Richard Phillips knows what you're thinking.
He knows you're finding it hard to believe that his giant paintings of tabloid celebrity Lindsay Lohan, Victoria's Secret model Adriana Lima and former porn star Sasha Grey can actually be considered Art with a capital "A."
And by "you," we're not just talking about the usual hostile "my kid could do that" crowd. Serious art connoisseurs have a vested interest in keeping stuff like this out of galleries and museums. It doesn't fit with their image of themselves as soldiers in the noble war against vulgarity and dumbed-down mainstream culture.
But Phillips also remembers how badly many of his predecessors, now comfortably enshrined in museums around the world, were treated when they first unveiled their avant-garde creations. Do you think everyone cheered when Marcel Duchamp first dragged a urinal into a gallery and called it art? "When we had the classic period of avant-garde art, which dealt with Dada and art's negation, [the first response] was to say, 'Hey, this isn't art.' And of course it isn't, because it isn't the art that we know and are comfortable with. It isn't the art that is maintaining the jobs of the people that are hired by the institutions to keep their jobs."
I talked to Phillips on the phone today, the morning after his latest show, "First Point," opened at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. A huge crowd, heavy on celebrities, art stars and Fashion Week refugees, jammed in to gawk at Phillips' 11-foot-tall paintings of the aforementioned women, each notorious in her own way. The portraits of Lima were based on photographs Phillips shot for Visionaire magazine, and the paintings of Lohan and Grey were based on stills from three videos he made with the actresses, which were shown in two screening rooms at the gallery. Phillips didn't choose the stills themselves -- they were selected by editors around the world, who pulled screen shots to illustrate their coverage of the videos when they were first released earlier this year.
The decision to let the Internet, as it were, choose the stills is the first sign that we're dealing with something other than the usual tabloid image-mongering that consumes so much of online culture. "I was responding to what were the most often-used images," Phillips says. "So in a way I was responding to all the different people who were looking at the films online, and there were literally millions of people. And certain images were the ones that tended to resonate."
Another sign is the physicality of the paintings themselves. They're not blow-ups. They're not projections. Phillips actually put brush to canvas. "Those images then transform out of their digital state, in the sense that they're part of the rush of daily images that pass across our devices and screens and so forth," says Phillips. "The painting reintroduces the idea of the significance of our own corporal state, of being a physical person."
As someone with a hand in the celebrity news business, I was fascinated by the way Phillips had smuggled objects of beauty out of that world -- generally considered off-limits in the sphere of fine arts -- and into the gallery. The seriousness with which he treats Lohan, Lima and Grey prompts a series of uncomfortable questions: Why do I know who these women are? Why do so many of us care so much about them? What is it that makes millions of people love them, and millions of others hate them? If I do find them beautiful, why does that also make me feel guilty?
And then there's the question the show addresses most directly: What must it be like to be them? To be that notorious?
"Each of the individuals that I collaborated with are known for image production on an extremely high level throughout the world," Phillips says, adding that, in his work, their iconic status is "being used not just to comment about the power of beauty or whatever but it's actually being used to explore different psychological states -- transformative moments in the actors' lives themselves, or the models' relationship to culture."
Which brings us to one final objective of Phillips' work here. In an era of dwindling attention spans and ever-proliferating distractions, he wants to give you a reason to pay attention. "I was approached by a lot of people who saw the videos and said, 'You know, I really am so bored and don't like video art at all, but I loved your film.' And I honestly take the same perspective as them. I mean, a lot of video art that's made takes for granted what people are willing to put up with and see." Like any good studio chief, Phillips knows that star power attracts eyeballs.
You can call it a sad commentary on the way we live now, but is that on him or on us? If Phillips is holding up a mirror to our environment and all we want to do is smash it, whose fault, really, is that?