Brad Phillips's Somebody Write Me emerges from the abyss

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      Brad Phillips: Somebody Write Me

      At the Monte Clark Gallery until May 28

      There’s something blackly satirical about Brad Phillips’s show of paintings, Somebody Write Me. There’s something painfully confessional about the work, too. In the exhibition statement, Phillips observes that this new series of autobiographical paintings is “pre-emptive”, attaching itself to the stereotypes of the male artist as “mentally ill, alcoholism prone, and sexually voracious” before these same stereotypes could be attached to him. Addictions to booze and sex don’t really factor into these small and medium-size oil paintings, however. Deep, dark, wracking depression does.

      Phillips makes compelling images by enlarging subjects like a digital clock face registering an insomniac hour (3:04), the corner of a black door in a black doorframe leaking thin blue light, and a slightly smudged prescription for antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication. He works in a realist style that is, at the same time, painterly: his naturalistically rendered subjects are often coupled with a slightly brushy or subtly modulated surface treatment. Phillips also makes humorous text paintings that mimic, in an almost trompe l’oeil manner, handwritten notes, professionally printed signs, or ransom demands composed of letters cut out of magazines and newspapers.

      It’s a combination of approaches that well serves his subject matter. In Untitled, for instance, the word Private is printed backward across the upper portion of the painting, as if we were viewing it from inside a glass door. The ground on which the word sits, however, is not realistically glassy but covered with swirly washes of sand-coloured paint, murkily obscuring access to—what? The psychiatrist’s office? The patient’s mind? An attempt to categorize an artist’s style? All, any, none—the power of this image lies in its ambiguity.

      The painting Phillips identifies as “the crux” of the exhibition is Paradox. Again resembling a ransom note, it reads “SOMEBoDY WriTe ME”, evoking a condition between self-imposed isolation and a longing for connection. There’s also an oppressive sense here of being trapped or incarcerated, not in an institution but in a jail of mental anguish. This sense is enhanced especially by the way Paradox is hung between Untitled and Major Depressive Episode. This latter painting, which focuses on and enlarges a chipped chain lock drawn across a grubby door, is a powerful metaphor for the condition named in its title.

      Whatever the show’s initial satirical impulses, it’s the pain of these revelations that ultimately sticks with us. We come away from the work believing that this talented artist has courageously revealed a vulnerable aspect of the struggle that is his life—and his vocation.