An interview with Philip Hinge, by Kelly McCafferty
A random guy (possibly a robot) sent me a message to my online dating profile recently that said, “Whatever happened to the days when persistence paid off?” Which I thought was kind of weird since it was the first message that he sent and I think he was a little confused as to the meaning of persistence. I won’t bore you with the definition, as I am pretty sure you know what persistence means, but as a result I have been thinking about the idea of persistence and how persistence is akin to breaking the rules.
As an artist in New York, I spend a lot of time thinking about how things work in the art world and when I get together with other artists we share our suspicions. There is this amorphous esoteric idea that if you combine just the right combination of being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, being driven, being nice-ish, being (slightly) weird, being cute/sexy, going to the right school, being funny, looking/acting cool, oh and of making a lot of really excellent work that surprising/amazing things will come to you.
As a rule, you can’t just ask for what you want, because that would be too easy. And New Yorkers are incredibly suspicious of anything being easy. In grad school I was schooled as how not to behave. Lessons like never walk into a gallery and ask to show them your work and never write a gallery an email telling them what a great fit you would be for them were carved into my brain.
The rules are: you have to be patient, meet a lot of other artists, always sign the book, go to openings and then slowly things will happen. I think sitting around and waiting for someone to ask you to dance, so to speak, can be incredibly irritating when you are an action-oriented person, a New Yorker or just about anyone with a pulse. What then happens is within that waiting we grow fearful and we become terrified of putting ourselves out there. We don’t want to make a mistake in this intricate social game we are all playing. But sometimes these rules are meant to be broken.
There are some urban legends circulating about artists being persistent and breaking all the rules—showing up at a gallery with a stack of paintings under their arm and actually being taken seriously—or emailing galleries in Europe and getting a show through the simple act of putting themselves out there in a small way. I like hearing these stories and fantasizing about people who break all the rules.
Occasionally we get emails from artists to the Coastal Post asking us to visit their studios. Recently we got a very humble email from Philip Hinge, an artist in Hanover, Maryland asking us for a studio visit if we were ever near Baltimore. I was planning a trip to DC to visit my BFF, so I thought I would take a look at his website. His work resonated with me right away and I wrote to him and then a month later I found myself driving to a suburban house outside of Baltimore. This was the first visit I had done with someone who had simply asked for it and it has made me reconsider the power of asking for what you want.
I think my visit with Philip touches on a few highly interesting subjects—artist as loner/isolationist, breaking the rules vs. following them, vulnerability coming from strange places, how something can be simultaneously dumb and smart, the return to adolescent masculinity in the worlds of black metal and painting and the idea of forging your own path despite whatever influences surround you…
Exiting off the highway, Hanover felt like a place that had been farmland in the not too distant past. There were two-lane country roads that now contained industrial parks and pockets of suburban houses nestled into small tracts of land. In his emails, Philip had told me that his studio was in the basement of his house and as I pulled up I recognized it from my Google image search. I parked the car and my first thought was, “What the hell am I doing?” and my second thought was, “Did I tell my mom (or anyone!) that I was coming here?” I took a deep breath and stepped out of my car.
I saw Philip walking towards me down the driveway and I suddenly relaxed. He was cool in a way that Brooklyn men try impossibly to emulate. He was nervous, I could tell and I find nervousness endearing. I knew suddenly this would be great. He opened the door and I walked into the two story grey house. I came into the kitchen and Philip offered me a cup of coffee, which I happily accepted and I asked him if he had roommates. I was trying to figure out if this was a Malcolm in the Middle or a New Girl kind of living situation. I heard a loud squawk and I asked Philip, “Is there a bird in here?” And he showed me a birdcage with his girlfriend’s cockatiel, Bird, inside in the corner under a towel. Philip explained that he and his girlfriend had moved in with her parents to save money and give him the freedom to work on his paintings full-time. Ok, Malcolm in the Middle, then. Got it.
