Paul Travis Phillips’ newest exhibit at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art is entitled /səCH/ən/səCH/ən/səCH/, a phonetic spelling of “such and such,” an idiom generally used to reference a person, thing or idea that cannot be specified. The Winston-Salem-based painter and multimedia artist is the third artist in SECCA’s new curated sale series, Southern Idiom.
He combines oil-based paint and graphite on rough-edged canvases — typically, these are paintings of paper with line after line of obscured writing, looking like heavily redacted lines from government documents before they get to the newsroom. This is an early indication to onlookers that Phillips is interested in the systematic obfuscation of what could be shared knowledge, thus stymying the production of new knowledge.
Phillips deconstructs books, articles, notes and language itself, simultaneously sources of information and cultural artifacts. His work is abstruse — it’s no surprise he’s an academic, professor of fine art at Rowan Cabarrus Community College in Salisbury, but the deconstructed nature of the pieces allows the viewers to venture as far down a philosophical rabbit hole as they’d like in their search for meaning.
Surrounding the gallery’s fireplace — a remnant of the building’s residential history — a constellation of wooden panels hangs; without an up-close look, the phonetic symbols appear to be burned into the wood. It’s graphite on paper affixed to the wooden blocks, though, and not the only instance in which Phillips successfully executes the trompe l’oeil. Throughout the gallery, masking tape — that’s actually a masterful use of a paint brush — either obscures words or seems to hold disparate segments together. However inscrutable upon first encounter, “a-ha” moments abound.
Phillips’ tongue-in-cheek messages like “it would be good if you would die,” “you know i’m like a smart person” and “cheap symbolism” may elicit a giggle, an eye roll, or like “american carnage,” a moment’s reflection. Here, Phillips explores language as a potential tool of war. If you relax your eyes, the “masking tape” might begin to look like a bandage.
The works in his collection are entirely monochromatic, save the artist’s skin tone in a video projected on the gallery’s floor entitled “babble in babble.” It features a steady, close-range shot of the artist’s hand as he scrolls through a word document on a tablet, enlarging some words and phrases. Some lines of text are theoretical notes, a running meta-analysis of his own exhibit; others are nonsense, although to some the whole of it may read as gobbledygook.
It’s worth noting that because pronunciation can vary drastically across dialects, Phillips’ work captures a considerably specific subsect of English speakers in the amber of the moment. What does his work mean to someone learning English? Someone born with an auditory disability? Someone who never learned to read?
How do we think about “redacted” then?