Caribbean Conversations: Phillip Thomas – Part I

N Train
Phillip Thomas – The N Train (2008, oil on canvas, 77 x 147″)

This is the first part of an extended conversation with the Jamaican painter Phillip Thomas. Part two can be found here.

Phillip Thomas was born in 1980, in Kingston, Jamaica. He holds a BFA in Painting in 2003 from the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and an MFA from the New York Academy of Art. He has exhibited extensively locally and internationally and is represented in major collections. His recent exhibitions include his solo show “Rich in Black History” (2019) at the RJD Gallery, Bridgehampton, NY, and “Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox” at the Museum of the African Diaspora San Francisco. His awards include the Bronze Musgrave Medal of the Institute of Jamaica, the Public Prize in the 2006 SuperPlus Under 40 Artist of the Year competition, the Aaron Matalon Award in the 2008 National Biennial at the National Gallery of Jamaica, and the Albert Huie Award for Painting at the Edna Manley College in 2003. Thomas lives and works in Kingston, Jamaica, and lectures in Painting at the Edna Manley College.

Veerle Poupeye: How do you situate and define yourself as an artist, in the contemporary Jamaican and Caribbean context? Is that, in fact, the context in which you situate and define yourself and, if not, how else would you contextualize your practice?

Phillip Thomas: It has been a very complicated problem for contemporary artists of the region for some time now. The very structure of the question suggests that artists of the region ought to, in some way, self-consciously produce works of art that reflects some sort of idea about Caribbean aesthetics. As one can imagine, these types of problems produce not just specific aesthetic problems, but ultimately complicate the ways in which we go about the very nature of aesthetic problem-solving. We must, at some point, make up our minds as to what it is that we intend to produce here in the Caribbean – art or artifacts. If we are going to question whether or not the “subaltern” can speak, we cannot merely be content with speaking in unison, where that is appropriate, but, perhaps more importantly, we must also strive for individuality.

Regionalism through art must be, in my opinion, firstly an endeavor that occurs through the rigors of academic and aesthetic inquiry. Secondly, we must use our present lives and experiences in conjunction with the understanding of our historical narratives in order to convey our truest selves. If our aesthetic investigations are merely remnants of the demands of the “art market”, in other parts of the world, then those demands will produce a false sense of homogeneity. This problem of aesthetic uniformity almost destroyed Haitian Art, for example. Remember, there was a time when Haitian artists were driven to singularity by the global art market. This in turn rendered the works almost indistinguishable in their make and subject matter. Thankfully now, we can all see that this financial suffocation has changed over the years and I think for the better. Certainly, some cultures are more susceptible to these kinds of globally recognized iconographies, and Jamaica is one such cultural product. We even go as far as calling our culture “Brand Jamaica.”

Phillip Thomas – Pimper’s Paradise – The Terra Nova Nights Edition (2019, mixed media on canvas, 87 x 192″)

Herein rests a very big problem. If Jamaica’s “authentic” cultural expressions are designated in the manner that they are, then this one-dimensional delineation will only allow one demography of Jamaicans to be the subject of inquiry, rendering another demography of Jamaicans the sole collector and distributor of these findings. Am I saying that these stories are not true? Certainly not. Am I saying that “middle-classed” Jamaicans have no right to tell these stories? Not at all, but what I am saying here is that the danger of a national homogeneous brand allows, on the one hand, a one-directional flow of national self-definitions. However, at the other end of the discussion, it is also clear to see that there is something that is very dangerous about untold stories. Untold stories have the ability to mystify their undiscovered subjects. And that mysticism is a major part of how the “powerful” maintain power. In my own work, I have made a very conscious effort to open these dialogues about the idea of the “subject” of Jamaican art. Much of what I have done is to ignore the notions of the “authentic” Jamaican subject matter and allow for the development of my work to follow those natural progressions. That opening up of the subject allow me to produce works that excavates our varying demographics and the result were works of art that dealt with Jamaica’s inter-demographic relationships, and that was very fruitful for me.

8 I.M.F...cked
Phillip Thomas – I.M.F.@cked (2014, mixed media on canvas, 108 x 252″)

One of the difficulties for me in approaching an unexplored subjects in Jamaican art is how do I go about securing source material for these, more or less, unfamiliar ideas. One way I had to secure source material for a financial inquiry into my painting I.M.F@cked (2014), I selected a number of ATM machines in key locations and took the receipts from the trash receptacles, then organized them by the balance figures and regions and communities. The first reading is, as expected, the high financial threshold on some slips in some areas as opposed to others. But, what was even more interesting for my purpose was the ATM machines that were literally across the road from each other. Those machines showed some of the same disparities as machines in entirely different communities. This suggests to me that our social silos are completely exclusive, no matter how close they are to each other. It is common knowledge in Jamaica that the distance between many affluent communities and poorer ones are best expressed in culture as opposed to mileage. These contextual problems are very difficult to unravel because of my particular perspective on our national ideas of authenticity, however, they create interesting cross-fertilization for my work, they moreover, allow me to delve deeper into the very structure of our ideas of representation and invisibility. 

