Philip Colbert recently had a bustling show at the Saatchi gallery. At the opening famous and notoriously charming auctioneer Simon de Pury DJ-ed and Colbert was dressed in a stunning red suit. His paintings, which heavily drew on pop-artists such as James Rosenquist, were exuberantly colourful and clustered with Facebook icons. I was fascinated by Philip as an individual and how he transcended the conventional boundaries of art by engaging with fashion, painting, music, performance and virtual reality (among other media). Hence, I tried to arrange a meeting with him. Below is an excerpt of our conversation:
MS: Philip, you studied Philosophy. This is an unusual background to have as an artist. Could you talk about the significance of philosophy to your artistic development?
PC: It has certainly been in the last 100 years – since Duchamp – that philosophy has had more of an impact on art. A lot of artists can be heavily celebrated without actually making anything.
But with me, I think, philosophy was the one thing that stimulated my brain and got me engaging with things and really looking at shit. As a kid I was quite like a pot-head day-dreamer; I was quite unmotivated, at least by systems of authority and rules. So, I think philosophy was important to my artistic development as a first step: it made me re-evaluate things and it fuelled my creativity.
MS: You have been described as “the grandson of Andy Warhol” and when looking at your paintings I can draw a lot of connections to pop-artists. For instance, sometimes you use Roy Lichtenstein-like dots in your paintings. Your collage-like works also remind me of Richard Hamilton’s collages of the late 1950’s, such as “Just what is it which makes today’s home’s so different, so appealing?” Could you talk about that?
PC: Yeah definitely! I really like Richard Hamilton! Funnily enough, I didn’t set out to make the works like him, but I do see the similarity in his commentary and use of advertisements.
I was very much interested in how a lot of pop-art embraces everyday language. If you want to communicate with art, why not use the most powerful language – the everyday – to communicate? So, I guess I tapped into that.
But I wanted to push that dialogue with painting. Obviously there have been artists like Polke, who was a very interesting painter in taking this pop-aesthetic and pushing the boundaries of abstraction with it. Lichtenstein is another example. He also pushed the painterly dialogue by fusing pop-art with abstraction. But, Rosenquist was probably the main influence. He just broke down imagery and played with it in a very painterly way. I was interested in following that type of conversation, but trying to push it in my own voice.
MS: What is your relationship to social media? When looking at your works, I get the impression that you have a rather ambivalent relationship to it. Your paintings are very cluttered and chaotic. They’re full of social media imagery and you have figures fighting with swords. In a way it’s like our Instagram feed condensed to a canvas. Is this cluttered chaos in your work a criticism of the fast pace of the digital age?
PC: Yeah, I mean we’re all repulsed by it. We can see the base psychology it brings out on us. But, then again I have such a double-edged opinion on this. On the one hand, I love the democracy of it and I love the idea that everyone is their own publisher and has their own communication channel. Every artist has a TV channel effectively. It’s like Any Warhol’s wet dreams.
PC: But at the same time, I am repulsed by it and as a character it’s not entirely my vibe. The paintings show that as well I think. They are celebratory, but they’re also quite dark.
MS: Does the chaos and lack of a central plot in your paintings signify how the clutter of (social-media) imagery today has you lose recognition of what is truly valuable in life?
PC: It’s true that there is no one holy quasi-spiritual pursuit in my paintings. But, I would say that the narrative of this hunt and in having this lobster in the background, there is an undertone of the individual triumphing or attempting to triumph in the chaos. So, I like to think that the message of me as a person and of my work is attempting to encourage this idea of individualism or pushing the individual against the system.
MS: So, you’re not purely trying to draw a grim picture of the digital age…
You have your own fashion label called “The Rodnik Band”. It seems that your work in fashion is just as much a part of your artistic project as your paintings. In fact, both employ very similar pop imagery. Could you talk about your holistic, multi-media approach to art?
PC: Philosophically, it was very much connected. I was doing all kinds of things, all of which were connected. I was rapping and I was presenting myself as a spoof-band; I was presenting my fashion brand as band. I was constantly pushing the limit of what art could be or what it was.
I put a lot of value in the idea of art including many things in life. Art is something which should inhabit the space of life and something we live with.
MS: Are there any other media you would like to explore in the future? Something you’ve not done before?
PC: I have been spending a lot of time with VR. I have this idea of a lobster-land for instance. At the Saatchi show I had a room with a VR-set, but we had problems with it. We had projections of lobster-land, but we couldn’t manage to make the VR headset work.
