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Richard Phillips' Most Wanted

The New York-based artist brings his lifelike pastel depictions of tween celebrities to London's White Cube

“What possible role can painting have in contemporary society?” Points out Richard Phillips. “Let’s just be honest here.” The controversial ‘hyper-realist’ painter speaks while surrounded by celebrities. His New York studio is filled to the brim with the top ten fixed smiles of royalty, from Robert Pattison to Miley Cyrus. But soon these Most Wanted portraits will be re-assembled – in a Quaker style: five guys and five gals face off at London’s White Cube gallery

Phillips’ past exhibitions have seen him hire Black Dice a 140 decibels noise band to disrupt those “exchanging pleasantries.” The art work itself was infamous for sourcing images from pornography as well as fashion magazines and advertising. As an artist Phillips actively blurs the boundaries of art by participating in commercial projects with the likes of Jimmy Choo. In an exclusive ‘behind the scenes’, Dazed took a look at the pastel sketches that will become the ceiling high disruptive installation the art world loves to gossip about.

Dazed Digital: Who are you working on today?
Richard Phillips: I’m working on Taylor Momsen, the young controversial star of Gossip girl. She’s just been put on hiatus because of her off-screen activity. 

DD: You were on Gossip Girl yourself...
Richard Phillips: Being on a reality show, that’s one of the more interesting things I’ve done. I mean that’s where the art is. It was a fascinating learning experience. I was really impressed by their ability to generate the first projection of Pop Art. The fifty year old model of Pop Art is to reflect about popular culture. But today people respond to Gossip Girl. So it was interesting to be part of that.

DD: How did these celebrities come to be your Most Wanted?
Richard Phillips: It started as a conversation with V Man Magazine and my studio. They wanted illustrations of Brad Pitt and George Clooney. We wanted a younger generation... J Beebs has definitely got it going but he came about after we made our final decision. I feel Justin Timberlake is far more representative at this moment anyhow though. With the women it was finding reciprocity with the men. We had a Disney person like Zac Efron and so we chose Miley Cyrus.

DD: Did everyday events affect the portraits?
Richard Phillips: Oddly in a socio-political way this show has been the most affected by daily events, especially the effect of seeing all these images of young white entertainers. They represent a 'Disneyfication' of cultural entertainment that defers people’s attention. Their stocks go up and down in terms of their careers. So any day I can walk into the studio and Robert Pattison is having a great time with his movie release or Taylor Swift’s album has just dropped.

DD: Why are some of the portraits honoured with more halos than others?
Richard Phillips: The halos are references to Richard Bernstein who illustrated the great covers for Interview magazine in the eighties. We then had lots of precedents to link with each of the personalities. So the all white halo of Leonardo di Caprio represents a certain type of classicism.

DD: Is Leonardo a godlike deity?
Richard Phillips: He is literally the patriarch. The ultimate template for what any one of these young entertainers can hope for. He’s the Oscar nominated actor that started out as the teen heartthrob par –excellence. Every person of his generation had a picture of him on the wall. Our own images are from the red carpet but we changed the ‘step and repeats’ to identify celebrities with the top ten brands. In some cases the combinations are humorous but mainly it was a competition to find the look which would define how they sell themselves as a commercial entity.

DD: Stylistically do the halos separate the celebrity from the brand?
Richard Phillips: From the edge of the portrait into the face it looks quite 3D but the effect of the halo is that it leaves no realistic space at all for the head to appear in. So it does tend to make the very physically painted paintings look more like supermarket decals. That’s how tweens trade their images though. They stick them on their bags or put them all over their computers. So it’s actually more a tradability look.

DD: This show seems to focus on tweens a lot?
Richard Phillips: That goes back to my appearance on reality shows. There is no art being taught in schools so tweens in the USA are completely disenfranchised from art. This show doesn’t even really need to be in a gallery it could be shown in Leicester Square. Kids who have seen the paintings in progress sort of feel ‘wow’ this is something being made for me. It’s intentional to address that deficit, that disenfranchisement.

DD: You’ve endorsed products to MAC, different shades such as ‘Hyper-realist.’ Was that a way to disrupt art outside the gallery?
Richard Phillips: I thought it was unbelievable that went so global, it’s a very big brand as it turns out. The relationship with MAC is they had Pascal Dangin digitally retouch one of my paintings to accommodate a limited edition make-up line. You could literally make yourself into one of my paintings using the colours. By and large the art-world is very behind in terms of understanding its own language, what realism is or where reality is placed. But how much more real can you get than that?  

Richard Phillips: Most Wanted, at the White Cube Gallery, Hoxton Square from the 28th of January to the 5th of March 2011