Chasing my tail: In conversation with Philip Hinge

To take a trip into the absurdist world of Philip Hinge’s paintings, drawings and installations is to find yourself wandering a chaotic interior hinterland populated by a cast of strange anthropomorphic characters. A demonic long-nosed figure, often with a banana for a body, recurs throughout, guiding us in this strange land. We encounter the tortured visage of Van Gogh and goth-faced trees that weep and wail like a death metal chorus. Cats: slinky, stealthy, are everywhere. Blending together art history, popular culture and meme references, these motifs and characters recur throughout Philip’s practice, slowly mutating and morphing and adding more layers to this complex personal mythology. Philip’s approach is inherently instinctual and intuitive, allowing experimentation, play and the cause and effect of the weird logic of his visual language to dictate the themes and directions in his art.

Philip says that his work is essentially optimistic, fuelled by a desire to engage with the full range of human experience. Within the kitsch and spooky aesthetic is a dark humour that touches the pulse of modern life. To accompany his 2019 body of work Take My Life Please, Marvin Gardens, Philip enigmatically writes: “Bananas can’t be human, because we eat them. Yet here they exist, Freudian sight-gag or unaware jester, haplessly enduring the toils of banality.” We are the banana.

Alongside his own art, Philip has been involved with several off-the-wall project spaces—currently he runs one in the basement of his childhood home and another at the top of his cat’s playtree. He received his MFA in Painting from Virginia Commonwealth University and his BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. In this interview, Philip gives us a peek into his home studio in Ridgewood, New York, and takes us deep inside the weird world of his art.

portrait courtesy of the artist at darkZone

AMM: Hi Philip! To kick us off, what are you listening to, watching and reading right now?

PH: I’ve been listening to a lot of Black Metal, namely, Diabolical Masquerade, Summoning, Midnight Odyssey, Negura Bunget, and Limbonic Art. I have an intense nostalgia for Black Metal and have been growing with it since I was 14. For a genre that defined itself by a pretty limited set of rules, there are a lot of off-shoots and variations now. And in a weird way it’s come around to being cosmically spiritual and expansive. The longer the genre goes the closer it gets to sounding like Enya (which I am all for by the way).

I’m bad at finding the time to read anything substantial, but I’ve been listening to the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s heady and vague in a really nice way that ticks a lot of boxes for me. The whole story hinges on a mysterious eco-event which results in the creation of a mutation-laden forest zone by a coastal town. The story follows members of an organization who are trying to figure it all out and before something awful happens. There’s some really great narrative invention and the story as a whole is really compelling and bizarre.

As far as watching, it’s been a lot of bad movies; more specifically bad movies where everyone involved tried their absolute hardest to make something great and just failed. The earnestness of the creators is really important with that genre. A few of the good ones have been Feeders, Twisted Pair, Plum, and Black Cougar. On the whole, each movie can be totally embarrassing and absurd, but at the heart of it there’s a real story about perseverance and creative follow-through. Even if the result is laughable you can’t fault them because they saw their vision through. They had an idea, wrote the script, got a crew together, shot and finished their movie, against all odds. There’s real commitment and vulnerability there.

AMM: How have you found working during the pandemic? What effects do you think this radical time has had on you creatively?

PH: It’s been very sobering and humbling to work through all of this. On one hand it’s been years since I’ve had the time and space to work as much on my own work as I did during the three-month quarantine. Overnight, I didn’t have to go to my day job, I didn’t have to schedule Catbox or darkZone or A.D. I just had to wake up and work in the studio (which is the second bedroom in my apartment). That air was very liberating and led to some invaluable growth and exploration. But, feeling that open and creative during such a tragic time also made me feel intensely guilty. I’ve tried to learn that it is ok to work through it, to count your blessings, and maybe even take things slower than I did before.

‘Do you need to talk’, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

AMM: Are you influenced by your surroundings? In what ways does your art relate to your environment and personal experiences?

PH: My world sometimes feels very small, and I’ve come to realize my work has everything to do with my interpretation of my immediate surroundings, which are all variants of domestic space. Part of this might be related to the fact that I have kept home studios for the past seven years. Working at home was a decision born out of necessity but over time has evolved to be an important part of the process. I seem to thrive when I have little to no separation between a home life and a studio life. I also get to be near my partner and my pets, which is very nice. It’s led me to think about this idea of art and domesticity and how art is trying desperately to escape that “above the couch” fate. To me it seems much more interesting to lean into the idea that art has to integrate itself into these domestically functional environments. Like how do you make art which thrives in a hallway or a bathroom?

