Alfred Phillips is feeling rejected — not dejected, exactly, but a little passed over. The judge for an art show at an area gallery just turned down a canvas from his current body of work, and he's still smarting. "It stings," he admits cheerfully, even though he has dealt with rejection many times in his career as a professional painter.
Phillips points to the spurned picture and asks if I can guess why it was rejected. The painting merely suggests a certain level of intimacy between two young men, but a squeamish juror might shy away from the sexual implications. "Innuendo?" I ask. No, the artist says. The image was deemed unacceptable because one of the guys is portrayed in truncated form, minus the upper half of his body — the canvas ends at his waist, like a heavily cropped photograph. "But that's what makes it interesting!" I protest, and Phillips exclaims, "Exactly! Now you're talking my language."
This latest rejection is just a minor slight considering Phillips' successes. Since retiring to South Florida in 2003, he has won eight Best in Show awards, and in June, New Times named him Best Visual Artist in our Best Of Broward-Palm Beach issue. I've been following his work, and it's amazing to learn that someone so prolific and versatile, not to mention modest, has been painting seriously for only seven years.
"Every once in a while, I'd get a wild hair and try to do a painting," Phillips says of the three decades he spent toiling in commercial art in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, first at ad agencies, then at his own graphics design firm. (Yes, he watches Mad Men, which he says is so on the mark, "it brings chills to my spine.") Now the artist, who at 64 retains a perpetual boyishness, spends his days in his studio in Fort Lauderdale's FAT Village Arts District, where he recently relocated from the Tarpon River Art Centre. More often than not, what he creates is of definite interest.
Looking around the small, brightly lit space, I'm struck by Phillips' almost uncanny ability to master whatever style and subject matter he tackles. Landscapes rub elbows with still lifes, which in turn are displayed alongside florals, portraits, and the occasional abstract. Over the years, the human figure has taken on greater prominence in Phillips' work, and some of his latest paintings are homoerotic renderings of handsome young men.
These, along with some of his botanicals, are part of a burst of creativity that will fuel a one-man show at the Stonewall Library in December. Phillips got the gig when he won an award at "Art Explosion," an exhibition put together by ArtsUnited, a local organization that promotes the work of gay and lesbian artists. He also has a one-man show in the works for January at the Art @ 830 gallery in Key West. Gallery 101, a neighbor in FAT Village, represents Phillips locally, along with Art Hound Framing, in the Gateway Shopping Center in Fort Lauderdale, and Rossetti Fine Art in Pompano Beach.
"I wish I could find that 'thing' that works for me — subject and style," Phillips muses, reflecting on his artistic restlessness. "I want to try it all." He points out a painting on one wall that's somehow different from the surrounding canvases. Then he pulls out a magazine article on Siddharth Parasnis, an artist whose blocky but highly expressive style Phillips tried to incorporate into his own for this particular painting. The experiment worked: The piece is clearly Phillips', although it has a distinct affinity with the work of Parasnis.
Like many artists, Phillips seems reluctant to cite influences or other artists whose work he likes. "I love the new Chinese artists," he finally ventures. "I can't name their names, but some of the new Chinese artists are blowing me away." He recalls the awe he felt the first time he stood in the presence of a Mark Rothko painting. He also admires the daringness of Odd Nerdrum — he likes the idea of the artist as provocateur, not surprising for a man whose cartoon of George W. Bush being sodomized by an Arab sheik landed him on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart in 2004. Phillips knocked off the image for the Broward Art Guild's Controversy exhibition.
Instead of fretting over what direction to take next, he tries to focus on the work at hand, although he sometimes has several series in various styles going at once — the result, he says, of a tendency toward attention deficit. And he knows enough about the business side of an art career to worry about being able to pay the rent. So far, he has resisted the solution so many artists turn to: teaching. He remembers too much hand-holding of clients when he was an ad man for that to appeal to him.
"You have to really love doing this," he concludes, gesturing to the studio around him, "because everything's against you." Still, he wouldn't trade it. "I can't stop," he shrugs. "It's in my DNA."