Phillip Thomas – An Upper St Andrew Concubine (2012, oil on canvas, 87 x 192″)

VP: Who are the artists, in the Caribbean and elsewhere, who have most influenced your work and how and why? Who do you most admire among the (Caribbean) artists of your generation and younger, and why?

“My eye was caught with the glimpse of something shining in the ditch” James W. Marshal, the first prospector to find gold in the California gold rush.

As far as influences go, I find myself inspired by artists who have completely unconventional ideas about the practice of making art. The 20th century has unleashed all sorts of possibilities for art to function outside of the previous ways in which it has been defined. To go even further, I am also interested in artists that practice completely different disciplines from my own. I find that the discipline of artistic development has completely changed in more recent times. The idea of being “influenced” by another artist seems to mean that one should use the same subject, jargon, and even materials in the same ways to tap into your “influencer’s” art economy or ecology. We are experiencing a time where the discipline of art history and aesthetic theory has been replaced with social theorists’ “safe space” literature, which has spilled over into the art institutions, pretending to be a part of an actual art core-curriculum. The Edna Manley College, to some extent, along with many institutions across the western world has adapted, wilfully or not, much of this new methodology. It is difficult to deny that much of the art literature that is being published today caries a malaise of consistent buzz-words that are used to situate whatever is being discussed into a kind of language that is more intent on virtue signalling, as opposed to any meaningful art inquiry.

Phillip Thomas – Tank (2017, mixed media on canvas, 84 x 127″)

It is clear that the visibility of Black art, or art made by Black people has seen a steady rise over the past few years. Much of the Americas have been seeing an increase in Black art/artists’ representation across the entire gamut of the art world. I suspect that this will have several implications and for our purposes, mutual and otherwise, I may discuss a few here. Now, what seems to happen in any “new” wave of human interest is, firstly, an organic form of the underground versions of the expression. As Hank Willis Thomas said in an interview “Black art has always been there, it’s only become mainstream in the last few years.” So be it graffiti, skateboarding, hip hop, rap, or dance hall music- any underground discipline, in its formative years, carries with it a fluidity and autonomy that the expression possesses while it is an underground “discipline”. This supposed authenticity is usually there because of a lack of external audiences and the artists aren’t particularly concerned about board meetings and market strategies. Furthermore, deadlines and corporate imaging aren’t a part of the considerations when such practices are being generated as unvarnished cultural expressions. However, as soon as the expression has become mainstream, then its form and pattern must now be put through a process of stabilization in order for the product to become reproducible at ever higher volumes, with a Henry Ford like conveyor-belt kind of system. As a painter these are just a few of the issues that create cause for concern. The idea of painting carries with it, as Walter Benjamin called it, an “aura”, and this aura supposedly exists in objects that are so called “one of a kind”. Contrary to those beliefs, many artists that I do enjoy have figured out ways of debating those very religious notions of art without engaging in more vulgar forms of mass-production.  

Caravaggio -The Martyrdom of St Matthew (1599-1600)

Let us start with art history periods, then we can get more specific. As an artist who is primarily concerned with the art of picture making, the discoveries of the renaissance are of significant importance. However, clearly my interrogation of the renaissance will take on a very different manifestation. As far as the renaissance is concerned, I am more responsive to the “terrestrial artists,” that is artists and art movements that concern themselves with corporeal presentation. Most of the Italians (with the exception of Caravaggio and a few others) are not very important to my understanding, or more importantly, my purpose of picture making. Much of the platonic idealism that can be found in “the big three” was destroyed with the invention of “Caravaggism” and his pictorial disintegration. Those ideas about pictures (moving and still) will become more important not only to painting but to photography and film, as we observe how much of the 20th century pictures were conceived. 