Experience ends up working in tandem with that live/work sentiment. If you’re like me you carry your experiences with you every day, and it’s hard to keep them from influencing your decisions, especially when you’re in your most open or receptive state in the studio. This doesn’t mean I’m making direct depictions of things that have happened to me, but just that I’m using painting and artmaking as a means to process all these things that have happened or are affecting me.

AMM: How does popular culture and media influence you as an artist and relate to your work?

PH: It’s all very connected to how I grew up and became interested in making art. I learned to draw from watching movies. When a movie I connected with was over, I would be super jazzed and energetic about the way the visuals made me feel. I would try to prolong that experience by making drawings of characters from the movie so I could keep the story going. Then later I got into comic books and would try my best to copy all the covers and art in them. All this visual information would be morphed and collaged together through my own drawing, endlessly manipulated into different variations in an effort to make something original. In that way, the role of pop culture and visual media isn’t too different from now; it’s a lot of processing the visual world around me, whether it’s invented imagery or art historical or pop cultural, and then colliding those references to try and express something unique. I’m hoping that by having access to every aspect of visual culture, I’m starting to flatten the visual hierarchy for references in my own work.

studio installation, 2020

AMM: Let’s chat about your visual language which seems to borrow from the world of low-brow media. How has this style evolved over time in conjunction with the subject matter?

PH: My interest in proliferating this high/low kitsch aesthetic is an attempt to question or undermine the perceived weight of an art canon in the age of memes. Art has been traditionally about the perpetuation of visual or historical hierarchy. In medieval painting, the Virgin Mary and Jesus were always larger than the figures flanking them. Now art history has been flattened and overrun by the sheer amount of visual information. With Instagram and art mediation through computer screens, those medieval paintings are seen on the same scale and plane as Sonic fanart.

When I went to art school, my entire visual world was ejected because it came from that “low brow” tier (fanart, movie-posters, video games etc.). I was educated on the history of formalism and the associated artists, which were all new to me, and which were deemed good taste. My artistic life was re-programmed with a preset of permissible interests. I forgot my upbringing and all of those images from Magic the Gathering, Anime, and sci-fi disappeared as I tried to cloak myself in my new art history shroud in an attempt to gain acceptance. That’s a heavy thing to deal with, and I’ve still got my baggage from it.

Over time, no matter how much I tried to deviate from my base visual interests, I couldn’t shake this “something kind of kitsch” quality in my work. I was self-conscious and tried to dress up my kitsch-ness in irony. It took a long time to realize that it doesn’t devalue the work or the seriousness of my artistic endeavors by dealing with my relationship with kitsch sincerely head on. Ideally, I’m aspiring to use a whole spectrum of imagery to challenge those institutional ideals of painting.

AMM: Painting is a hallowed medium historically. Your practice radically disrupts this. What about the medium appeals to you?

PH: It’s funny because a lot of me still holds “painting” in some sort of esteem or reverence.
I admire its history, and never get sick of looking at it. Specifically, I like its speed and how that varies the read of a work. There’s something magical about the way a painting reveals itself to you. It can be blunt and deep at the same time; illusionary and finessed or painfully simple and straightforward. That produces an experience which seems unreal for a two-dimensional surface. On the other hand, I like playing with the frivolousness or inconsequence of a painting as a flat picture surface.

I mentioned it a little bit earlier, but painting can be so exclusionary and elitist it’s hard to find motivation to perpetuate it. Your role as a painter can be reduced to “gatekeeper of good taste”. That’s not so exciting to me. But it’s difficult to find a way to subvert painting in an interesting way. That idea of painting as subversion is something I learned from Balthus. He mixed metaphors all the time, making these paintings which are classically reverent and sound while depicting intensely off-putting and problematic subject matter. The effect is complex and weird.

‘I’ve never had that 1’, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16 inches

AMM: Do you have any daily creative rituals?

PH: I’m a creature of habit. If I had it my way I would wear, eat, and do the same thing every single day. I like to wake up early, usually around 7 or 7:30. I’ll have a smoothie for breakfast and have a coffee while I play video games (right now I’ve been replaying Resident Evil from 2002). For whatever reason that lets my mind rev up as I map out the day. After an hour and a half, I’ll head into the studio and start to push things around and organize or draw until I get the guts to start painting. From there I can usually be in production mode all day. If it’s been a good studio day, I take a hot bath while watching trashy TV and starting to plan what I’ll make tomorrow.

AMM: Give us a peek inside your studio—what’s going on in there on any given day?

