Phil James

ON AN UNSEASONAL chilly Friday evening in October 2014 a predictably large crowd gathered in ALASKA Projects’ unique car park setting to witness the release of Sydney artist Philjames’s first monograph. Huddled together, the audience listened to the editor of Sarsaparilla Press, Kate Andrews-Day explain why, in this era, anyone would set out to publish a hard copy publication about an artist, let alone a young artist, when so much of their work appears online. Andrews-Day explained how, amongst other reasons, as the project was partially crowdfunded the demand was still alive and well. For readers of art publications, there is surely some comfort in these words.

The book opens with an informative note by Andrews-Day and an introduction by ALASKA’s director Sebastian Goldspink, whose unhurried words describe Philjames primarily as the cool, endearing and well-liked personality he is known to be in the art world he occupies. Curiously, the introduction has a title, ‘A New Hope’,obviously referring to the fourth Star Wars franchise but also to Goldspink’s personal belief in the artist, with whom he collaborates, staging Philjames’s exhibitions with ALASKA.

The book comprises 118 pages with 100exquisite reproductions of Philjames’s paintings and sculptures produced since the artist’s solo exhibition career kicked off in 2009. It was printed in Australia by Peachy Print and designed by Arnel Rodríguez, who is best known for his work on MCA Publications. There are also two essays, one by the Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald and the other by the Guardian Australia art critic Dr Andrew Frost, both of which make encouraging reading. Every three or so pages, the book’s flow is punctuated by glossy yellow pages with red text seducing the reader to open a fold-out page onto a generously proportioned image of a landscape work or three-dimensional installation.

To commence, John McDonald proposes that art audiences could look at thousands of paintings from history, of people wearing wigs, without seeing anything of meaning. Whereas, within Philjames’ work, the jarring presence of an alien or superhero stuns the viewer. He expains: “Philjames has realised that the chief way we relate to history today is as one big Hollywood costume drama” and so it is acceptable to look and laugh out loud.

McDonald discusses the eerily familiar and obscure Hollywood and B-Movie references which also intrigue Dr Andrew Frost in his discussion, and assimilates Philjames’s personal experiences within a broader discussion of contemporary American street artists. McDonald then tempts the reader with Philjames’s personal history in the art world.

McDonald glances at Philjames’s brief association with The Hughes Gallery, lasting one solo exhibition, closely followed by his early departure from commercial galleries.

Shortly after this Philjames’s series titled Art is a Cunt appeared, with works depicting Warhol-inspired Campbell’s Soup tins and the continuation of his street-art antics affixing artworks to public walls or simply giving his works away. These are moments of frustration and disappointment which are sometimes untold in monographs but seem appropriate for an artist who has not, thus far, fitted into the commercial gallery mould as have his contemporaries Guy Maestri, Giles Alexander and James Drinkwater.

Frost places Philjames’s work into a context broadly within international art. Starting with British then American Pop artists, Frost eruditely acknowledges how Philjames’s work draws from a framework established by these artists, as well as shared sources of imagery from the science fiction of the Pulp Age (the 1920s) and the Golden Age (1937 to the late 1940s).

As with Frost’s recent ABC Television series Conquest of Space (2014)and the exhibition of the same title at UNSW Galleries (UNSW Art & Design, Sydney) in 2014, Frost also positions Philjames within his contemporary context in the genre of Australian neo-Pop. Familiar names including Johnny Romeo and Anthony Lister are mentioned because their iconographies remark upon a sourer, more kitsch science fiction, unlike Philjames’s, which is genuinely adoring. What Frost does not mention is that Romeo and Lister, who are more internationally profiled, have adopted and repeated stylised techniques which are unquestionably more ubiquitous than those of Philjames. The same might be argued about Philjames’s less generic choices of cultural iconography. Perhaps this could be Frost’s subtext?

If readers of Philjames previously failed to understand what Goldspink suggests to be self-explanatory imagery, or believed they simply could not identify with it, McDonald’s essay will deliver much needed context. If Frost fails to validate the imagery’s valuable commentary, the subtleties of Philjames’s humour may be wasted on the viewer. Rebel Scum 2014, depicting the Virgin Mary with a ray gun and Star Wars’ rebel flight helmet may not suit everyone’s taste but as Frost describes it “this is where Philjames’s paintings find their true and most lasting effect – the apparently joking but deadly serious restaging of archetypes in a cartoonish setting”.

Philjames is a limited edition of 500 books, currently available from Sarsaparilla Press online and ALASKA Projects, Sydney.

 

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