Philip asked me if I wanted to go down into the basement and he opened a door in the kitchen and we walked down the wooden stairs. I think we can all agree that basements are terrifying and I am actually a basement kind of person (an unusual self-realization, maybe?) I lived in the basement of our house when I was in high school but that never stopped me from singing songs from The Sound of Music (to let the ghosts know I was coming, of course) when I entered the scary back part of our basement to dig for Halloween costumes or my old clarinet.
As we walked down the stairs, I saw that the basement was divided into three areas. The first area at the bottom of the stairs was for storage, the middle of the basement was a lounge with two couches and a TV and the far part was Philip’s studio. There was a lot of stuff down there, much like the first floor of the house. The studio part of the basement was full, and I mean chock-full of paintings. I got the impression that Philip is down here, pretty much all the time, like a painting vampire existing solely on darkness and paint. Philip’s paintings are huge. They are colorful and dizzying, like a stomach full of cotton candy. And they are aggressive, sometimes openly subversive, giving you a big ol’ fist of middle finger madness. They are funny, goofily so, like your dumb weird little brother and the awful voices he is making in the car and you would only reach over and pinch him until he cries if you could just stop laughing. But they are also really vulnerable and not at all concerned about being cool, which for me is the kicker.
We sat down in the lounge area and I saw that Blade Runner was playing on the TV. Nice. The basement was unfinished, with plastic sheeting hanging up on the walls. Philip’s cat, Lolita, came out to first greet and then hiss at me. The only thing that would have made it more perfect was if someone put Dark Side of the Moon on a turntable and I was suddenly 17 again.
Philip and I began to talk as we sat on the couches in the lounging area of the basement. He explained that he had graduated with his MFA from VCU the previous year. Six of his classmates had moved to NYC to begin their careers as artists and they were trying to make it work. We talked about life for artists in NYC and his decision to not go that route. He had decided instead to hunker down in a basement in Maryland. He saw the space issues and money issues that friends in New York struggled with and he also saw how they had no time to make their work at the end of the day. He said that he was in an in-between state at the moment and he described his studio and his practice as a monastery. He had made a decision to remove himself from the scene and enter into a situation where he could paint as much as possible and focus entirely on the work. I could relate to the idea of the studio as a monastery as I also see my studio as a supremely sacred space.
We talked a bit about his recent shows and successes with his work—showing in Context Art Miami 2013 and being involved with the DC gallery, ConnerSmith. Philip described the art scene in DC to me, as work there is approached with caution and a desire to be apolitical because it is such a political place. He told me that he is a nervous person and the experience of showing in Miami stressed him out as he felt a bit of a loss of control over his work in that setting—that when the paintings are all together in the studio, they lean on one another—but when taken out of the studio they have to stand alone and they are interpreted perhaps differently than he anticipated. As someone who feels very much at home in the studio, I understand that separation anxiety—will the work hold up when it leaves? Is the work strong enough to leave the nest?
At this point, we move from the comfort of the couches into the studio area and for the rest of our conversation, I am sitting and pouring over my notebook trying to furiously scribble down little tidbits of anything I can. The whole time Philip is moving around the studio and constantly flipping through the stacks of paintings to bring out new ones to show me. The conversation is peppered with me giving my two cents about all of them. The paintings are impossible to not respond to. I sound like some weird version of the Kool-Aid Man. I’m so into everything. How I managed to write anything down is a miracle.
We began by backtracking into his personal history. He went to undergrad at MICA, which is where he met his girlfriend and he described his paintings at MICA as wanting to be Balthus. He was detached and disappointed with the work and it was in that moment of applying to grad school that he began the black metal pictures. These paintings were suddenly more personal and less snarky and formalist than his older work. He had been interested in black metal as both music and cultural phenomenon since he was 14 years old. He began to draw a comparison between the uber testosterone of black metal and of painting and he was amused by the idea. Any agenda his work was resting on before, suddenly fell flat on its face and was derailed by the infusion of humor. He also mentioned that he was looking for his work to not be precious and using acrylic was a way that he was tackling that problem. It is weird to realize in 2015 there are still material biases, but it is definitely true.
