Interview with Charlie Phillips
Charlie William Phillips was born in Manchester/England. Having being diagnosed with Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and also an Acute Anxiety Disorder, Phillips has always held a sensitive connection with his subconscious. After leaving school with a Merit in the Arts, he studied intensively at a Manchester-based Arts College, before receiving a BFA in Fine Arts and BA in Art History at the University of Wales Aberystwyth.
The tortured style of his work touches on a personal reaction to a social order, representing the human condition in a notion that is fragile and easily manipulated. Phillips’s empowering subjects have been incorporated with painterly techniques, Mixed Media, Collage, Detritus, Instillation, Literature, Digital manipulation and more unorthodox materials such as bodily fluids.
“The environments, Subjects and situations I create often blur the line between a euphoric fantasy and horrifying nightmares. I intend to confront the viewer with visions of an abnormal beauty.”
Phillips has also gone on to write and direct three independent films. His third film “Social Anxiety” was later screened at “Leeds Light Night Festival” in 2008, Phillips is based in Manchester/England and Himeji/Japan.
Charlie, it is great to meet you. I have to say, judging from what you wrote in your bio, you must have had a struggle as a child. Since then, in retrospect, do you think that it has affected the way you view the world and your art?
Hello Tom, It’s nice to meet you too. First I would like to start off by thanking you for giving me the opportunity to take part in this interview.
I was pretty much failed by the education system. I found reading and writing a challenge and teachers didn’t want to spend the extra time to be patient with me, they just stuck me in the corner of the room and left me there while the other students had an education. I was really quiet, and the constant condemnation from teachers was probably what made me so unconfident and later develop the anxiety problems I have today. I’m quite open about this, so I don’t mind talking about it. Every day is a battle between me and my anxiety, sometimes the anxiety wins and I have a really bad day, other times I have nice days where I feel life is not so bad……… but hey, life’s for living right?
I went through a period perhaps nine or ten years old, when I would tell people I was born in Japan and was adopted by Japanese parents who later relocated to England. I even used to go round speaking my own invented version of the Japanese language. Looking back on it now, maybe I had some kind of identity crisis.
Everything we do influences our perception of the world around us, we are like a sponge, the things we learn, the people we meet, all adds to the way we see things. Genes also have a lot to do with it. My work has always had a torturous feel, not something I am ever aware of while in the process of making. When I was little, I always loved to draw dinosaurs, monsters, battles between men and giant snakes. People used to say to me, “Why don’t you draw something nice, like flowers.”
I was only a kid, but even then, I never found normal things interesting, I always wanted to discover new and unusual things. Japanese Anime, Manga, ghost stories, the paranormal all those things fascinated me as a kid and probably shaped my work in some shape or form.
Is painting, to you, theraputic or is it more a way for you to express your views on society and culture?
That’s a good question. I don’t really know why I feel the urge to paint. It’s like being hungry, or thirsty, I get the craving and give in to temptation and grab a brush or pencil. Sometimes it’s not therapeutic at all and causes me far more frustration and stress than anything else, but then your reach it, that moment when everything comes together perfectly.
There are allot of artists that express views on society and culture consciously in their work, to make a statement and I think that’s great. But I’m not trying to make a conscious statement with my work. It’s largely subconscious, although all forms of Art are open to interpretation.
But one thing I’m very conscious of while working is how I’m feeling, my emotions, my work can be somewhat abstract or more realistic, it all depends on my emotions at the time. I try to inject the subjects in my work with as much of myself as I can. The figures are a kind of catalyst of my joys, frustrations and fears. Which all derives from my reaction to society and the world we live in.
I wouldn’t say that my work is a reaction to the world, rather it’s my personal underlining emotion of the reaction to the world.
I find your digital paintings intriguing. So many layers that the eye is constantly moving around picking details out of tiny sections of the whole piece. Can you tell us a bit about the techniques you used to make these?
My digital paintings are a close sibling of my hand made paintings and drawings, when I paint by hand its more instinctive and sometimes I lack the control to stop myself from over-working a painting, I do that a lot. Making painting digitally allows me to really step back and actually look at what I’m doing, edit, re-edit, it’s easy to undo an error.
But all my work undergoes stages of manipulation, in my digital paintings, they often start as a photograph, I’ll print it out, paint on it, scratch it, scan it back into the computer, work on it digitally for a while, then print it out again, sand back the layers, set it on fire. Then scan it back in again. I’m a little impatient but a huge perfectionist at heart and it really helps me working like that.
I normally use the “good old trusty Photoshop”, it’s a popular tool in many industries now, and is kind of a baseline one, there are many more that are more complex, but I find it is such diverse software that allows me to do everything I want to do, if your creative with it, you can do some awesome things.
The color pallet you use remind me of Victorian paintings. There are cherubs and young, attractive girls juxtaposed with skulls and clock towers. Tell us a little about the contrasts and the reasons behind them.
