Interview with Laura Sue Phillips, by Matthew Deleget

The following interview was published on MINUS SPACE in May 2004 in conjunction with Laura Sue Phillip’s spotlight exhibition.


Matthew Deleget: Let’s start at the beginning of your career. You grew up in California and did your undergraduate work at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. A few years later, in the early 1990s, you earned your MFA at Hunter College in New York. What kind of work were you making at Hunter and shortly thereafter?


Laura Sue Phillips: Yes, I grew up in the suburbs of San Jose, with summers spent on my dad’s ranch. Not a George W. kind of place. It was literally a 125-acre wildlife refuge on the central coast. I was excruciatingly naive when I first moved to New York. I was making feminist-inspired figurative paintings loaded with Freudian symbolism. After the first Gulf War started, I concluded that visual art wasn’t the place for political change and began to learn about abstract geometric painting in earnest. Of course, I was influenced by an incredible group of abstract painters at Hunter.


MD: Which artists, exhibitions, or ideas impacted your thinking and process at the time?


LSP: The most influential person in my life from the very first day I arrived at Hunter was Vincent Longo. We met, he invited me to tea and a muffin, and we told each other everything about our passions for art and our struggles in life. There isn’t enough room here for me to adequately sing his praises. He has shown me by example how to be simultaneously good at painting, printmaking, curating, and teaching.

The exhibition that I remember most having an effect on us was “Conceptual Abstraction” at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1991. The following year three issues of Tema Celeste were devoted to the same type of painting, including artists like Valerie Jaudon, Jonathan Lasker, David Reed, Sean Scully, Peter Halley, Moira Dryer, Lydia Dona, etc.


MD: “Conceptual painting” is a term that has been tossed around pretty frequently by artists and writers over the past 10 years. Would you describe your work as conceptual painting? Why?


LSP: I bet a painter from a previous generation would argue that conceptual painting has been around for much longer than the nineties. I think Duchamp made conceptual painting. But, to answer your question, yes I would describe my work as conceptual painting. I’m not sure if it’s the painting itself or the intended audience — dogs — which makes the work operate as other than material or formalist.


MD: You describe the work you were making after graduating from Hunter as “purely visual abstract geometric” paintings. What formal qualities concern you most as a painter?


LSP: Color.


MD: Let’s shift our discussion now to your new Abstractions for Dogs series. What made you decide to take your paintings off the studio/gallery wall and relocate them to the street?


LSP: Another war changed the direction of my work…although I was headed somewhere new with or without terrorism as a catalyst. After 9/11 I stopped painting. When I started again it was on the street. For years I was feeling dishonest searching for something sublime in painting. The idea of that is wonderfully comforting and romantic. The reality of our lives, especially now, is another story. I don’t believe in anything, and the kind of painting I was making before 9/11 requires faith that I don’t have, and I’m not sure I ever did. This is going to sound totally wacked, but I have faith in dogs.


MD: How do you decide where to make a new painting? Is it based on the specific qualities of the neighborhood environment or more on the make-up and arrangement of the trash you find there? What qualities are you looking for before deciding to make a new painting?


LSP: Both the environment (site) and the object are important. It’s mostly about color. I walk for hours (with Napoleon, my dog) and respond to objects, light, and the energy of a particular site. Last week it was about blossoming trees surrounded by public housing and littered parks.


MD: After seeing your new work, it is impossible for me to view garbage on the street in the same way. So I am curious to know how passersby react when they see you painting on trash. How do you explain to them what you are trying to do? Do you consider making the work a performance?


LSP: New Yorkers are used to seeing so much weird stuff on the street. More often the passersby are interested in meeting Napoleon, which may or may not lead to discussions about the art. I carry exhibition cards with me and I have a standard blurb, which quickly and simply explains my project. I love that I have no control over who I will meet or what I will paint on any given day. I hesitate to say this is performance in the traditional sense of the word. It is a recorded event, and it is also public, thus, there is an audience.


MD: Painting is the ultimate commodity. You take an aggressively anti-value stance with your new works, which will eventually end up in the back of a garbage truck. How do you intend to affect or undermine the value of painting.


LSP: I’m still making a commodity, a photograph. The real issue is less about trash, and the futility of painting on it, and more about the audience. I think saying that I make art for dogs rubs people the wrong way. I’ve noticed that these people usually don’t like dogs, and they take it all too seriously. I don’t mean they take what I’m doing seriously, but what they’re doing. If you like and respect dogs, you know how amazing they are. I am interested in dogs for who they are, not for what they can do for me — not to dress them up, not to show them off. Dogs are intelligent and sensual beings. My intellectual attention is respectfully focused on where Napoleon marks and erases. This is my inspiration for Abstraction for Dogs.


MD: To counteract the ephemeral nature of your paintings, you document them through photographs. You also use your photographs to hone the viewer’s attention on your work, which is nearly invisible to the average passerby. In the Artist in the Marketplace exhibition currently at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, you are exhibiting three framed photographs of your paintings. Do you consider your photographs works unto themselves, or are they just straight documentation?


LSP: I take around ten photos of each piece and choose the best image to print and exhibit. I’m too much of a painter of color to consider the photos as simply documents.


MD: Humor is another important quality of your Abstractions for Dogs series. I crack a smile when I see a person unknowingly stroll past one of your works on the street. Talk about the importance of humor in your work.


LSP: Again, it’s really about the audience and their sense of humor and acceptance. I’m very serious about the work when I make it. I try to have a sense of humor in other aspects of my life, such as love or academic politics.


MD: I finally want to ask you about your thoughts on recent developments in abstract geometric painting. What new tendencies do you see surfacing lately?


LSP: I’m so bored with painting most of the time. I am drawn to works on paper because they tend to be less self-conscious and labored than paintings on more permanent supports. No one makes paintings like Joan Mitchell. I appreciate Tom Nozkowski and Richard Tuttle. Andy Goldsworthy’s film, “Rivers and Tides” made me cry twice. To be perfectly honest, I cannot focus on art with George W. in control of the world’s future.