I ask him about his childhood relationship to art and he tells me that he was always drawing as a kid growing up in New Jersey. He said that he had no art education to speak of in high school and when he was a senior he had taken his drawings to show the art teacher at his school and she had said he should probably go to art school. He decided to do it because he didn’t have a strong interest in anything else and that was how he ended up as a freshman at MICA. He spoke very openly about his fear of painting and the first painting he made was in his sophomore year. He would fake migraines to get out of class. He felt accomplished in drawing, but in painting he felt adrift. I think we can all agree that painting is hard and learning to paint can be excruciating—especially for people that are into drawing. In art school they are taught as opposites—painting begs you to lose control and drawing demands you to maintain it. The first artists he felt an affinity with are Odd Nerdrum and Eric Fischl. This makes me laugh out loud because it takes me back instantly to the late 90s painting boys club of my undergraduate education. Thinking about Odd Nerdrum seriously makes me snort laugh in a full body way. He gravitated towards those artists and their work because of the simple fact that they drew really well. Philip tells me of the painting boys club at MICA and how Odd Nerdrum came to MICA and gave a talk at one point, inspiring titillation and hero worship—these were the serious painting guys. There was a girl who was a legend at MICA, a junior, who had studied with Nerdrum and came back painting exactly like him.
Then Philip tells me about encountering Grace Hartigan’s work and it causing him to open up again and realize there were better things in the peripheral of the overarching art school cool club cannon. He realized when he was 18 that being an artist was something he could actually do but he was nervous about it and his parents’ reaction. He said now his parents look at his work, talk about it and say that they don’t get it but that they know it is good. I think being seen and understood would be great, but being seen is definitely something.
We then talk about making work that is bright and colorful and how this becomes a litmus test of viewers. On one hand the brightness of Philip’s works are inviting, but just because you make work that is bright does not mean that you make work that is also happy. There is intensity in every emotion and that intensity can be channeled through color. He tells me about a woman coming into his studio and saying, “You are a happy painter, you make happy things.” This makes me laugh out loud because if anyone can relate to this it is me. He says he was proud in a way of her saying that, like he felt he had tricked her. But the reality is that she was both looking and not looking. And maybe if everyone gets the paintings, that means they aren’t good enough or at least that is one way of dealing with it. Thinking about things being not good enough spins us towards talking about the idea of dumbness, which is a topic of conversation I find very exciting. Philip tells me that being dumb is linked to failure. And he asks me how do you make dumb smart? It is an intriguing question. Dumbness is something that can be written off, he says, it is kind of stupid. Very overt dumb paintings remind you that it is just a painting and if you are too serious about painting, then maybe you are destined to fail? I ask him about the scale of his paintings. They are all pretty massive, especially lording over all the walls in this small basement. They are loud, they are large and they are very present. Philip says he wants people to enter them. He wants them to not be sensitive and scale dictates that experience.
Then we begin to talk about Philip’s process of painting. He tells me that he goes into it and usually doesn’t have an idea. And sometimes he thinks he is wasting paint like this, or at least he was in the past. Whatever painting ends up on the surface, better be good. He actively paints through many variations to get where it will be. We talk about the idea of work, specifically painting as work, which I think comes up with a lot of guy painters. You don’t want to trust something if it is easy. And he talks about his MFA program at VCU and how there wasn’t a pervasive style there, which was good for him. It was a diverse group of artists and they learned from each other and the faculty fostered that experience.
Philip describes his paintings as an album of music. Every track is a different song, some are ballads and some are fast songs. It is a combination of abstraction, patterns and representation. It is important for him that his work is personal and that he trusts himself and his own weirdness. That is refreshing to hear. People are often trying to hide their weirdness at all costs. This talk of weirdness leads us deeper into black metal. Philip describes to me the melting face in black metal and how it wants so badly to be taken seriously that it tips too far and begins to become absurd. Images of fire and upside down crosses are pervasive in black metal. Everything is so theatrical that it becomes utterly ridiculous. With the make-up on, they are suddenly vulnerable and bidding for acceptance. Black metal, Philip explains, is an excellent metaphor for painting. The corpse paint is the inner demon is the cosmic new age clown. This leads us to the idea of death worship in painting—being obsessed with David Park, Philip Guston, Richard Diebenkorn, Francis Bacon—making work for/in service of the dead. All paintings carry emotional, historical and psychological weight, he says, but you have to take ownership for what you paint and make it your own. This makes me think about the ghosts that haunt my work, the ghosts that haunt all work.
