New York

The Scattered Geometries of Matt Phillips

This, and then. It’s the title of Matt Phillips’ latest exhibition and a useful shorthand for the mental quick march a viewer undergoes when observing his work. Through his abstract oil and acrylic paintings, Phillips plays with color, form, and volume—the building blocks of our artistic experience—to create dynamic, shifting spatial relationships. His canvases evoke, simultaneously, the calm beauty of the natural world, the randomness of a handmade quilt, and the vivid prisms of Alfred Jensen’s paintings.

Matt Phillips, House of Hands,  mixed media on canvas, 54” x 66”, 2013 / Courtesy of the artist

Phillips is a visiting artist at Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts and a founding member of the nonprofit TSA gallery in Bushwick, where he remains a vital presence on the pop up scene. His current show at Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects—Phillips’ first solo exhibition in New York—features a selection of his most recent works.

Installation, 2013 / Courtesy of the artist

“The show kind of ended up sorting itself out based on the space and the kind of internal relationships between the paintings,” Phillips said in a phone interview. “I didn’t know exactly what works were going to be included until I got into the space.”

The interaction between the art and the space is particularly affecting in this show. While many galleries have frosted windows or restrict exhibitions to inner rooms, isolating them from the street, Steven Harvey has a floor-to-ceiling window in front, which generates a dialogue between the world outside and the paintings on display. The play of shadows across the surface of Revolverator, a large-scale work done in vibrant pinks, greens, and blues, created new lines on the triangles of the canvas that shifted with the moving sun. Somehow, even the teenagers playing basketball across the street in Sara D. Roosevelt Park, and the woman walking by in a seafoam fur coat, seemed to be reflections of Phillips’ vacillating, playful paintings.

Matt Phillips, Revolverlator (for M.L.), mixed media on canvas, 54” x 66,” 2013

The exhibition’s title refers to Phillips’ interest in the relationship between the fixed, stable quality of finished artworks and the active, immediate way in which the viewer processes them.

“It’s the way that I think a good painting works,” Phillips said. “When you first encounter it, it is a purely static object. But then a good painting starts to do something else—it starts to unfold in time and to remake itself. I’m fascinated by that shift from a static object to a temporal experience.”

Phillips’ works underscore our craving for narrative familiarity and our insistence on transforming abstract lines into recognizable objects and forms. The wash of blue squares and the orange diagonals of Canadian Sunset evoke the seashore, while the interlocking yellow shapes in Form Out of Water resemble a honeycomb. For Phillips, the challenge of communicating organic, real-world subject matter through a limited, geometric formal vocabulary is endlessly intriguing.

“Sometimes my paintings evoke really familiar still-life objects, kinds of spaces or even just abstract forms that have a familiar sense of weight or volume. Those are the visual ways that they evoke the known, the everyday, the natural world. . . . As a painter, I have a pretty wide net that is definitely rooted in geometric abstraction, but also in textiles, patterns, quilts and still life painting. I like the idea that painting can go in multiple directions at the same time.”