It’s great that you picked up on my Color Pallet. After leaving school at the age of 16, I attended an Arts College here in Manchester. They were very advanced and modern in their teachings, which were fantastic. It opened my mind contemporary art and what was going on in the Art world today.
When other colleges were having their students working at tables, I was working upside down, my work fixed to the ceiling, setting things on fire, having your work run over by a car, hours and hours of life drawing to strengthen your shoulders. It was very liberating to work in such an experimental way at such a young age.
After having such a modern teaching in college, when I went to university, I wanted to experience the more traditional and historical teachings of art to get the best of both. I attended a traditional Fine Art Degree at the university in Wales, which is one of the only remaining universities that teach the old techniques of the old Masters, like Michelangelo and Da Vinci, I think that my colour pallet and subject matter and the sense of composition has kept with me.
The contrasts of the girls and skulls, I guess could be seen as a kind of metaphor for life, it’s beautiful, but unconsciously ugly.
Would you like to tell us a little about the painting called “The Light”?
This piece is my pride and Joy. I first got the idea from a dream I had, I was trapped in a cave. It was filled with smoke and bones, then all of a sudden a light broke through the smoke and I could see a hint of a face in the back, but I couldn’t quite see who it was. I wanted to try and recreate that dream as accurate as I could and give that sense of mystery that one only feels when trapped in a dream. It also set the style for the other work that followed
Your drawings are similar in that, at first glance, they appear to be portraits but the longer you look you then pick out details. A crack in the skin, a leaf for flower, an abnormal appendage. As a whole, what response do you want to get from the viewer?
My work is a selfish act, I like to play god (Laughs). I don’t really consider what the viewer might think. But I would like to see the viewer develop a connection with my work, weather it is through love, or sympathy for the girl’s lonesome expression. Or something slightly sinister hidden in the beauty. If I manage to trigger a response or an emotion, then I’m a happy man.
Your series, Dolls, is my favorite. There are contrasts in them as well. They appear to be attractive, young girls but on closer look their skin is cracked and the textures of the pieces make them look worn. Can you tell us a bit about this series?
Thank you, I’m really glad you enjoyed them. While I was in Japan, I visited a toy museum in Himeji. It was filled with toys from the 50’s and 60’s all the way back to Edo, I’d suggest that anyone should go there to look at these kind of historical dolls from Japan called Ichimatsu, they are beautiful things, but I also find them very unsettling. Enlarged eyes, white porcelain skin, about 2 feet tall in tiny Kimonos.
Even though they are man made, they hold such soul and presence. I wanted to make my own series of images, each doll having their own name and personality. I wanted them to have the same kind of presence that I saw in the museum.
Since you work with so many different types of media, which do you prefer?
I have always prefered using my hands, my father builds houses and have always considered him a craftsman, maybe that’s something that I’ve adopted. I’d prefer to draw and paint with my hands, it’s more immediate. But like I mentioned before, I do have the tendency to over work things. My tutor would always tell me that. She’d always tell me to stop, I’m not sure I have an OFF button (Laughs). So I’d say I couldn’t live without using computer software either. But if I was to single one out, I would pick drawing and dry media, there are no barriers, and you just grab some charcoal and start working.
How do you come up with the ideas behind your paintings?
Ideas always come at random moments, in the shower, on the toilet, the second before ejaculation. But I always make effort to write them down. I have a very bad short term memory so if I don’t take note of them, I lose them forever.
Are there any artists out there that you feel influenced your work?
There are so many that have inspired me both as Artists and as people.
The British romantics John Martin and Turner, Takato Yamamo, Mariko Mori, Araki Nobuyoshi, Nori Tomizaki, influences include fashion designer Kenta Ashi and Film maker Shinya Tsukamoto. And isn’t restricted to just artists, I love Skrillex, his music really sparks something inside me. I’m also very much influenced by J rock and Visual Kei bands such as, Dir en Grey, Gazette, phantasmagoria. I’ve been listening to allot of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. I love to listen to music while I work. It entices me to work for long periods without breaks.
You had told me a story about being banned from a gallery early on in your career. Can you tell us a bit about what happened?
It was a show where the curator approached me and loved the freshness in the style of my work, she offered me a 4 week exhibition at the gallery witch I won’t state the name of at this time. I was there on site to put up the show the day before and everything went smoothly.
It was the following day, and I woke up to my phone ringing and answered to a very worried sounding curator. She went on to say I should come to meet her right away.
It turned out that the actual gallery owner had took a look after we had left and was very upset, He had been contacted by some gallery staff who felt the faces of the females in my work were far too young “If you know what I mean” even though there was nothing remotely sexual about the images. Both I and the curator managed to convince him that they should be allowed at least for the opening night. The curator believed he was over exaggerating and I was forced to take the images down during the private show. It felt degrading for an artist to take down his work in front of the whole audience.
There was also talk of a police raid by one of the staff but it turned out just to be a rumor. It just shows what hysteria can do.
That gallery owner was, in my opinion, narrow minded and while it might be degrading there is also the fact that bad publicity can also be good for an artist.
