Unless you’ve failed to turn on a computer over the past week, you’ve probably noticed that New York artist Richard Phillips, known for his large, often sexy, figurative paintings, has released a short film featuring actress Lindsay Lohan. The Lohan spot went up on T Magazine’s website as well as that of Gagosian Gallery, which represents him. A few days later, Mr. Phillips premiered a second film with adult film star Sasha Grey. Both were shown during the Venice Biennale in “Commercial Break,” a project created by Neville Wakefield and sponsored by the Garage, the Moscow contemporary art museum run by Russian art collector and philanthropist Dasha Zhukova.
The Observer met Mr. Phillips at Venice’s Cafe Paradiso, on the day the Grey film premiered. If it weren’t for bustling crowds of art pilgrims, the cafe would have been aptly named: a calm before a storm of art viewing. But the place was jam-packed. New York dealer Paul Kasmin glided by with a small entourage; artists Liz & Val dragged a wobbly wagon advertising their services as “art doctors.”
None of this fazed Phillips, a tall, rangy man in hi late 40’s with a shock of graying hair and intense blue eyes. Even describing getting lost on his way to and from his hotel—a requisite experience in this labyrinthine city—he was disarmingly articulate, speaking in clause-heavy, meticulously crafted sentences.
“Commercial Break” consists of short films by contemporary artists that play with the imagery of advertising. They were slated to appear on a Jumbotron that would drift up and down the Grand Canal—an ironic take on Venice’s no-ads policy. Mr. Phillips’s films are 90 seconds long and characterized by lingering, introspective shots of the stars. In the Lohan film, inspired by classic glamour shots in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and of Brigitte Bardot in Contempt, Ms. Lohan appears on a beach in Malibu; in the Grey film, Ms. Grey is seen in and around the Chemosphere, a flying-saucerlike Modernist house in Hollywood, designed in 1960 by architect John Lautner. While he is interested in these actresses’ “communicative beauty,” Mr. Phillips insists that his films are the opposite of exploitation.
Mr. Phillips has always been a provocateur. Ten years ago, when he showed at New York’s Petzel Gallery, he had the band the Black Dice play at a blaring 140 decibels. “The opportunity to work with Lindsay and Sasha in this important time in both of their careers is the visual 140 decibels,” he said.
In making these films—his first, he created them with surf filmmaker Taylor Steele just over a month ago—Phillips was interested in looking at “young actresses or artists at a very transformational point in their lives,” explaining that “I wanted to push back from the media and the negativity that had been put on them, either associatively or directly.” He wanted to make a creative space where it was possible to do something positive—the anti-Vanity Fair, a new form of portraiture. “Sasha is moving from adult performance art into the cinema,” he added, “and Lindsay is re-engaging with her artistic potential. It wasn’t about me using them as a vehicle for expressing ideas that I had. It was a direct connection with them.”
Mr. Phillips said he is moving away from previous work, including an exhibition at London’s White Cube Gallery earlier this year, which featured large works referencing publicity shots of celebrities. Given that, it was impossible not to think of the lawsuit his dealer, Larry Gagosian, was recently embroiled in along with painter Richard Prince. “Recently we’ve seen the consequences of appropriation art and the way that it no longer has the same meaning going forward as it once had,” he said. “And that artists are not exempt from recourse.”
Five days after he completed shooting with Ms. Grey, she announced that she would no longer perform in adult films. “That gave particular poignancy to our project,” Mr. Phillips said. Ms. Grey had acted before, appearing as the call girl lead in Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience and played herself in an episode of Entourage. But both of those roles made reference to her work in adult films. Mr. Phillips’s is the first project she’s done that doesn’t—and he seems proud of that fact.
“This film stays clear of that content and gets into her psychology,” he said. “If you think about it,” Mr. Phillips said to The Observer, “in adult content, you never see melancholy. And why? Because you never want to see that in a sexual situation. It absolutely countermands that projection.”
Later, The Observer attended a party for “Commercial Break” on the patio of the Bauer Hotel. Crowds surged at the door and a D.J. spun danceable hits; during intermittent rain showers, V.I.P.’s like Ms. Zhukova, Mr. Wakefield and fashion writer gadfly Derek Blasberg lounged on couches in a velvet-roped-off area.
Mr. Wakefield leaned over the rope to speak with The Observer. The Jumbotron hadn’t worked out. “We weren’t able to make it as big as we wanted to,” he said. Instead, the films of “Commercial Break” appeared on a large, hi-def screen on the patio. They also streamed on the exhibition’s website and appeared on iPads, courtesy of the London fashion magazine Post.
Mr. Phillips was nowhere to be found. Likely he was back at his hotel, or lost down one of Venice’s alleys, content knowing that while his Lohan and Grey films weren’t necessarily floating down the Grand Canal, flummoxing tourists, they were somewhere much better: they were everywhere.