Willem Kalf – Still Life with Lobster, Drinking Horn and Glasses (1653)

I am also very much interested in the conception of the “Dutch Golden Era”. In the same way I have discussed how Jamaican art histories hides subjects within objects, art and its varying histories carries some of the same hidden stories. The manifestation of much of Dutch art follows its exploits on the high seas. Remember, during their Golden Age, the Dutch saw a massive influx of wealth from the slave trade and as far as money and power goes the arts is sure to flourish as part of the institutional spin off. (It is at points like this I query the true complexities of the “decolonize the museums movement”, how far back are they willing to go and what level of atrocity are they willing to tolerate and for which artists?) Dutch “vanitas” and “still life” paintings are very complex codes of exploits in themselves. In my earlier work I used these symbols as part of a kind of art historical interrogation. A sort of “meta-discourse” on the history of painting and the culture in which these works were manifested. The opulent amalgam of tropical fruits, birds, flora and fauna became a part of how I talked about colonialism through art history. 

Each element in these works became a kind of checklist of places traveled, a kind of memento that became a status symbol for the patron and the wider culture at large. It was a way for me to reverse-engineer the unseen or unspoken history through these works and as a result produce works that looked at art history itself as reliquaries to be gleaned and studied. 

Phillip Thomas – Carousel (2010, oil on canvas, 78 x 255″)

Clearly, much of what our pioneers of Jamaican artists have done has been of great influence to my own development. As I said before, I am very interested in so many different aspects of art production. Many assume that I would be influenced by Barrington Watson, however he isn’t one of my preferred artists. Now, let me be very clear, it is very easy for many artists in Jamaica to be critical of Barrington as a means of showing their quasi “sophistication” – I am not interested in that. Let me say that Barrington Watson is perhaps one of the most consequential artists we have had. But as far as internal, instructive decision-making is concerned, I am more responsive to the intuitive artists. Everald Brown is, to me, one of the great artists of the 20th century, and I am including all the major museums I have seen the world over. Everald Brown’s work is such an interesting dialogue between painting and sculpture. His work, for me, sits at the crossroads of design and function and much of that problem-solving comes from not just his aesthetic insights but his spiritual insights as well. So much of what I get from his work isn’t simply the mastery of complex artistic resolution but, more importantly, that they are symbols of faith. They are purpose-built works that evoke a sense of his ideas on art and religion simultaneously. They don’t simply express his ideas, they are the idea, and that is one of the most difficult thing in art to achieve, in my opinion. Clearly, people enjoy John Dunkley and Osmond Watson, who are also some of my preferred artists. At risk of making a top ten list, I would be inclined to suggest that most of the artists that were functioning closer to pre- and post-independent Jamaica had a specific intention with their work and that has resonated with me.

Later groups such as David Boxer, Milton George, and Omari Ra are very important to my work primarily because of the ways in which they have rationalized their positions on art with clinical precision. I truly appreciate their insight into their practice and, of the three afore mentioned, two I know very well. The same goes for artists like Prudence Lovell, Hope Brooks and Petrona Morrison. That rationale comes through as part of the aesthetic not as separate parts of a disparate practice. 

selves portrait
Enter a Phillip Thomas – Selves Portrait (2015, oil on canvas, 69 x 47″)

As for my generation, it is way too early to tell. There are artists whose work means a great deal to me and I am interested in; for example, and not so surprisingly, Kimani Beckford, Camille Chedda and Oneika Russell. Again, the rationale for their practice is within the work and not for the “cool” factor, which my generation is often susceptible to. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t other artists I admire in both of these generations and that’s the problem with being asked to give lists. It’s difficult to escape the politics of them, and much of that politics is being felt in the new Caribbean book on art, “A to Z of Caribbean Art.” My position on many artists and art personalities in my generation is very clear and I state much of it in my comments on your blog. 

There is no doubt that we are hurtling through a time of pure art confusion at the moment. The sense of over- and overt inclusion is creating a feeling of destabilization. It would seem that anyone could be an artist. As Joseph Beuys once stated, “everyone is an artist”, though I don’t think this new kind of cynicism is what he had in mind. But, anyone can hit the right residencies and tap into the correct networks, and there they are. There is a danger in that and being a lecturer, I am on the ground floor in seeing how this can affect younger artists. Marketing strategies and social media management have become a kind of art course that one must satisfy in order to have a sensible chance of progress. I, however, suspect that these shifts will create fissures in our aesthetic disciplines, and these problems are very difficult to remedy. As romantic as it sounds, artists must be given a chance to develop before they start to “market”. This I believe cannot be overstated. 

With that said, there are a few students at the Edna Manley College who are showing promise thus far and that does not mean that others won’t bloom later and that the promised ones won’t fade – we have years of examples of that.  But, based on what these particular students are producing now, I suspect that their interests and drive will produce an opening for them to live that dream. Many of these students have exhibited at the College in such exhibitions like Manifestations and other such student exhibitions have shown much potential within these young practices.

Click here to read part II.

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