Phil Frost interviewed in his studio, New York 10th Feb 2008 for Elms Lesters Painting Rooms
This essay was first published in the ELMS LESTERS book
“There’s a lot of intuitive process imbued in my work, a lot of perception and also happenstance. At times I don’t have a clear, tactile, exacting vision of what the painting will become, but when I paint it’s very conscientious and deliberate. In that deliberating there are many other things I allow to happen which is really what makes it a painting. Texture and form take over and occasionally there’s a point when the intent or balance is destroyed – I am treading a fine line – am I going to lose that which I am trying to articulate or am I going to be able to pierce the idea?”
Phil Frost is an empirical painter with an instinct for the sculptural quality of space and how it can carry a feeling. Whether he is producing a conventional painting on canvas or riffing on the tapering cylinder of a baseball bat, even the deflated sphere of a dried gourd, he builds up a tension between the perceived spatial depth laid down in the two-dimensional plane and the physical fact of the three-dimensional object. Conventional notions of painting and sculpture become subtly redefined in his gallery displays, where apparently traditional demarcations between wall-based canvases and floor-based objects such as suitcases are challenged by suggesting spatial and aesthetic correspondences. Both the paintings, which project an inch or two, and the luggage have their five visible sides painted on. Both carry within themselves an idea of space – the illusionistic and literal eliding – and perhaps, Frost seems to suggest, both need unpacking.
Whatever the object chosen to embody it, the work always has a clear graphic starting point, a linear skeleton over which Frost layers in synthetic polymers, ink, spray enamels, pastels and sometimes wax-like vocals over a drumbeat, smearing and lacquering snippets from vintage 12-cent comic books and embedding them into a dense accretion of multiple surfaces merging into the object that carries them.
“I have spent a lot of time in nine or ten years making dense paintings where the optical interaction is between forms, colour reacting to white and white to colour. In newer works I have begun to re-emerge the figurative realm of what I am painting from its surface and position it in contrast to optical interactions that I am also painting. It comes from challenging myself to find new ways to articulate what the feeling of light or movement is that I am painting.”
Existing paintings continuously provide the context for new ones; in Frost’s studio, it’s common to see 10 or 20 paintings in progress. He is adept at splitting the attention in his mind between different works whilst keeping the focus equal. As painting schemes proliferate, occupying more and more mental space, he remains clear about the visual experiment he’s seeking to achieve in each case.
Looking in detail at a small series of paintings underway in the studio points up subtle distinctions between the individual colour coding pattern each work possesses and the way the artist plays this off against spatial shifts between, say, a strongly foregrounded vertical barrier on the left-hand side and a zone on the right which is less definitively, though no less deliberately, rooted in space. The resulting push and pull activate what at first glance may seem like a shallow picture plane, with the figure skewered on an imaginary diagonal.
“The left vertical band is sculptural on the surface of the painting, but on the right side its sculptural property is enhanced by it being shorter than the one on the left, so it does create a depth on the flat plane. Caravaggio’s flesh colour against a deep pigment of red that’s very vibrant so the flesh becomes illuminated and pale, that dynamic is something that really inspires me. I also used to like the dimly lit medieval rooms at The Met, monumental regal things. I found Mannerist painting really interesting on one hand, then I saw that Paul Klee would paint on jute rather than traditional canvas, so I thought, well I could take a potato sack and paint on it.”
Frost spent as much time looking at art in his twenties as he did skateboarding in his teens. Coming off night shifts working the back of trucks at 10 am, he would walk straight in to the Metropolitan Museum where it was “pay what you wish”. He was particularly drawn to the spectacular marble statuary of the Renaissance and this empirical engagement with the lineage of art history as physical objects rather than just as images in a book helped Frost develop his own distinctive spatial language. Perhaps surprisingly, the artist thinks of his signature shadowless tribal figures as 3-D busts and when discussing them he is more likely to reference Donatello’s white marble portraiture than African sculpture as you might expect. Then there’s the influence of the street aesthetic.
“I found myself drawing on things in the middle of the night as I walked to work, mark-making on something interestingly sculptural. I carried a large peanut butter jar containing a wheat-paste glue mixture and a small brush and I would try to find an interesting fixture or industrial box on the street – an easy way to leave a drawing there. Unconsciously, I was also seeing links between beaten up dilapidated boxy shapes on the street and the work itself.”
At the same time, Frost was filling page after page of velvet hardcover sketch books he would buy at a dollar store.
“But my carrying a drawing tablet around wasn’t to sketch or jot something down. At The Met I would often see people sketching, but that wasn’t my take on it, I didn’t want to copy someone’s painting. I didn’t want to be a sketcher, it seems like wasting time in a sense. If I want to make a drawing or a line I want to commit it.”
Although he says he has always been conscious of not wanting to be innocent or naïve in his approach to being a painter, Frost’s paintings on one level clearly operate within the visual field of “Primitivism” or “Naïve art” in their unselfconscious commitment to image creation. At the same time, his distinctive visual style isn’t the result of “some kind of dogmatic research that’s been drilled into me”. Without any formal training in art, and inspired by the “vandalism, anonymity and transience” of graffiti art, there is nevertheless a diverse breadth to Frost’s visual reference points. Henry Moore, Milton Avery, Vasarely and Dubuffet occupy the same territory (his bookshelves) as Walt Disney and sculptures by folk artist Lavern Kelley. Frost’s self-education in art began with a happy accident, the chance find of a paper bag rich in possibilities.
“I began to paint when I was 17 towards the end of my senior year at High School when at a yard sale I found a rolled up brown paper bag for 25 cents. Inside, there were tubes of oil paint and a book – David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon. The images weren’t the best reproductions of someone’s work, but somehow the imagery really spoke to me and immediately it became something I was curious about and fascinated with. I started making drawings in charcoal and then used the paints. Straightaway I did a drawing on the paper bag.”
There’s often a linear starting point to the figurative gestures that emerge in Frost’s work, a mono-dimensional substructure on top of which he responds in an eclectic array of materials to produce a heightened physical surface above the purely graphic one.
“I find myself picking up wrappers, bottle caps and rusted metal detritus from the sidewalk to create different surfaces, and allow the passage of my journey to become a visual entry point into the work itself.”
One of the themes Francis Bacon explored in his 1960s’ discussions with Sylvester the art historian and which continues to find new interpretation in Frost’s visual thinking was how the artist attempted always to maintain the vitality of the accident whilst preserving continuity and control.
“Occasionally I have revisited an unsuccessful image and reworked it as a new challenge, and that has led to subtle breakthroughs and understandings in my painting, where something new has emerged which I wasn’t seeking to bring out to start with.”
At the time, Frost was unaware that Bacon often took a Stanley knife to paintings of his own that he felt he’d pushed beyond the point of pictorial and emotional equilibrium. Frost’s teenage artist’s mind however maintained a very conscious affinity with Bacon’s use of words like “abhor” to describe his own views on formal education. (Bacon himself was untrained.)
“Being a skateboarder you begin to have the mental air of being able to achieve the impossible – it’s a Jedi type of thing – you start to believe this kind of stuff.”
Revisiting this epiphany 25 years on reinforces for Frost the importance of art and life being lived experiences inextricably intertwined: “The idea of educating myself became really interesting to me. What is gathered in my journey and passage outdoors in my life, away from actually painting, has been able to become something projected and pronounced as passage in the vocabulary of my work. So in a certain sense, I am always working.”
Ben Jones, April/August/September 2008