Painter and muralist Phillip Adams took me to lunch at Ray’s Café on a cold February afternoon. Afterwards, we walked to his top-story studio in a Chinatown building that also houses active factory floors, where we had the following discussion—a continuation of an earlier conversation in which I discovered that Adams’s work is influenced by his pursuit of sublime and physically challenging experiences in nature as a rock-climber, surfer, and general adventurer. I was looking for a little advice on surfing, in a roundabout way, by talking with him about what contending with nature can offer the artist, personally and creatively.
J. Louise Makary: You say that your work reflects your experience of looking at and responding to the world. Do you stumble upon something, when you’re not in artist mode, find that you’re interested in it, and then bring it back into the studio? Or do you go on a mission to look for something?
Phillip Adams: There’s a little bit of both. Curiosity spawns both of those things—seeking but also finding.
As a figurative artist I am dealing with abstract ideas but also explaining them in a very realistic way. When something makes me curious, sometimes I just want to understand it, or want to explain it, to myself or on a surface. My work relates to the medium I choose, conceptually. Like this current
series—I wouldn’t have ever thought of drawing with charcoal, but I slowly realized that I love the nature of charcoal. Carbon is elemental. It’s so simple and fragile a medium that I can manipulate it to make it precise, even though it feels abstract up close. It started to get deeper for me, where I am using the medium itself to express and explore. But while I’m making it, it’s just a bunch of smudges and marks.
JLM: How do you work with charcoal and acrylic for this series?
PA: I prepare wood panel with gesso and sand it down until it’s almost like an egg tempera panel, just a really smooth surface. Then I use a stick of compressed charcoal with little smudge sticks. The mountains are a composite of different places—beautiful landscapes devoid of anything besides rock, ice, and snow. There’s a heavy dose of the sublime but there’s also the feeling of what we try to do to it. That’s when I started to paint on top of it. The furthest thing from nature is something plastic, like acrylic paint.
There’s a constant impulse to control, especially when you realize you can’t. I’m controlling that landscape, that scene, that feeling, but there’s a tension. I always loved doing charcoal drawings but I was filled with worry – like, “Don’t get too close, it’s gonna smudge!” It’s an internal feeling, like being in a glass shop with a big bag on your shoulder. Within the work, there was tension, and some of it is purely physical.
Full interview at Title Magazine, an online publication promoting discussion and critical analysis of the arts in Philadelphia.