PH: Recently I’ve been making little black sofas out of foam and trash bags which are meant to look like fancy leather couches. I don’t know where they fit in just yet but I’m planning on them being a major component of a show in the future. I’m also exploring this very hard edged “opening” door motif with sad-faced trees painted over them; specifically integrating them alongside mirrors. I’m also working on a new set of cat litter paintings. I’m circling back to them because I feel like the focus was always the cat face, and there was no room on the panel for anything else. Now I’m curious to see how I can make them live in an environment. Like the cat face is speaking the same language but more broadly than the flatness of the background they’re going to sit on. It’s nothing earth shaking but to me it feels like there are endless configurations to be done. I’ve also been expanding my collection of found cat photos, and have a good batch going. I’m not sure how it integrates into the work, but it feels very important right now. The constant in the day-to-day studio is smallish paintings which are treated as “anything goes” paintings. Since I work out different ideas all at the same time, it’s important I have a set body of work going that stays fairly open-ended in subject matter but constrained by size and canvas. All in all, the
studio is about openness and following intuition.

studio installation with cat, 2020

AMM: In your work the divide between humans, animals and objects is blurred and malleable. Please tells us more about your fascination with anthropomorphism?

PH: For me it started pretty early. I’m naturally a very stressed-out person who has always experienced some sort of high anxiety and emotional disorder. Growing up, when I was peak stressed about whatever I thought was going wrong with me, I would see how my cat was just happy to be around me and be petted. In a weird way I was jealous of the life my cat got to lead and how unaffected it was by the things that had such an impact on me. While that wasn’t the hardline experience that made me say, “ok great, now I get anthropomorphism”, it didn’t hurt.

From there I’ve actively explored it as a form because it seems like the best way to make things work for me. For example, there’s something lacking to me about painting “just” a tree. For whatever reason I really wanted to paint a tree but couldn’t see it through. But if I painted a tree with a goth face on it, I could get behind that and feel like it represented me. I guess that’s what it comes down to; using it as a tool to help me relate to things and translate them into painting in a way that feels genuine to my experience.

AMM: How would you describe the world that is depicted in your art?

PH: I would describe it as absurdist and optimistic. Things might be unruly or crude but there is an underlying logic and energy that crosses over to the viewer hopefully. It’s a world where everything is connected to each other in some strange way, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first.

‘Not eye’, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 32 inches

AMM: Who are the long-nosed man and other cast of characters that recur and populate your work? What do they represent?

PH: The short answer is it’s me…kind of. I’m coming to accept that most things I paint are surrogates for myself in some capacity. Originally the banana/moon/long nose evolved from these devils I was painting, which in turn had evolved from these imagined hospital self-portraits I was making. Eventually the devils got more and more outlandish and even cartoonish, and I found something close to the form of the long-nosed figure. From there it seemed right that the full body should be a banana, so I made the first painting of the long nose banana moon-man driving a car. That sparked a whole set of ideas and images, and by now it has evolved to have a dog for a nose and my face for a forehead.

I think populating the studio with this weirdo cast of characters is important for me as I flesh out this personal mythology I’m developing. I can use different motifs to get at different sensitivities or discussions. This ties into what I mentioned earlier about the importance of pop references; painting gremlins and Garfields played a crucial role in learning to give myself permission to explore weirder ideas like the banana man. I also think they belong together, and it’s possible they would also like to have a cat around, so I should paint them a cat to hang out with, too. The logic kind of continues that way, and new things come and go to help create this oddly specific associative narrative between characters.

AMM: The tone of your work is at once sinister and silly. Does the dark humour in your work perhaps speak to contemporary existential experiences?

PH: I feel like the humor in my work is a byproduct of my personality. I think I’m funny, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’ll usually follow an idea if it makes me smile or laugh to myself. To me that’s a signal that there might be something viable there. I can sometimes work with subject matter that is heavy handed or intense, and it helps to have a sense of humor to take the edge off a little bit. I hope that humor would translate to an audience and let them into the work. That idea of access points in my work is important, especially when things can seem a little chaotic or dark from the outset. I don’t want to make things that people categorically don’t want to look at, so having certain moments of levity or humor are important.

‘Eye m hungry’, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 24 inches

AMM: Cats feature prominently in your art—from figures in drawings with feline faces, to found objects in installations and impasto portraits in your solo show Cat Scratch Fever. Why?

PH: I’ve always had a cat or two in my life, and it’s something I’ve come to depend on for comfort. Over the years, cats have taught me a lot about life and death. This sounds silly to say, but I learned about impermanence from cats which led me to develop a strong “all good things come to an end” complex. My first remembered experience of death was with the passing of one of my family’s cats. As an entity cats are simple but mysterious, they represent so much from a supernatural and superstitious standpoint. But cats are also very good communicators, in a way I wish I was. When they are upset, even a little, you can tell instantly by paying attention to the cues they give off. And when they are happy, they have a whole other system and language of purrs and movements that let you know just how happy they are. I started putting them in the work to function as emotional anchors. There’s something that feels good or instantly relatable about looking at pictures of cats. Having said that, not everyone feels that way, and I think it’s pretty funny how polarizing a cat walking into the room can be.

