BlackBook Art View: John Ransom Phillips Paints the Metaphysical + Spiritual

 Carrying my imagination to new places, 2018, oil on linen, 40×34


In the 20th Century, the greatest significance of movements like Surrealism, Die Brucke, and Abstract Expressionism is that they encouraged the exploration of the inner life – surely an outgrowth of Freud and psychoanalysis. Sure there was dada and Fluxus, with their distinctly provocational intentions…but their effect was certainly less universally felt.

New York painter John Ransom Phillips lived through some of those movements – and has come down decisively on the side of the personal over the political. He studied early on with the exalted Abstract Expressionist Richard Diebenkorn, whose California landscapes represented a uniquely intimate interpretation of the terrain and soul of the Golden State. Yet despite making reference to his mentor’s “powerful” vision, JRP also describes him as, well, a terrible teacher.


Andy Warhol and his tape recorder, 2018, oil on linen, 40×34


“Perhaps he was incapable of looking at other peoples’ visions that were not allied with his,” he reckons. “Interestingly, the other instructors at the San Francisco Art Institute, where I studied, were less strong as artists, but much stronger as teachers. Is there a connection?”

What came through immeasurably in his work was an ardent sense of the spiritual and metaphysical. On this subject, he cites the likes of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, da Vinci and Joseph Beuys, with whom he shares a dedication to exploring, as he puts it, “the complex interaction of mind, body and spirit.” This exploration of the “inner world” is especially poignant at a time when so many young artists are focused on the use of unusual materials, or instead on the expression of fervent socio-political statements.


Visionary Artist: A New Kind of Man (Blake), 2018, oil on canvas, 30×30


This ongoing journey of transcendence culminates in his new series Lives of Artists – a direct reference to the seminal 1550 Giorgio Vasari text of the same name. It seeks to convey essential truths about so many towering figures, from William Blake to Caravaggio, Frida Kahlo to Warhol, Francis Bacon to Orson Welles. There is a quality of surrealism about the collection, as it seeks to occupy the dreams of enduringly influential artists, in order to go deeper into their own stories, in the hopes of gaining a more complex, even profound understanding of their work.

He elaborates, “I believe as Walt Whitman did, that if you want to know somebody, invade their dreams. Consequently, what I’m trying to capture about them is that each is unique, but they share certain things in common, particular with artists.”


Mondrian: I transformed my passions, 2018, watercolor, 22×30


In many ways, it is the apotheosis of years of artistic searching for the essence of creative inspiration. When he speaks of the “three-legged-stool” of sense, mind and spirit, it’s exhilarating to observe the kinship he shares with such an exalted group, brought to life in these works. And with his belief that he has indeed lived other lives in other places, one can’t help but let the imagination wander to wondering if he may have once actually known some of them personally.

“They want their stories told beyond the work that we already know,” JRP concludes. “They have shared with me what is important to them, how they saw life, how they perceived nature. And I’ve worked to capture that in paint and text.”

John Ransom Phillips: Lives of Artists opens April 16 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art.


Frida Kahlo: In bed asleep, 2018, oil on canvas, 50×50



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