But that’s something I have set up in my studio. I find it very interesting because I have been building the language in virtual reality now; taking sketches and then turning them into 3D renderings. I like how I have created a bridge between VR and painting: even just that process of making 3D renderings is creating a lot of paintings. That’s a super relevant and interesting aesthetic journey for now which is informing a lot of new ideas.
MS: Does escapism have an important role in your art? Virtual reality is after all like creating a new and detached world…
PC: Yes, of course! I think the greatest value of art is a sense of fantasy and escapism that it creates. I mean if you want to provide some necessary function to society, there are so many other things you could be doing. You could be doing charitable roles or working in infrastructure or government. The whole purpose of art is in a way somewhat absurd…
But there is something beautiful and magical within art. I would say it’s a beautiful fantasy and also a very important human dialogue. This sense of having the ability to do whatever you want and create whatever reality you want is an important part of human freedom, which as an artist I think you’re able to fully push. The strength of art is to be unshackled and try and create new worlds, new realities and new ideas.
MS: Interesting. I often personally felt dissatisfied when visual art was excessively political.
PC: I just try and focus on communicating and having a very positive message somehow… I feel that’s a good influence to have in this world. I think it’s important to instil important human values through art.
But yeah… when you get very involved with political parties, it’s very difficult, because obviously that’s such a mess and such a complicated issue.
MS: Yes. I often think: why don’t you just write a bloody essay. Visual art often isn’t the best medium to non-ambiguously communicate political ideas.
PC: Visual art probably had more value in the past as a means of communicating political ideas. In the past, the image was so much more highly valued. When an artist created a painting that could have been used as a poster for a whole kind of political thinking. A painting could be put in the newspaper, along with an article and thereby articulate something to the public.
Today, there is so much imagery around us; we don’t have enough time to process the significance of a single image. The function of imagery today is to comment – it’s so pulp! We are saturated with imagery. In fact there is an interesting book, Four Thousand Threads, by Dick Jewell.
MS: I will check it out.
PC: It’s basically just a book of random imagery Dick found on the internet. You know these sort of videos you would get on TV of people just doing crazy shit? Every image captures an absurdity in contemporary life… Like a baby being thrown in the air, but at the same time an aeroplane passes by… So the image looks like the plane is going through the baby’s mouth.
The book is quite remarkable and poignant. It was obviously just all these random images people had captured and they were all amateur photographers… just on their phones trying to capture something absurd. To me it said a lot about the idea of contemporary imagery. So many people are taking images now – it’s the most democratic position. So the by-product of this is very powerful, random shit! It’s real and it’s absurd.
MS: There are some lovely works by Megan Plunkett at Emalin gallery. They’re really bizarre advertisement pictures from Craigslist often involving a dog. They look so absurd and random such that it’s impossible to tell what is actually being sold or how they function as advertisements. Plunkett’s images really remind me of your description of Four Thousand Threads; they bear testimony to the fact how democratic image-making has become.
PC: Do you make art too?
MS: It’s something I would like to explore in the future. I am currently just experimenting a lot… next month I will do an exhibition in my flat for instance. I have been writing… I have also been interning at Luxembourg & Dayan. I am just trying a lot of things out.
PC: Yeah… I think that’s good! It’s good to just soak everything up and see how you respond.
MS: Do you have any advice to young people in the arts?
PC: I think a lot of people just shackle themselves and limit themselves because they are guided by the idea of what they should be doing or about what they’re expected to do. But, there is actually so much power in freedom, dreams and the ability to do what you like. So much about art is the ability to sell a dream.
So, I would just say: be imaginative with your story and push it as far as you can take it. That, in itself, is an inspiring idea. Someone who is on a challenging epic journey is just an inspiring thing! Be happy to be an outsider. The most important thing about creativity is to understand to be an individual and not limiting what art is by being stuck in a system…
MS: My philosophy has been to be bold.
PC: Yeah, which is good. I think so 100 percent!
MS: I mean there are three options as I see it… Either you get unnoticed, behave and nothing happens or you get noticed and there is a bad reaction or you get noticed and there is a good reaction. I think the latter two options are still more desirable, than the first one.
PC: Getting a bad reaction is great in fact! It of course depends on how you play it. It’s great to be a spanner in the works. I mean it’s very powerful. I always like the idea of throwing a spanner in society. That’s what I in fact did with my clothing. I had guerrilla fashion shows. It was just great fucking with the system a bit.