AMM: What ideas or themes are you currently exploring in your work? How are these taking form in your practice?

PH: This is always a hard one to articulate, and it’s something I try not to think about too much honestly. There are broad topics which are reoccurring, like existence, domesticity, depression, processing personal relationships and how I fit into and interact with the world. I’m inherently not a research-based artist. I like to be fairly receptive to creative whims, trusting that whatever the next idea is will naturally fall into place with the main mission, which again isn’t totally clear to me. Right now I’m chasing my tail and seeing where each painting takes me.

‘At the edge of the river by the fog’, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16 inches

AMM: Alongside your practice you run two project spaces—darkZone in the basement of your childhood home, and Catbox Contemporary in your cat’s play-tree. Please tell us the backstory about how these spaces come into being, and why spaces like these are important.

PH: Catbox started because I wanted to create a supportive platform for artists but had no access to space and no budget for a full-size space. What I did have was a very large cat-tree for my cat which happens to have a little room on top. I thought it would be funny and give artists a chance to deviate from their normal studio practices to make some very weird shows. From there the project has evolved into something I couldn’t have imagined.

darkZone started just shy of two years ago and was done on an impulse. I spent a lot of time in my parent’s basement growing up. I would dig through the boxes and boxes of family history putting pieces of the past together. It was this place that seemed so rich with potential and was full of memories and residual emotions. In a very strange way darkZone has become a way for me to process the angst I developed as a kid in relation to that house and that town in NJ. It’s this collaborative trust exercise where everyone involved has to directly interact with my family’s history for each show. That psychological weight is so vital to each show.

Off-beat spaces are the unsung heroes of the art world. I met a very special group of people when I moved to NY who had full time jobs, art practices, and ran spaces to make opportunities for people. There was no glamour in it. No one would do it if they didn’t live for it. On a practical level it just doesn’t add up. To boot there is no money in it, so it’s a losing proposition. But to the community it’s so important, it’s a safe place for artists to take risks and discover themselves. It’s also a way to divert the conversation from the mainline market-driven artworld and take some of the power from it. I’ve seen shows at project spaces that rival top gallery shows, and that is endlessly exciting to me.

AMM: What have you gained from running and curating these spaces?

PH: There has been so much learning. I went into it not fully understanding the impact curating would have on me and my life. I’ve made some wonderful friends, and I feel so lucky to have been any part of facilitating outstanding shows. I’ve also learned a lot about myself and where my limits are. It can be hard to see the forest for the trees sometimes, and even harder to juggle my personal life, studio life, “pay the bills” life, and my Catbox/darkZone life. It all keeps working because I get so much energy from running these spaces. I hope the artists I have worked with know how much I’ve appreciated and cherished each experience. They’re stars and they should know that. This is the part where I start to feel like the movie makers I mentioned earlier. I have a vision and a plan, and I can’t speak to how it’s going to turn out, but I’ve got a camera and a loose script and I’m going to do everything in my power to make it shine.

‘Gloomy’, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches

AMM: Do you think your cat appreciates art?

PH: I think she can sense that it’s something important to me, and that helps her respect it. Sometimes I like to think she’s trying to look at the paintings (I’m pretty sure she does). It’s a weird thing to manifest this unspoken understanding with your cat; what magic. She’s also been very respectful of Catbox work, and in our history has never deliberately damaged anything.

AMM: There seems to be an overlap between your curatorial style and the way in which you like to present your own work. Both instances are pretty anti-white cube in favour of immersive spatial experiences. Please share some of your thoughts around space and context.

PH: There’s no denying that work hung in a well-lit white cube type gallery can really sing and become imbued by some otherworldliness. Because of that, I think it’s really important to challenge the way art is exhibited, and it’s something that’s in the air right now. Changing the context around artworks can help emphasize themes or qualities in the work that may fall short in a more sterile or traditional environment. Introducing the idea of spectacle or theatrics back into the presentation of art is exciting to me and adds more layers to the subtext. Even when a show in a weird environment falls flat, I feel like it was worth the effort, because once all art starts to be made specifically for white cubes, I think the collective community starts to lose something valuable.

AMM: Do you have any projects or exhibitions coming up? What’s next for you?

PH: I have a solo coming up at 427 next month, and will be doing 3 more shows at darkZone before the house is gone. Also I currently have a show at 106 green in NY (up until Oct 16).

Find out more about the artist: www.philiphinge.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘This isn’t how it was supposed to be’, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches