The Faces of Our Time – Interview with Tony Philips

By Elaine Tan 10/16/3012


E: You have been working on painting for decades, and I’m curious about how you began painting?

T: My father and my grandfather were architects, and they were very good draftsmen and they taught me to draw. So I thought I should be an architect? My father said, “No, don’t do it. You’ll have some wonderful big idea for a building, and your clients will ruin it with their terrible little ideas.” Nonetheless he and his father made a lot of beautiful buildings. And I thought maybe I could too, but thus discouraged, I went to college to study medicine – a determination, of course, no parent would object to. But then my parents divorced, my family dissolved, which gave me freedom to pursue my own particular identity, to discover what were my real interests and abilities rather than oblige myself to their idea of what I should be. Soon I gravitated to the art department in college. I started drawing and painting and quickly I realized that I had considerable skill. That’s what I did with my major. Later, in graduate school, a real art school, I began to figure out what to do with those skills.


E: You have stated that “impulsive and spontaneous drawing is what initiates most of your work”. Would you please talk more about that?

T: I often began by stirring things up spontaneously, just to see if I can wake up something out of the corner of my life, to provoke something from my subconscious, from my dream life, from deeper levels. It can seem crazy, but things, creatures, people, circumstances start to appear, so I shape them up, try to make some sense out of it all. And, if I’m lucky, I may find some interesting scenario, some sort of implied story where something is about to happen. I only will carry it that far. I don’t want to illustrate a story that appears obvious. I want to create a conundrum that the viewer can wonder about, perhaps from which they may develop their own scenario, their own sense of what’s going on in the picture. I want people to participate in realizing my art.


E: Where did you get the inspirations for these pictures?

T: My education and my early career in New York were “formalist”. Later, as I lost interest in the formalist game I began to look after what I was painting, rather more than how. While the formalities of making art are important, they are not the subject of art. When I came to Chicago, I discovered a more patient atmosphere here.  Lots of artists here were indeed more deliberate, and they were indeed interested in narrative, in the content of their work. The inspirations for my content well up from my unconscious mind, recognized in dreams or deciphered in accidents, in the mess of my initial efforts.


E: In “Predicaments”, the color is saturated and lines are sharp, but in “Capers & Follies”, the lines are soft and worked in black and white .

T: The ones in the “Predicaments” section of my website are fully developed works in pastel and paint, and those in other sections – “Capers & Follies”, “Totems & Mutants”- are mostly small drawings, experiments and preliminary efforts, some of which became major pieces. The most developed work occurred in 1980s and 1990s, and at that time, I had established a career, and people found my work interesting, and I worked to sustain that interest, but now I’m just doing what interests me.

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)