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Sweet Things

Cheryl Castjohn got a sneak peek – even before the Ogden After Hours crowd started jamming to the Downhill Strugglers – of new work by Gina Phillips at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.  


Gina Phillips' show, “I Was Trying Hard to Think About Sweet Things,” is just as charming as its title. A tall, impressive tapestry framed in vintage floral bed sheets signed “Frau Johnson” sits at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art's entrance, serving as a gateway to the exhibit, and all five of the O's openings at Art for Art's Sake on Saturday, Oct. 5.


Phillips has called New Orleans home since she came fresh from the University of Kentucky at Lexington to Tulane as an MFA candidate and has been busily churning out labors of love from her 9th ward home and studio.  Thanks to the Ogden Chief Curator Bradley Sumrall, we’ll all get a taste of Phillips’ magic, starting during Art for Art’s Sake this weekend.  


Sumrall talked Phillips, and some highly esteemed collectors, out of works like "Rosie," "The Golden Halter," and "Ms. Mabel on Her Way to Mass," expressly for our viewing pleasure.  The whirlwind show he put together from Phillips' prolific body of work has been lovingly placed by Phillips herself, a less linear display than Sumrall had initially envisioned.  The massive, ornate tapestries intersperse with small sculptures, slightly larger-than-life cutouts. The latter are works of paint and fabric that swirl around the exhibition space like a tempest, weaving together the artist’s past, present, and future imagination.


Phillips has carved out her own artistic niche through fabric collage. Her most recent works are completed with a Longarm quilting machine, a beast of a contraption that doesn’t immediately scream “responsive” at you.  In fact, it looks hard to handle and downright threatening. In the hands of Gina Phillips, however, the Longarm is transformed into a magic paintbrush.  An admirer could get lost for days trying to trace every bit of fanciful cloth, thread, hair, paint, ink and alchemy woven into a Phillips creation.  She is an artist who could skate on her technical acumen alone, but she pushes the needle a little further, into the realm of fearless self-expression.


The way that she honors the characters and places of her home in Kentucky seems to have grown roots the size of cypress knees here in New Orleans. Phillips’ work displays an infatuation with the simple things:  warm friendships, fresh air, and a clear reassurance that it is okay to like sparkly things as much as one likes a hard-earned bathtub ring at the end of a good day.


Through Sumrall’s chronological placement of Phillips’ earlier works, the idea emerges that out of sheer love of her subject matter – and of painting itself – that Phillips’ methods somehow blossomed into the third dimension.  Entering the inner-sanctum of Phillips’ swirling imagination within the main exhibition space, it feels like her work is jumping off the walls, struggling to be free of its artistic confines and become real, like Pygmalion’s Galatea or Gepetto’s Pinocchio.  


"Rosie," a depiction inspired by Phillips' beloved but now deceased pet, is particularly sanguine. Her puppy-flesh so beautifully rendered in bits and scraps of fabrics and threads that you may feel a compulsion to scratch her ribs. 


In the loving portrayal of her grandfather titled "Memory Painting of Pawpaw," her affection is clear not just in the figure of the man, but also where a brick path cuts away to reveal Kentucky soil. The “land as dark and rich as chocolate cake,” stands out in the depiction of a homestead spread that’s as neat as a pin.  From little delineations like the scalloped edge of Ms. Mabel’s blouse, to Fats Domino’s allegorical ascension to 9th ward legend, Phillips’ passionate, soulful esteem spills out onto “Sweet Things” like warm honey.