Ridley Scott was the current specter of this basement in Hanover as his film, Blade Runner, was the soundtrack to our conversation. I too like to play films and TV shows while I work, so the TV chatter felt like an old friend in the room with us. Philip asks me if I know the work of Paul Verhoeven, director of Showgirls, Starship Troopers, Total Recall and Robocop. I am suddenly intrigued by the turn in conversation. Talking about Total Recall in a basement is pretty much exactly what I would like to be always doing. I’m into it. Philip says that he is really interested in Verhoeven and his work. The Dutch director has a PHD in Mathematics, is a theologian and an atheist. Hearing Philip describe the films makes me think of them in a deeper way. They are bright movies, lit like bad TV, which allows Verhoeven to get away with incredibly cartoonish violence. He tells me a story about when he was in the 6th grade and his parents were out for the night and his sister was in the other room. He furtively turned the TV to a movie channel and came upon Starship Troopers. With the volume turned down to level 1 or 2, he watched the very graphic battle scene, giant bugs in space (oh yes, I remember!) As a child obsessed with Star Wars, he could recognize that this was a very different beast. His eleven-year old self recognized that the Drill Instructor was the same actor who voiced Mr. Crabs in the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants. When his parents came home, he quickly turned off the TV, but something about the images he gathered would stick with him.
From here, we fall into talking about the pervasive style trends in the art world. We talk about the after effects of provisional painting and how now the trend is in goofy expressionism. Philip tells me he watches people style hop and bandwagon and that as a figurative painter, he watches figuration come and go. I feel like l am obligated to ask him about his relationship with the work of Peter Saul and Dana Schutz. Peter Saul is hotly on my mind after seeing his recent show at Venus over Manhattan and the work begging for me and my friends to pose in front of it for Instagram. He says that Peter Saul’s work repulses him and I am surprised at his reaction. He says the work is hard to take, the difficult images of Vietnam and he is skeptical of the current renewed interest in the politically incorrect. He tells me about his relationship to the work of Dana Schutz and how he finds comparisons to her off-putting. He has kept a distance from her work because as we all know, there is nothing worse than making something and seeing someone else do it. I feel like I have failed some test in bringing up two people that have caused visibly disgusted reactions from Philip, but there is not much I can do. We all carry the baggage of the artists that came before us, for better or worse. I am reminded of myself circa 2009, and how if another person mentioned Jessica Stockholder to me, I was ready and prepared to stab them with a nail file. Finding your place amongst monoliths is all part of the experience of growing up as an artist. Philip tells me it is important to him to think and be aware of history, but not to be dominated by it. I agree wholeheartedly.
We then begin to talk about Baltimore, which I must admit has a provocative allure. Philip tells me about the experience of living near where you went to school and running into teachers when on odd jobs. He mentions that he is into the work of Dave Easa and Nicole Dyer, that they are making interesting paintings, equal parts reverent and irreverent. He then takes out his iPad and shows me the website for the art space, Freddy, named for Freddy Krueger. He explains that the Baltimore scene is heavily into painting, which speaks to the strength of MICA’s painting program and its ability to allow people to linger in the city. He tells me about his experience of going to NYC to look at art and that he goes once a month to look at what is happening. He describes himself as a fairly awkward person at openings, sweaty palms and that he would hate to be doing that all the time. I laugh. I know too well, this sweaty-palmed impostor feeling. He tells me that if he just keeps making work, it will bring people to him. And being in Hanover, makes him try harder. He has so many friends in NYC and he has to keep up with them, but he is choosing to do it in a different way.
Here’s to being different. Here’s to making your own rules. Here’s to asking for what you want.