Richard Phillips makes paintings of actresses, models and porn stars that are almost completely without irony. His subjects are ripe for commentary, but in the paintings, such as those of Lindsay Lohan and Sasha Grey currently on view at Gagosian Gallery’s 24th Street space, none is made. For this reason, there’s something queasy-making about them. They’re terrific in every sense of the word. Mr. Phillips paints the abyss, and the abyss doesn’t look back.
Especially not in the case of his latest work, a massive portrait of Mitt Romney that serves as the centerpiece of a new exhibition, “We the People,” which opened on Oct. 2 at the Rauschenberg Foundation, a few blocks south of Gagosian (the proprietor of which, incidentally, has given $5,000 to Mr. Romney’s campaign). Mr. Phillips had been working on the painting until 5 a.m. the previous day and, that afternoon, as the paint dried at the foundation’s space, he admitted he’d had a difficult time with the governor’s eyes.
“One of the biggest issues is that he has a very prominent brow,” the artist said. “The eyes are set back, and in this kind of political-moment image,” he gestured to the wall-sized painting, based on an Associated Press image for which he bought the rights, “the eyes can’t be locked on the horizon and they can’t be focused on a person. They’re very accurately painted, and they have a slightly unusual, out of focus thing that allows people’s minds to go anywhere with it.” In the finished painting, they have a dark, reddish tint. The president, Mr. Phillips said, is much better at communicating with his eyes.
Mr. Phillips, who is tall and boyish in his go-to outfit of tight pants and a leather jacket, talks casually about ideas that might merit capital letters when written—The Political Moment, Candidate for the Presidency, an Image’s Value. He doesn’t want to write essays about them. He values them on a superficial level.
“To have an opening with a painting of a candidate who is actually in the business of trying to get himself elected is totally unique,“ he said, “because it could be just a portrait of a candidate or, by some stroke of luck for the Republican party, their candidate might be successful. But in a sense, this painting, while it’s up in the show, will have the life of a candidate—for real, in real time. No matter what my opinions are, there are much larger forces at play, but that’s the subject of the painting. Portraiture deals with that confrontation, especially when you use a certain type of realism. There used to be Social Realism, and I don’t know how much further you can get from it, with this type of portrait.”
In “We the People,” which is curated by Alison Gingeras and the artist Jonathan Horowitz, much larger forces do indeed surround the Romney painting. Each wall has a theme—the one perpendicular to Gov. Romney might be called “American Values,” centering as it does on Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series. The Romney wall itself is mostly about the American male. A David Wojnarowicz hangs next to the governor and a Larry Clark just below, near a Sylvia Sleigh oil portrait of a seated nude man. Mr. Phillips has painted other Republicans, notably George W. Bush, with that signature shit-eating grin, and Gov. Bobby Jindal next to a zombie-like creature, but in this show, the Romney painting functions as an anchor, which is part of why it had to be so stridently straightforward.
“The easy thing to do is to make satire,” Mr. Phillips said. “When we think of Warhol’s ‘Vote McGovern’ portrait of Nixon, where he made his face green and the background some putrid yellow, the irony was that Nixon won. In the end ironies can backfire. And I wanted to get away from what, to me, seems like a hackneyed response to ‘this is bad, this is good.’”
The canvas may be adamantly agnostic, but there’s no question as to whom he’ll mark the ballot for.
“I don’t paint Democrats,” Mr. Phillips said. “I vote for them.”