“I would love to have someone be critical”: The artists discuss Instagram, provocateurs, and fostering the next generation
As exhibitions increasingly become tied to brand partnerships and galleries are jockeying for as many Instagram likes as artists themselves, the role of the artist feels increasingly fraught. Artists Lucien Smith and Brad Phillips are considering ways to make space for each other and emerging artists in the midst of all of this noise. While they are not immune to branded partnerships and Instagram hype, Smith and Phillips are collaborating with other artists in the hopes of creating a better art world. Smith is facilitating a BFA student show with students from over thirty art schools around the world while Phillips partners with Gideon Jacobs on a twelve-chapter serial novella for Autre magazine.
Both Smith and Phillips have gained notoriety for their paintings, yet each of their careers spans beyond the visual arts. Phillips has written for a number of publications, and his book Essays and Fictions was published early last year. Smith has shifted from Cooper Union pseudo-prodigy to the leader of Serving the People (STP), an arts nonprofit complete that strives to “curate a multidisciplinary program free of commercial bias” through the “intersection of art and culture online.” Thus far, the platform has hosted online group shows, posted an open call for self portraits, and uploaded curated playlists in order to bring art directly to the people occupying our digital landscape. Phillips contacted Smith shortly after the launch of the site, hoping to also “serve the people.” Now the two have collaborated on an ongoing series of film reviews to provide the audience with a deeper look into Phillips’s perspective.
While Smith and Phillips may not know exactly what the post-pandemic art world will look like, they are working to intervene. Both artists hope the arts will embrace critique and transparency. Document connected with Smith and Phillips to discuss their ongoing collaboration via STP, ways to push the fine arts away from rapid commercialization, and to yearn for a new way of being.
Lucien Smith: You ever think about writing screenplays?
Brad Phillips: No, I can’t do it. I can’t write dialogue very well.
Lucien: I’ve had two films that I’ve been writing simultaneously and I knew from the get-go that I wasn’t going to be able to write dialogue… I remember five years ago I said I’m not going to paint anymore. I’m just going to make movies. And eating my words. Actually having to develop a project from the ground, it’s a lot.
Brad: It’s tough man. I dream of not painting but then I realize it pays somewhat. I made back the advance on my book which means I’m getting royalties but it’s like $300 every quarter. Leo Fitzpatrick wanted to option; in a book of short stories you can option every story, so he wanted to try to option one of the stories but he would only do it if the Safdie brothers wanted to do it. I was like bro, Uncut Gems and shit. I think they’re onto bigger things.
“Everyone expects your next project to be better than your last, and that’s hard to expect from any artist, whatever your field is. They’re pushing those expectations so much that it isn’t fair to the film or whatever it is they’re making.”
Lucien: I feel Uncut Gems was built; they have a capsule collection, and they have a pop-up store and there’s all this stuff. I had really high expectations for the film, then seeing it I wasn’t as satisfied. That goes again to talk about some of those different infrastructures that are set up, especially in creative companies where they’re really trying to sell the art. Then the art just gets overshadowed.
Brad: Everybody I know was kind of underwhelmed by Uncut Gems because it was so overhyped. If it had come out of nowhere I think it would’ve been more successful but it feels like a lot of yelling.
Lucien: If it would have come out of nowhere I would have been even more interested in it. Everyone expects your next project to be better than your last, and that’s hard to expect from any artist, whatever your field is. They’re pushing those expectations so much that it isn’t fair to the film or whatever it is they’re making.
Brad: It seems like they [Safdie brothers’ films] are going to get pigeon-holed as these sort of Scorsese-esque New York crime, drug type movies. That would suck for them because they’re young. I think they have the potential to make anything but Uncut Gems was like other movies on acid.
Lucien: I think that a lot of directors like them can find a more dynamic range by picking up films and not having to direct them. Being able to offer them what you’re able to offer your films.
Brad: It’s probably nice to be in the background to support people and let them do their thing. There’s a foundation there.
Lucien: Sometimes one has too many ideas… Watching the films in the first STP film screening, I felt gratification in a way. Even though it wasn’t my work I was really stoked to be a part of it. Making work for so long and functioning in a vacuum, having this weird relationship to criticism, it’s a vacation from that.
Brad: I would love to have someone be critical but no one gives bad reviews anymore.
Lucien: Or if they are critical they’re always critical of the wrong thing. I feel in art there’s always a delay. As an artist, you’re always up on something and then people are up on it a bit later.
Brad: That’s what makes it hard to be a good artist. It’s a race to get some ideas that are in the air. If you’re a good artist you see it and you have a ten-second advance. Nobody else sees it and your show tanks. Next season everyone’s showing the same kind of shit.
Lucien: In the beginning, it was all about freedom, and now all I want is a 9-5. But there’s such a gamble in that too. Stress is great at points, and I think you can quiet it down and remind yourself that you’ve been fine.
Brad: Stress can be a good motivator. I always end up working at the last minute and get bombarded with good ideas. When I used to give artist talks at universities, I would say, ‘Don’t have a backup plan. It will detract from your focus on this one thing.’ Now I’m like, ‘Have a backup plan!’ I don’t have a backup plan! I just write for magazines here and there but I couldn’t put a fucking bookshelf up.
“That’s what makes it hard to be a good artist. It’s a race to get some ideas that are in the air. If you’re a good artist you see it and you have a ten-second advance.”
Lucien: When did you start more adamantly pursuing writing?
