and the monetary value is already assigned. Perhaps we’re not afraid of Lindsay Lohan, but maybe we’re nervous of being caught staring a little too hard and compromising our mutual pretentious. Love it. Hate it. Laugh at it. Yawn at it. Own it. Do what you like.
Richard Phillips is on view at the Gagosian Gallery on West 24th Street through October 20th; click through below to preview additional work.