untitled (Hare) , 2007
oil on paper
42"h x 42"w
by Kathryn Hixson
Would the trajectory of human civilization have changed if zebras were agreeable to domestication instead of dogs and horses? What feeling passes between a human hunter and his animal prey at the moment of capture? What if a monkfish could swallow a whale, instead of a whale being able to gulp down thousands of tiny fish? Are centaurs real?
These are the kinds of questions Cecelia Phillips asks in order to mine the "potential of narrative to excite a picture." (1) She joins the literary tradition that traffics in symbols and metaphor to dance around a representation of the human condition. She does this in order to generate images to paint. One resulting image is a portrait of a man holding a hare. The disparity between the man's determined gaze directed at the viewer and the hare's abstracted unfocused stare is paradigmatic of Phillips' investigations into representation. The human consciously engages with others of his own species, here seen in the subject's gaze. The hare becomes a symbol—of the untamed world perhaps—and a vehicle through which the human can imagine beings other than him or herself. Through the capture of the animal, the human can enlarge or elaborate on the natural limitations of humanity. Phillips embraces this process of the literary imagination in her illustrations of moments of fantasy frozen in time.
Her pictures remain pictures, like windows into imaginary worlds. The sensuous surfaces of the works deflect any simple illusion, instead referencing the art-historical traditions of portraiture, landscape, and history painting, from Courbet to Landseer. Yet Phillips modern style also calls to mind the gaze of the suburban subject, travelling from a desk or an armchair through novels, movies, and the internet. Her implied narratives, seen through the window of representation, invite the viewer to participate along with her and her sources in the making of myths, "strangely familiar and intimate." (2) In Phillips' world, zebras may accept the bridle; the hunter can speak to his prey; and, centaurs can tell their own stories. By questioning the assumptions brought to representational illustration via the picture, she hopes to expands on art's ability to challenge the imagination.
(1) Quote from conversation with the artist and artist's statement, May 2007