I met James H. Phillips in 2015 at the New Door Creative Gallery (James Phillips: The Shape of Things to Come — New Door Creative) in Baltimore, Maryland. I was struck by his quiet, gentle spirit; but most of all by his humility. James Phillips was born in New York and later spent his adolescent years to adulthood in Philadelphia, PA. He began his studies in art at the Fleisher Art Memorial School, Lee Cultural Center, and Philadelphia College of Art, all located in Philadelphia, PA. After which he moved to New York City and attended Printing Trade School. He obtained his MFA in 1998 from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland. Phillips currently works in his home studio and prior to the pandemic in his studio at Howard University. Professor Phillips is an artist/educator/lecturer, currently teaching art at Howard University.
Phillips has received many honors; but of note are the National Endowment for the Arts Exchange Fellowship, Tokyo, Japan (1980); Study of Buddhist Painting Techniques and Iconography with artist, Josaku Maeda (Gallery tokinowasuremono [Toshiya MURAKOSHI]; and the Creative Artists Public Service Award in New York City (1971).He is a member of Weusi Nyba Ya Sanaa Gallery; Soho Center for Visual Artists; National Conference of Artist and AfriCobra/Farafindugu (The History, Philosophy and Aesthetics of AFRICOBRA » AREA Chicago). Many artists have influenced his practice: Ademola Olugebefola, Aexander “Skunder” Bognossian, and Josaku Maeda. However, in 2015 Phillips works marked an evolution from his trademark style of densely patterned surfaces to a plane containing more fluid shapes which made room an allowance of air and negative space. He stated in 2015 that ‘the new works are more rooted in personal experience, and discovering Africanisms I grew up with, but could not identify’. The artist interprets these as “power objects”, relevant to socially present issues of power and identity.
In discussing the intent, process, and palette in the practice of James Phillips, I have always been impressed with his use of color. His intent is derived from an African aesthetic found in the origins and coded language of the Kente cloth. Although, not fully explored in this interview, I remember prior artist talks and informal discussions had with him, where he talked about the meaning of each color found within his work. Kente cloth has its own mythology; whereby it is believed that it was inspired by the web of a spider. The colors are significant with specific meanings such as love, growth and energy, wealth and royalty, violence and anger, goodness and victory, shame, death, or old age. Upon review of Phillips body of work, it is reminiscent of Africa and Japan, both countries have a centuries long tradition of “flat” art. Flatness is an aesthetic style that is often defined by aspects of bold outlines, flat coloring, and a decided lack of perspective, depth, and three-dimensionality. Unlike the Western and European art traditions which employ the use of modeling to achieve a three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional plane. His work falls within the realm of ‘Superflat’; which makes up this contemporary art movement, directly informed by all its parts into a modern lexicon. Phillips as embraced the flat art style in his work by intentional specific choice.
‘Jack Knife’ is a piece which is an example of Phillips evolved creativity, here the intent and influence upon the creation of it was the aesthetic of AfriCobra. Phillips explained that in lieu of using guns as a metaphor; he decided to use the shape of a jack knife. It is so interesting to me how he reached back to the history of his ancestors in Africa to choose which weapon to depict. This line of thinking is found within many of his works. Also apparent in this piece is the use of a combination of air and negative space. What is constant are the stylization of his lines which reminds me of the interrelatedness of the physical and the metaphysical. It is attributed to African influences, which incidentally gave birth to modern European art at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was this style which inspired European artists to abandon naturalism in favor of stylization and abstraction.
Phillips’s work emotes the concept of globalization. I draw that analogy based upon feeling the presence of African and Asian culture, spirituality, and aesthetics within his oeuvre of work. Phillips and his work are full of knowledge, wisdom, and a sensibility of a different way of thinking. I was happy to engage in discussions about his work and contemporary life just recently in celebration of he and his wife, Shellie’s birthday, and wedding anniversary.
To learn more about his work go to his website: http://www.jamesphillips-artist.com