Featured Artist Leon Phillips explores the materiality of color by engaging his brushes, pigments, and even his own body.
Raised on a Canadian farm, Leon Phillips credits his perceptual experiences to being shaped by the expansive prairie landscape.
Leon is inspired by the notion that a painting is more than an image—it's a presence. His work is a choreographic record of his body's movements and he views his tools, including paintbrushes, as a dynamic medium through which the pigment is transmitted. "My gestures bump up against the edge of the picture plane and move with a consciousness of it," the artist explains.
Holding the belief that color is matter, with its own intrinsic material qualities, Leon views himself as merely a facilitator in his art studio "working with, rather than over, non-human agents."
Color is never just color with Leon Phillips. "It is always attached to the physical whether that is my body, my brushes, or the paint. Working with the materiality of color has led me to consider all of the non-human elements in my practice in a new and equitable way."
Artwork Archive had the chance to chat with Leon Phillips about his creative process, the materiality of color, and how Artwork Archive makes his art career more manageable!
You can see more of his work on Discovery and learn more about his art practice below.
Leon Phillips, 'Squish no. 1', 29.5 x 41 in, 2022
Has your work changed over time—do you find yourself understanding your art career through different periods of expression?
My work 30 years ago was abstract, but landscape-based; this approach slowly evolved into gestural abstraction with a focus on color.
A big breakthrough for me was switching from acrylic to watercolor and oil twelve years ago.
For many years prior to this, I had not been using brushes but had been exclusively pouring paint to do process-based work. When I switched to watercolor and oil, I started using brushes again.
This was the step I needed to move me toward gestural work, experimenting with the materiality of color.
How did growing up on a Canadian farm influence your exploration of the materiality of color in your creative practice?
I feel that growing up on the prairies has definitely informed my work over the years.
I spent a lot of time outdoors, working and playing on our farm. There is really nothing that compares with the endless space and clear light of the Canadian prairies and, of course, the dramatic sunsets.
Maybe they are the reason why I love Baroque painting so much.
My work has always been about space, light, and movement. And, now that I think about it, these concerns are probably influenced by my early perceptual experiences being in the prairie landscape.
Leon Phillips, 'Squirm no. 17', 22 x 30 in, 2020
You mention that your brushes are not just tools, but rather, they are a dynamic medium through which the pigment is transmitted. Could you elaborate on the significance of this perspective?
That is really a good question because I think that artists typically approach their paintbrushes as inert tools merely employed or manipulated to express creative commands.
I challenge this traditional notion.
I work with my tools as non-human beings to make images. My brushes have agency—dynamic and affective qualities—within the creative context of the studio and the relational systems that exist there.
In the same way that paint mediums (acrylic, oil, or gum arabic) transmit pigment and color, so do my brushes.
By being aware of the dynamic nature of my brushes—and the fact that they are an extension of my sensory system—I am more attuned to their capabilities, their nature, and what they are trying to “say." As a result, the nature of my brushes is visualized in my paintings.
Do you have a favorite or most satisfying part of your creative process? If yes, tell us more about it!
I guess if I had to pick a favorite, I would say it is my bodily engagement with the materiality of pigment and paint.
What I'm talking about is feeling the weight of the paint in the tube, the feeling of the paint as I squeeze it out of the tube, then the sensual aspect of the paint as I break it down into thinner, viscous matter.
There are the different physical qualities of organic compared with inorganic pigments, and how the paint feels being “transmitted” through the sensorium of my body and brushes onto the surface.
I often feel that I make painting decisions through my body as much as my eyes. For me, color is never just visual. It's always attached to the physical because, ultimately, every aspect of making and looking at a painting is bodily.
Leon Phillips, 'Wiggle no. 1', 22.5 x 30 in, 2023
Could you elaborate on your understanding of color as matter? How has this realization influenced your perception of the non-human elements in your artistic practice?
When I switched from acrylic to watercolor paint, I began to observe the physical agency of pigment.
By working with excessive amounts of water, I created severely warped, topographical surfaces where the pigment—freed from its binding medium—could move around and then, while drying, express itself.
By observing that certain colors created coagulated edges when dried and others dried into opaque shapes, I began to learn about the difference between organic and inorganic pigments. These differences provoke and contribute to the dialogue I have with color as matter.
I co-create with the paint and pigment rather than being 100% in control as the human in the room.
I began to apply this understanding to all of my tools and materials, working with them rather than over them, embracing the notion that I am a collaborator as much as a creator in the studio.
What impact do you hope your artwork will have on viewers? What does success as an artist mean to you?
My ultimate goal is that viewers have an embodied experience.
I hope that their bodies will be engaged as much as their eyes in the perceptual act, similar to my experience when making the work.
People often say to me that they can smell or hear my paintings, or that they would like to touch them. This is very exciting to hear because it attests to seeing with and through the body, as the kind of pre-verbal and pre-symbolic activity that it can be.
I feel that a painting is successful if it provokes this kind of bodily or physical response in the viewer. To me, this is a powerful way that the viewer can be involved in the completion of the image.
Leon Phillips, 'Vermont no. 4', 44 x 55.25 in, 2018
Why did you decide to use Artwork Archive to manage your artwork?
I initially decided to use Artwork Archive because I had a huge inventory of work that I had built up over the years, and using word processing software to keep track of it was no longer efficient or manageable.
When I initially tried Artwork Archive, I was impressed by how comprehensive and user-friendly it was.
On a daily basis, I use Artwork Archive as my personal assistant with the Schedule function to remind me of any exhibition or residency submission deadlines that I might have—I really appreciate receiving the ongoing “Your Weekly Reminder” emails reminding me of upcoming deadlines.
What advice would you give an emerging artist during this time?
I don’t know if this is advice as much as a wish, but my hope for emerging artists is that they will find a life partner that supports them wholeheartedly in their work.
I can’t emphasize enough how my partner Kevin’s support of my art-making has been to me over the past twenty years. I really don’t know if I would be painting today without his support.
In addition, he's a writer (and one of his areas is art writing), so he is my first critic—and he doesn’t let me get away with anything.
My actual professional advice would be to do residencies. I’ve found them to be a great way to develop and get critical context for my work outside and beyond an academic milieu.
Leon Phillips, 'Vermont no. 7', 44 x 55.25 in, 2018
Leon Phillips uses Artwork Archive to catalog his artwork, keep up with important deadlines, and more.
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