BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 05 MAY 00
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Issue 52

Keith Edmier and Richard Phillips

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 05 MAY 00

Keith Edmier and Richard Phillips seem to be made for one another. Both artists are trekking across a kind of steep Romanticism, taking spills down the slopes of childhood dreams and adolescent fantasies. For Edmier, it's always been about the sentimental ether that floats our memories of first love. For Phillips it's about sentimental fantasies that arise where sex and glamour are the point. Phillips says that he is indebted to his third-grade teacher, memorable for her miniskirts, go-go boots and different wigs. At age seven, Edmier posed an Evel Knievel action figure in front of a postcard of the Grand Canyon and took a picture with his Kodak. This is the mawkish stuff from whence their art springs.

For earlier exhibitions, Edmier made sculptures of his first hero, Evel Knievel, and Jill Peters, the first girl he was sweet on. And while it is true that Phillips has made paintings citing 70s fashion images, it is his sex pictures I have in mind. As in Below (1997), which, just by taking the time to look at, you end up in the bottom part of the 69 position. Stylistically, it is useful to think of Keith and Richard engaged in Sentimental Realism.

There has been no real grumbling - as far as I can hear - about how sexist some of Phillip's pictures might be (Tongue, 1997, is just this side of a standard cum shot). And yet there is a consensus that the reigning Ice Storm/Boogie Nights era makes us feel a little bit sentimental, or perhaps too nostalgic about glam 70s sex. There is a tale to be told in the fact that porno passing for sexual sentiment has not drawn fire. It may mean that the historical register has so shifted that erotica, in a period ravaged by AIDS, represents longing, not sexism. In this installation Phillips has chosen to be less explicit. He includes a row of skillful pencil portraits of women who probably appeared in a magazine like Playboy. I suspect that they date from the 70s, firstly because of the style of their makeup, but perhaps even more so because in one of the portraits is a pre-implant bosom - in other words, pre-80s. The 'Smiley' face that has been applied over her nipple also helped my discerning eye to date this picture. How are these drawings poignant in a way that the 70s paintings by John Clem Clark and Mel Ramos never were? Phillip's four sexy portraits, and the bosom hanging in Friedrich Petzel's gallery, nudge us to remember that they inspired a thousand different masturbation fantasies, in a thousand lesser places.

If Phillips has shied away from being sexually explicit in this installation, Edmier has grown even more romantic, fixating on the love between a mother and her child; in this case his own mother, Beverly, and himself, her embryo. Artists have a long history where self-portraiture is concerned, but few have gone as far as Edmier. When you look at Warhol's four-paneled picture of his mother, you look into her eyes and see Andy; but Edmier is even more vivid - a life-size sculpture of his mother is dressed in a copy of Jackie Kennedy's pretty pink Chanel suit that ended up all bloody in 1963. She is gently lifting her blouse to reveal her pregnancy. There, in her transparent tummy, suspended in the womb, is Keith. Edmier collides all of the really big subjects here: death with birth, future with past, loss with triumph. And yet, amongst all this Realism, he allows a sentimental mood to carry the day, expressing sincerity wilfully and without regret. Perhaps only Robert Gober has been this eloquent.

Phillips and Edmier work together at a style which expresses wide-eyed innocence and unaffected sentiment. Their work carries Realism to another place, a fresh place that seems slightly unfamiliar as irony and paradox play no part in it. But there is more to all this than stylistic revisionism. Edmier and Phillips give voice to their art by leaving themselves exposed - willingly, psychologically transparent. So, when they tell us about the memory of early eroticism in elementary school, and masculine fantasies of daredevil heroism, they leave us with no option other than to look deep into ourselves for the blameless memories we might have previously only laughed at.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.