Brad: When I got out of rehab. I was living in a basement suite and there was no room to paint. My sponsor, he had 25 years clean. When he was a junkie, everyone called him Stevie but his name is Michael. One day he’s pumping gas in Vancouver and someone’s like ‘Hey Stevie!’ It just triggers his fucking head. He went to the guy’s house. Long story short two hours later he tries to rob a bank with a machine gun, now he’s serving a life sentence. He had to call me collect at home. I was like, ‘What’s up bro? Did you think you could just use a little bit?’ I was close to relapsing, and he told me to write about doing drugs instead. That’s how I ended up writing this novella which got me into writing the other book. Then I started writing art criticism for Modern Painters and ArtReview.
Lucien: Writing art criticism and making art. What do you think about that?
Brad: Well it’s tough, bro. I got out of rehab, and I did a show and everyone was like, ‘Oh figurative painting is gonna come back Brad don’t worry!’ I noticed that everyone was making quotational modernist paintings; they were making Matisse paintings. I wrote this thing when Scott Indrisek was the editor for Modern Painters and it was called “Matisse Overload.” I named the names of the artists. Everybody shit on me.
Lucien: That’s exactly the spirit and mentality that I want to bring to STP. Using STP as a proxy, to be able to air shit out. Doing that without anonymity. Sometimes anonymity takes away from the validity or the integrity of it.
Brad: Because there’s no stakes. There were stakes at play when I wrote that and there were repercussions.
Lucien: Being able to say something in whatever climate and take it on the chin, I thought was impressive… I’ve been trying to find artists and people who evoke that same spirit. I think unifying them, and you know sometimes people don’t want to be unified, but finding a place where you can put those acts together is refreshing. I feel like the next generation is seriously lacking in provocateurs.
Brad: I can’t think of anybody who’s a provocateur now.
Lucien: I have a friend who was up at Bard and he was telling me that a lot of the students there don’t even have cell phones. I feel the next generation is so anti and fed up with it and aren’t even trying to find ways to mend it.
“Being able to say something in whatever climate and take it on the chin, I thought was impressive… I’ve been trying to find artists and people who evoke that same spirit.”
Brad: I still don’t have a cellphone.
Lucien: You have an iPod Touch! What can you do on that thing?
Brad: I can do everything except make a phone call.
Lucien: Does it have a camera?
Brad: I take tons of photos with it, and I can go on Instagram and check my email. When I’m out I have to use WiFi. When I travel I just buy burner phones.
Lucien: That’s kind of sweet though. Any time I’m out without a phone I’m in heaven.
Brad: I like to read books and shit. I have an addictive personality; if I have unlimited data and I’m on the subway I’m just gonna be looking on the internet. Keeps me at bay from doing that stuff. There’s a certain appeal to being unreachable.
Lucien: For me, it’s a bit of a if a tree falls in the woods scenario. I have these inclinations to rebel and overturn existing structures but how can I do that if no one is there to bear witness?
Brad: I have like 38K followers on Instagram and lots of the time I think it’d be completely hilarious to just completely switch it now, just post pets on pets. A pig on top of a goat or something and see what happens. Do people leave? Does it get more popular? I feel an obligation to deliver what’s expected. That’s why I started this other account @back_up_brad_phillips.
Lucien: Yeah they call them like burner accounts.
Brad: Yeah finstas or whatever. You should follow it, I’ll follow you. It’s just me waking up like, ‘Hey everybody!’
Lucien: I’ve been trying to put together a folder on my computer of art that is reflective of the time we’re going through. Tracy Emin’s ‘My Bed.’ Or On Kawara dating every day and sending telegrams to people, ‘I woke up at 8:15AM today’ over and over. The burner is that. It’s your way of letting people know that you’re alive and well.
Brad: Me and Cristine [Brache] talk about that a lot. In the past, I would get shamed by Instagram. Not enough people like this. I should go delete it.
Lucien: We just gotta train ourselves to be into the 89 likes. Small likes only! 5, 6 years ago if you asked me to put a painting on Instagram I’d be like what are you talking about? Now I’m even more inclined to do so. I think the internet has become a more acceptable place to be looking at art.
“Selling work to the most fucking elite whoever and it sits in a fucking storage locker or is saved to be flipped later. I would rather sell something to someone where it’s going to be in their fucking living room and that’s it.”
Brad: It’s kind of liberating to leave new paintings alone and not put them online. I’ll post older paintings but then someone will write to me and want to buy it. I have way more luck selling shit on Instagram the last few years.
Lucien: I did this show on STP and there was work for $150. Once I put it up those pieces got snatched up. I was stoked on that because there’s a kid in Wyoming that’s got a $150 Lucien Smith painting, and I remember what it was like to feel that. When Harmony Korine did Trash Humpers he’d hand draw on the VHS and they were like $150. I was on it so fast because I’m getting an original Harmony painting.
Brad: I got 100 fake business cards made up where it says I’m the head writer of Seinfeld. It cost me $25, and I sell them to kids for $10. I sign my name on the back and I write 1/100. That’s why I was drawn to the name of your account, I was like “Serving the People.” I wanna try to serve the people somehow.
Lucien: When you responded to me I was like, ‘Oh shit! Sick!’ Sometimes I assume everyone thinks the same as me so I don’t bother saying anything. When you say something and people respond positively to it it’s reassuring. It’s really daunting, the task at hand.
Brad: It’s good to say that stuff out loud. I think people think like me but in reality, not a lot of people do. I saw that [STP] and wanted to get behind it because it’s an altruistically motivated venture. I’m so tired, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. Selling work to the most fucking elite whoever and it sits in a fucking storage locker or is saved to be flipped later. I would rather sell something to someone where it’s going to be in their fucking living room and that’s it. Their kids will grow up seeing it and their kids will have a relationship to that painting over time that will change. I like that.