I was told by lots of people that I couldn’t have hoped for a better reaction. After all, there aren’t many artists that get their work torn from the walls these days. I never aimed to shock anyone and would like to stress that the images were not sexual or suggestive and not explicit in any way.
I’ve been the victim of other strange situations since.
Tired of half-hearted rejection letters from galleries, I decided to go myself so I could not be easily shunned aside. I remember walking into a gallery and showing them my portfolio. Was told that:
“Because of the inevitable influx of far eastern cultures, such as an industrial China and commercial Japan, I feel your work is a kind of cultural offspring and a fresh visionary step in the direction of contemporary art. But I would never dream of exhibiting your work.”
In your bio you also refer to the use of bodily fluids. What is this in reference to?
Bodily fluids refers to semen and saliva which I have used on rare occasions as a thicker substitute for water. I find it resists the paint and creates interesting textures.
We have also talked in the past about your love for Japan and its culture. Can you tell me about what the attraction is for you?
It’s been a lifelong ambition to go to Japan, for any length of time.
Watching the Ghibli films when I was a child is where it all started for me. But I think for people like me who are fascinated to the point of obsession, they build a kind of artificial “Japan” in their mind, from what we see in movies, anime, Manga, Computer games.
It’s as if we create our own Japan where superheroes are fighting in the streets, Godzilla is smashing through buildings in the background while the power rangers are battling it out with a monster down the street. But when I actually went, you get hit with a reality check, and realize it’s not all a manga/Anime paradise.
The Japan that I discovered was even deeper than I had hoped for. I had never experienced such politeness. I heard Foreigners or Gaijin sometimes are given a hard time, especially if they fit the “Foreigner” stereotype.
For example, I went on a trip to a temple, high in the mountains. We had to take one of those cable cars to get there. I was with my Japanese partner and around ten other Japanese people and one other foreigner. I’m not the tallest person in the world only five feet seven inches, so I’m below average.
I had my tight pants on, leather Jacket, piercings all over my face. But no one even glanced in my direction, despite being in the middle, instead, they seemed fascinated with the other gentleman, a tall westerner, blonde hair, blue eyes, he looked ready to take on the long hike to the temple, me on the other hand, I looked dreadfully out of place. But they were just drawn to him because of his height and hair. I think it’s a compliment.
I loved my time in Japan, the smells, the sounds, the food, that much in fact, six months later I went back.
It’s like your senses have gone on an ecstasy trip. Even in a smaller city like Himeji, everything is fascinating, the colour of the road signs, the sound the crossings. And Tokyo is just an overload of stimulation. I lived in London for a year, so I’m used to loud and crazy places, but Tokyo is like a shotgun blast to the face. I loved it, so many musicians, so many artists, so much creativity.
I think anyone would find inspiration in a place like Tokyo. It’s just so vibrant and packed with energy and diversity.
It’s hard to explain, but when I’m in Japan, I feel like I’m me. Even though the rules can be very strict, there are lots of ways to blow off steam and be who you are. Cultural identity is a strange but fascinating subject, but i think one thing I’ve learned, is that home is where the heart is, when I’m in England, England is my home and when I’m in Japan, Japan is my home. Home is something you take with you….
You are also a writer as well and you are working on a novel that you hope to get published. Can you tell us a bit about the storyline?
The novel is titled EDEN and takes place in Normandy France during the 1990’s.
The main protagonist is Midori, a seventeen year old girl whose family immigrated to Normandy from Japan during the 60’s.
She finds herself resenting her life in the French suburbs, and confused by her own identity, she seeks comfort in a rather inquisitive and bizarre old man named Vincent, who much like the young girl, craves freedom….
After revelling the suffering from his past, together with the brutal deaths of his childhood friends, the old man and Midori quickly form an unlikely bond. Together, they choose to abandon their tedious lives and head north in search of sovereignty. All seems blissful at first, until things slowly start to go wrong, when Midori finds her companion cold and dead. Things go from bad to worse when she is suddenly abducted and tortured by a gang of ruthless thugs, causing the girl to regret her dream of liberation.
I got the idea for the plot when I spent some time in Normandy a few years ago. The setting was a great place to start fleshing out ideas. The underlining content of the book is about the human condition. I reveal subtle mysteries throughout the book that seem somewhat obscure at the time, but are revealed during the intense climax.
I hope that many people will get the opportunity to read my work. I feel I have something special to share with the literary world. This book is my first child. I hope to have many more in the future. And hope that people have chance to read them.
Looking forward into the future what do you hope to be doing?
My work is currently on a world tour in a collaborative project called “Circus Terminal”. It stops in Barcelona at Impaktes Visuals gallery on in July, then Liverdun, France in September, stopping then in Mandalay, Myanmar in December, then Philadelphia in February. Japan is on the list, but the month is to be confirmed.
In the future, I hope to still be making work. I want to share my Art and Writing with as many people as I can.
Where can we go to find out more about you and your work?
You can see more of my work on my website:
Or my Blog at: