David Phillips is an American artist whose work has shown at over 50 galleries throughout the United States. You may also know him as wino-strut. Bold, conceptual, avant garde, I’ve been following his work for the better part of a decade. Multidisciplinary, Phillips medium constantly remains in flux, at any given time, working with canvas, wood, metals, film and beyond.
The following conversation took place over the better part of a year in and around LA — topics spanning Phillips initial arrival in Los Angeles 15 years ago, his inspiration, the cities changing art scene, how oil remains “alive” and his native Oklahoma’s enduring influence.
Aquarium Drunkard: Let’s start from the beginning. What brought you from your native Oklahoma to LA? What year was it?
David Phillips: I moved to Los Angeles about 15 years ago. I had been making a lot of paintings towards the end of school and there was nowhere to show them in Oklahoma. I packed my Honda Prelude up with a bag of clothes, my guitar, a cooler full of Coors Light, turkey sandwiches, Diet Cokes and a shit ton of Camel Lights. I told my family I wanted to visit LA but in my mind I was already gone. I just knew I’d live here. I had never visited Los Angeles. I had never been to California. I had $500 cash, no cell phone, and nothing to lose. I suppose I was chasing the great American West…or at least the idea of it. I don’t know. At this point it’s kind of a blur. All I knew is that I wanted to show my art to a large audience. I knew something drastic had to be done.
AD: What did you initially do for work upon arrival?
David Phillips: My first night in LA I went home with waitress. The one person I knew took me out in Venice. I woke up the next morning not knowing where the fuck I was. I started walking down a really rad street. My friend came to pick me up and told me I was on Main St. I fucking loved it. It was like living inside your favorite film. I had to stay. My second day in LA I hit the pavement. I went looking for work. I looked like crazy. I walked all up and down Main St. Santa Monica stopping in every single store talking to people. I needed a fucking beer so I stopped inside Rick’s Tavern. I met a dude at the bar from Indiana. He told me how he worked in film and was a camera assistant on all these badass movies. I thought it was the coolest shit I’d ever heard. He said he got the job by answering an advertisement in a magazine called “Variety”. I had another shot and ran straight to Barnes & Noble. I found the Variety, and more importantly I found an ad asking for a “RUNNER/PA”. Now, keep in mind, I’m from the fucking sticks and didn’t know what the fuck a “runner” or “pa” was. I seriously remember thinking it might involve jogging. I called the ad and they called me back. On my 4th day in LA a rad production company hired me and I kept working for them for 7 years.
AD: You’ve been based in Venice for years. How has the art scene changed there?
David Phillips: Well, during my first decade in Venice the art scene never really changed. All the forefathers, the groundbreakers, were starting to get noticed. They were solidifying Los Angeles as an international art hub. Artists like Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha, John Altoon, Peter Lodato, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses and so many others. The artists were being dubbed “The Cool School”. It was rad to witness all that and create art right next door to some of your idols. But in the last 3 years Venice has changed dramatically. It is fucking nuts. The gentrification was full-force and swift. Google moved to Venice. Yahoo moved to Venice. Fucking SnapChat moved to Venice. It’s the goddamn Silicon Beach now. Old Venice is dead. A Bohemian Beverley Hills. But goddamn I still love it. It’s my favorite city. Now the art scene is really scattered. It’s really hard to find good contemporary work here. It’s mostly “burner” or craft type art.
AD: And broader, that of Los Angeles as an art hub the past half decade or so?
David Phillips: Well there is good work being made in Venice but the rest of Los Angeles is crushing it. In downtown LA it’s like an art bomb went off. Sales are high. Shows are getting great attendance. There’s a line everyday to get into The Broad. Every event has some sort of art or art theme. I think LA has really raised the bar with its artists. LA art is being shown all over the fucking world now and I can assure you that was NOT always the case. The artworld is quickly shedding the graffiti fad and more minimalist and painterly works are being shown….along with great installations, video, and even digital art. The work in LA is strong.
AD: Who are the artists right now, and not just visual artists, that are currently inspiring your work?
David Phillips: Ah, man. That’s like asking someone to pick their favorite album, but definitely the more independent artists – I’m sort of drawn to that. And the guys who are completely out of systems, who are the outliers.
The Jonathan Richmans. The Tom Waits, that’s a big one. Stuff like that. The guys who are doing it on their own, and kind of really staying true to their particular vision. That’s the wheelhouse I want my visual art to be in. Anyone can apply to galleries, get in one, feel comfortable. And then you’re gonna get some commercial type things thrown at you to where you’re doing graphic design for some of these companies. Maybe incorporating a companies vibe into your visual work, and stuff like that. My whole thing is: fuck all that. When I started everything, I really had nothing to begin with. I come from the middle of Oklahoma, from the country. When I fully committed to this, I decided to always keep it a kind of singular vision. Or just, not attached. Don’t get me wrong, I have shown at bigger galleries who do have artists who will do a painting for Sony that gets placed in a corporate office and stuff like that. And I too have paintings in corporate offices. But it’s when they come in and try to influence the work – that’s where I’m really put off. They’ll dangle a number in front of you like, “well, you’re gonna get this”, and “be careful because we won’t work with you again.”
AD: That’s not the benefactor you want.
David Phillips: Yeah, and that’s why I’m doing it. So taking that harder road, I think in that respect, you’re gonna have way less money. And way less of the wrong kind of notoriety — the easier notoriety. But when you get into that underground, the more true to the artist, that’s the kind of space, for me personally, that I’m interested in. I’ve made a lot of buddies throughout the years in the art game, here. I got one guy, I won’t say his name or anything. But he paints the same thing over and over and over, right? And lets just say it’s the Ronald McDonald Man. Right?
He does something similar to that. Before that, we were all showing together, and we were all experimenting and just kinda seeing what worked and what could create a series or sell, or stuff like that. Well this guy, for instance, did go the more commercial route, and picked a safer thing and just recreated it over and over and over. And that’s cool. And he’s way more wealthy than I ever will be. But, for me, being a painter or visual artist is all about constant experimentation. Constant. And pushing materials you work with to the limit. And really kind of being dangerous with that sort of stuff. Really experimenting, but also, with each new image you kind of borrow from your previous ones. You know, maybe a technique works on one, and so they kind of start spilling over a little bit. So it’s not just throw a painting against a fucking wall of experimentation. You have certain little things you know that are gonna work. And then after you’ve developed your style. And then pretty soon, you do it long enough, you can develop a style and still experiment to where people, you know “Oh thats a Winostrut, and here’s why. Yet it’s a totally different image than something before. I would never do the same painting twice.
AD: This brings me to something else I was curious about. In terms of materials and you palette, you’re not just doing painting. You’re also doing video installations. You’re working with wood, with metal. What else?
David Phillips: Any form of paint ever created, any sort of stain – oil based. Anything. Every single piece that I do, I do from scratch. Meaning, I build the canvas from scratch. I never go to art stores. Ever. Fuck that. I kind of, for my personal work, I relate more to the old school. Like the 40s and 50s American painters. To where, you critique a painting first by looking at the back. So no matter what’s on the front image, you start with the back. Which adds a form of craftsmanship. You want to make sure the artist made the canvas themselves. You want to make sure that they aren’t just using paint from out the tube. He’s creating his own pigment. He’s going against the PMS color chart. Which has every color imaginable with a number attached to it. You want to fight against all those traditional barriers, you know? It’s all about it being 100 percent original, and the way you do that is you create from fucking scratch as much as possible. Then, also doing that adds lines in the sand too, for artists, because it’s fucking harder. It should be difficult, you know. Any one of my paintings at the minimum take two months. Even if it’s a quicker looking image, and something that someone was like “ah, I could do that.” Which is great, I like that. But, before that, just getting to that, there was work that had been done.
David Phillips: Yeah, absolutely. That way you mess with sizing. When you go to an art store they have portraits that are 16 by 20, right? But, well fuck that. If you do, I would take a 16 by 20 and I always do my dimensions a sixteenth off or a thirty second off just to make them as unique as possible. Yeah, it’s a portrait. It looks like a standard 16 by 20, but if you really measure it, it’s not. And then people who do that are like, “where the fuck did you get this canvas?” Well, he made it. It’s just more and more lines in the sand. As many as you can create to make it as original as possible.
AD: What would you say your preferred medium is?
David Phillips: Oil. Oil paintings for sure. Absolutely. I mean that’s what I started out on. My grandmother was a decently collected still-life painter. And my dad split at a really young age, so my grandmother had to help raise me and my two younger brothers. So I had a single mom who had like five jobs. We lived in the middle of the fucking country, just poor as fuck. And my grandmother would have to watch us. And me and my brothers are two years apart, so we’d eventually get into trouble and start fighting. She’d separate us, and I always got separated to her studio, and my punishment was drawing. She literally would put a picture of a bowl of fruit, or get a magazine, or rip out some random portrait out and say, “draw this”. Then that would keep me busy and out of trouble for two hours or so, and she’d come back in and tell me why it sucked, or how to do better. Art was almost like a punishment at first. Which is great looking back. But that’s kind of, that’s really where I learned to work with oils. And oil is different because it’s always alive. It’s always wet. Even the Renaissance paintings, like at the Getty and stuff. That layer, even paintings from the 1800s, that surface layer is completely dry, right? Underneath that, it’s not. It’s still wet. Even from back then, it always is. Oil never 100 percent dries. So, I was really drawn to that, because that means an image can constantly evolve. It’s always alive, and I really like that. So that’s why, while I do work in acrylic and plastics and stuff like that, I prefer oil based images. Acrylic is like an instantaneous, it dries in like ten minutes. It’s really easy to shade with and stuff. Oil is…difficult.
AD: It’s less forgiving.
David Phillips: Extremely, it’s not forgiving at all.
AD: When you approach a project, do you approach it with a medium already in mind? Whether it’s metal, wood, oils, acrylics. Or is it more what you’re wanting to do that in turn draws you to the medium?
David Phillips: I keep so many projects going at once nowadays. I kind of, for me personally, and a lot of people would completely disagree with this, I kind of think, inspiration or the “aha moment” is a little bit of a farce. I think if you keep enough plates spinning, artistically an overarching style starts to develop. So, I don’t need to think “oh I have this image in my head. I want to pain that exactly” I’ll kind of work up to that image. Like I’ll start with something, but through experimentation, through process, and perhaps in my head I’m like “ok, I want to do a cowboy whose all blue” right? Well, I might have a painting over here to the left and I mixed this orange that happened to turn out killer, you know. That I really like. It’s like, well okay, then the blue one is going to change because I want to incorporate this orange.
This also goes back to the craftsmanship aspect of it too. I’m probably more of a carpenter’s type artist than, like, the arty farty “well this is my inspiration, this is my idea”- you know? I think a lot of that is ego driven. I think when you set that aside and just let the materials come through, and see how far you can push them, and see what different stuff you can do, different things starts to happen.
AD: Do you often detect a through line? You know, looking back, self reflecting, do you ever see a direct line between different works, no matter the medium?
David Phillips: Yeah absolutely. That all goes back into the overall arching style too. Like, you know, now I can do a watercolor that kind of looks like one of my oils. Or it becomes more sort of fluid. All of them working together, you know.
AD: Something I’m always curious about, no matter the artistic medium, is one’s surroundings. Did growing up in Oklahoma at all affect what you’re doing now?
David Phillips: Yes. Absolutely. I think it sowed an importance of the west and Americana in me. Because it’s so heavy there. There’s no white people in Oklahoma. Everyone is Indian. Everyone is Native American. That’s how I grew up, I’m Cherokee. So just being in the middle of that, and growing up in the Americana in the west. More so the plains, and open spaces, and stuff like that. It took a long time for me to realize that is probably where my work lives the best.
My work is described as Americana avant-garde a lot. At first, I was – it kinda made me want to throw up. Especially more popular gigs and stuff. But, also I’m okay with it, you know.
AD: I don’t see anything pejorative about it. I think it’s a good descriptor. I was interested in asking you as, (myself) growing up in the deep south, especially as a young person, you kind of want to rebel against your surroundings, and it’s not until I got older that I understood that region was where so many of the seeds were sewn. My own appreciation of music and art, being from the south, I don’t know if it would have taken shape having grown up anywhere else.
David Phillips: Yeah absolutely. A lot of us out here are transplants, we left where we were from. Bur those things from back home never leave you. They’re always with you — the Southern noir and Americana aspect to that. And The West aspect, it becomes more important. Especially with age, and then being in a place displaced in a large city.
AD: So displaced.
David Phillips: Yeah. And people and culture are more, you know, ultra-modern, and contemporary, here. Then, you come out here, and you’re rebelling from where you’re from. Then when you’re living here you slowly begin to appreciate where you’re from, but you still want to live here. Because it’s nice! (laughter)
AD: Yeah. It gives you a sort of lens to see where you’re from that I don’t think you really have when you’re in it. That perspective. So, after sixteen years. How do you think Venice or California has informed your work? Or has it?
David Phillips: I think it has tremendously. I think it has tremendously, specifically with colors. Palette.
AD: The light…
David Phillips: Yeah, the light. The weather. LA is more expansive. It’s a spread out, very dense fucking city. I mean, there’s so many pockets. So, when I came out here and really dug my heels into the LA lifestyle and all that sort of stuff, my work got larger. Even just by scale. And then, even the smaller ones became more colorful. I was working with colors I’d never even think of in the midwest. In the Midwest I was working more with browns, oranges, yellows, whites. Out here I still work with those too, but pink comes in. Vibrant greens, shit I would normally detest.
AD: I was gonna ask you about that, because I’ve been rereading a lot of Cormac McCarthy.
David Phillips: Mmhmm, absolutely.
AD: If you read Suttree or some of his books when he was living in the south, in Tennessee, specifically, they are vastly different from when he moved out west. It’s like everything expanded and exploded. I have to imagine on some level your experience would’ve been similar.
David Phillips: Oh, absolutely. Of course it is. For sure. I mean, it’s a very… LA in particular is such an odd dichotomy as it’s inspiring but kind of not inspiring at the same time.
AD: How so?
David Phillips: You know, you don’t want it to be too tongue in cheek. I don’t want to paint a bunch of fucking palm trees and call it a day. But it’s a melting pot, too. So there’s so many cultures that, you know outside of yourself, that are just awesome, and you get to experiment.
AD: Im curious, when you say ‘inspiring’, I’m wondering if it’s in the way I define it, here. I feel like LA is inspiring more as an idea than anything tangible – in that there really are not any real rules here. It’s freedom.
Do you feel that? That you’re able to express yourself in a way here that you couldn’t back in the midwest? Or rather, it would’ve taken you longer?
David Phillips: Yeah, for sure. It would’ve taken twice as long back then. And it would have been next to impossible to have made an actual career out of it. Which, of course, you have to broach at some point, and dive into. Because it is part of being an artist in that aspect. Which does suck, and of course any artist on the planet is gonna knee-jerk to promoting themselves. Marketing, and all these horrible, ugly words that…suck. But you still can incorporate that in, living out here, you can incorporate that into your vibe and into your overall aesthetic.
AD: Being that we’ve both been in Los Angeles roughly the same amount of time, how is LA different, both in perception and reality, in the art world compared to when we moved out here? Because I know from my own vantage points,it seemed like LA (art-wise) was not taken seriously compared to New York City or elsewhere. Now, I feel like that’s very much 180.
David Phillips: Yeah, it is. And that’s new. And that, for guys like me, is awesome. Because there is a bubble right now. Who did it, right in the same period, as the 1950s 1960s New York School. The abstract expressionists, the action painters. That was going on when New York absolutely exploded. It was going on here, too. It just wasn’t in the forefront because they weren’t selling as much.
AD: Just like how jazz was happening on the west coast.
David Phillips: Yeah, exactly!
Yeah, and with art, those guys in New York and why they got taken so seriously and critiqued so hard and so heavy, they fucking sold. And then also you gotta look, this is people coming out of The Depression in New York, right? Which didn’t hit out here near as hard as it did there, you know. There was like mass exodus to the city. So, people coming out of that and the Industrial Revolution, people started to make money again, and they started buying art. So then Americans started to collect just how the Europeans had. Then Peggy Guggenheim brings over the surrealists. She brings over Duchamp, Dali, and all those guys. Then, the American working artists started borrowing from those guys and using all those techniques. All that was going on in California too, just not as big a scale, and it took longer for California to get that appreciation. But now it is.
And it’s guys that call it in LA, they call it the “Cool School”, because while that was going on in New York- these guys were doing it here but they didn’t give a fuck. They didn’t market themselves. They were still showing, and they still had galleries out here. La Cienega was a very respectable place to show.
AD: I know Didn’t Dennis Hopper collected a lot of that stuff. I believe a lot of it was destroyed in a fire.
David Phillips: Yeah, a lot of it was. He had an amazing collection, you don’t even want to know what was in that thing. He had Ed Ruscha’s, Larry Bell’s, all those guys who were in the “Cool School”. Bill Al Bengston. Those were all the LA artists, and a lot of them are still alive. They really brought the spotlight here which is just odd that it took that long for us to get to the level of New York, Paris, even Berlin, and those really art-centric cities.
AD: What are you personally collecting right now? Different schools?
David Phillips: I collect a bunch of different artists. And I collect like crazy. As much as I can, and I’ve been fortunate enough that where my studio is at in Venice is where a lot of the original LA artists used to go. Because it was an oil town, the beach used to be oil derricks all up and down. So, it was disgusting. No one wanted to live there, so of course artists go there. They could get cheap warehouses on the fucking beach, and do their thing. So, me being there, and them being there through the gentrification, and then showing with some of these guys that didn’t even know them.
Sometimes I’m flush, sometimes I’m fucking tits up. And I do a lot of barter, I do a lot of trades with other artists. There’s one in particular. He’s like the grandfather of minimalist paintings. His name’s Peter Lodato. His studio is right down the street from mine. He’s much older than I am, he was in the Cool School. He showed at the Met, the Whitney, he brought attention to LA. He was a professor. He’s one of my best friends, and I collect him like crazy because he’s on the last leg of his life. And we’re friends, so I try to get as many as possible. So that’s sort of my old school collecting. And then new guys, I hit up Instagram like crazy for younger painters, and I just shoot them a message, and we trade.
AD: Have you seen Tim Presley’s stuff on Instagram? Like that?
David Phillips: Yes. It’s very cool. He does the album covers too, yeah? I think that’s sort of the next stepping stone. Or the next – if there is a new wave, or if there is a new – it’s gonna be everything fucking melted together. There’s gonna be these kids with the technology and stuff. They’re painters, they’re musicians, they’re video makers. So, they’re gonna make their own videos. They’re gonna include their own art in the background and then they’re gonna have their own music. And they will own the whole fucking thing. Solo rights.
AD: Multimedia, but in a very real sense, that it’s taken very seriously.
David Phillips: Yeah, I think that pieces of art are gonna be, like these sort of meta, almost happenings. You know? I think that’s why insulation is so popular right now and stuff. It’s a culmination of bringing together. We have all this access to all these tools now, right? A painter is not just a painter anymore. A musician is not just a musician anymore, you know? Now you write a song, you record it, well you need a video. Who better than the fucking band itself to make it. And they can.