If I say that Phil Frost (b. 1973, Jamestown, New York) belongs to a brotherhood of former tagger-skateboarders who have made the leap from urban undercover superhero to gallery-approved mainstreamer, and that his mixed-media compositions, often featuring recycled doors, have a neo-primitive totemic edge... boy, am I in trouble!
My opener hinges on a "non-inclusive" statement, with a hint of "cultural appropriation". So, "please oh please oh please...", let's not go there. I'd rather highlight the positive vibes that make this show such a thrilling visual experience.
Plotting Upon the Passage of Time marks yet another milestone on Frost's road to international superstardom; CAC Malaga's 20-piece display constitutes his first European museum tribute. This self-taught artist with a foot in hip-hop and hardcore punk (having contributed to the DC shoes Artist Series Project and designed album covers for Sick of It All and DJ Shadow) spent his childhood in rural areas of Western Massachusetts formerly inhabited by Native Americans, where he unearthed stone artifacts such as axes and arrowheads, while playing in fields and woods (a deep-rooted source of inspiration).
During his teenage years in New York City, young Phil developed a singular interest in the written and spoken word; at school, he "got detention" for changing his handwriting "all the time", going so far as to "copy the script" of other students. Skating from one park bench to the next or hopping on a bus, he would sit still and close his eyes, concentrating on the sounds people made when conversing in different languages and regional or local tongues; he had a special notebook in which he jotted down any phonemes that caught his fancy - eventually inventing a unique mumbo-jumbo, based on haphazard vowel and consonant combos.
Once transcribed, these scrambled soundbites were ready for the next step: typographical transposition. Phil Frost's pictorial bassline is a-pulse with a hodgepodge of homespun typographies, newspaper clippings and comics, mixed with found objects ranging from ominous-looking baseball bats to coins, street numbers and car registration plates; from jerrycans and crushed soft drink cans to discarded tins of paint, used paintbrushes and rusty nails. The quirky ingredients of an imaginary archeological site.
Yummy or ugly? Happy-go-lucky, or somewhat sinister? Depends on the way you look at it. Ubiquitous mask-portraits evoke voodoo rituals, yet the overall effect is playful.
The perfect introduction to the artist and his signature recourse to white "correction fluid" - aka tippex (known by another name on the other side of the Atlantic, but we'll come to that later...) - in order to tweak and erase his painter's "repentances" or to create a unifying glaze, is a video available on YouTube. Entitled Sun is Shining: A Conversation with Phil Frost, it focuses on Bob Marley as an inspirational influence, whose music brings him "the comfort of a friend" and a sense of harmony.
Soft-spoken, almost eerily precise, Frost lets us into his jam-packed studio and takes us through the solitary modus operandi he has repeated relentlessly since the 1990s, sometimes devoting several years to a single altar-like panel or canvas: "I begin with inspiration, which resonates in my nervous system. My work is a response to inner quickenings and perceptions, which move me to chart their destiny into a picture." We see him flick through his collection of 45 RPM reggae records and are privy to the accessories of his pantheistic vision: oils, gouache, pencils, aerosols... - and fine-tipped "Wite-Out" pens.
Maybe this has something to do with binge-watching the "shrink" series In Treatment; be it as it may, I find myself thinking: "Hey...! White + Out = What?" What if this artist who says "I believe my work is indigenous to myself" were engaged in a permanent self-effacement ritual intended to condemn and atone for the "whiting out" of the collective "indigenous self"? "Heavee...!?" Perhaps, but no more so than the heady scent of Holy Week incense.