Purple Magazine
— The Island Issue #35

i’m not a rock

ESSAY

text by BRAD PHILLIPS

brad phillips is an artist and writer living in toronto, canada. his critically acclaimed book essays and fictions came out in 2019. He is a regular purple contributor.

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“But that is what islands are for; they are places where different destinies can meet and intersect in the full isolation of time.”
— Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, 1957.

Islands in the stream
That is what we are
No one in between
How can we be wrong
— Bee Gees, “Islands in the Stream,” recorded by Kenny Rogers, 1983.

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Nothing screams metaphor more than the word “island,” although the word “ocean” is in close competition.

Most everything, I think, has the potential to be either an island or its surrounding water. Right now, my mother has cancer. I’d like to pull her from the ocean of anxiety and ill health onto my island of safety and love. But I’ve had to accept that no island can exist without the ocean. An island is an object, a picture. The ocean is a frame. The ocean is context.

My mother will swim to shore in her own good time.

There are two kinds of islands: populated and deserted. Most poems and children’s and adventure stories make use of the deserted island, not the populated one. A desert island is a tabula rasa, ideal for realizing any construction one could want.

The now-dated virtual reality game Second Life began as a desert island and was launched as no more than vast tracts of green land. As users around the globe washed ashore, they began to create people. Those people began to create buildings and animals, clothing and furniture, etc. I think this is beautiful.

A deserted island allows its discoverer to become God.

As an artist, I like to think of myself as working on an island. Possibly, this is because, for me, being an artist is playing God. Empty canvases and blank pages are analogous to the vast green space of Second Life. They’re also fundamentally identical to the vast but promising emptiness described in the opening pages of the Old Testament.

All of my paintings are my children, and my writing is the landscape they occupy.

A God complex isn’t necessarily bad. I admire the artists I do, throughout history and today, because they made or are making things that are brand-new — never before seen by human eyes. This is what they say God did, and if God didn’t do it, the nutrient-rich galactic dust of infinite space did. Once you dip your toe in the ocean, you expose yourself to reference, history, and influence. You run the risk of getting infected by the styles or ideas of others. Any serious artist should strive toward originality so unrelentingly as to be uncopiable. We live in a world — and this is not new — where it’s easy to identify an artist’s influences, where pastiche and “homage” are commonplace. Metaphorically, this is the easy route, as it allows one to float in the ocean, instead of doing the difficult work of swimming toward the shore to create a world of one’s own.

Within the lyrics of the Bee Gees’ “Islands in the Stream” lies a hint about the one danger inherent to island life — solipsism. Kenny Rogers sings plaintively that with “no one in between, how can we be wrong?” I’ve made some of my best paintings in total isolation, purposely ignoring contemporary art and indulging my most obscure ideas, certain that I myself, like Kenny, could not “be wrong.” I’ve also made some of my worst paintings in total isolation because no one was able to tell me that I’d quite possibly gone off the deep end.

What I’ve learned is best for me is to live and work on my island, but instead of treasuring its isolation, I now encourage visitors. I wave a big flag, not to be rescued, but to share space. All of my island-dwelling friends meet to sit around fires, talk about ideas, then swim back to their own happy respites.

The plague overwhelming our world has created a need for painful isolation.

Over the past decade in contemporary art, the JPEG or artwork on Instagram has taken on almost as much value as the physical object. Paintings seen only online sell at auction for enormous sums. Galleries now have viewing rooms, and art fairs are conducted online. The JPEG is more powerful now than ever before. This is not necessarily bad for artists, galleries, or collectors. Ultimately, however, and outside of economics, the JPEG can never replace or improve on the experience of thoughtfully contemplating a real-life painting, sculpture, or video. We scan through images so quickly online that art is now either attention-grabbing or not. We stop, or we continue, and there’s next to no time for considered observation. I’ve always viewed artwork as something to be interacted with, not simply seen. For example, I love Matisse. If someone posts his painting Open Window, Collioure (1905) on social media, I’ll look at it for about 10 seconds, at best. And
I think this is one of the best paintings ever made. Whenever I’ve seen this painting in a museum, I’d stare at it for 10 minutes — and once, when there was a bench, for over an hour. The scale, the colors, the composition — every component of the painting is astounding. This is the painting as ocean, and the bench I observe it from, an island. The window in Collioure is akin to a sunset. In a museum, paintings by Mark Rothko often look like sunsets, their orange shapes edging into soft blue horizons.

Nothing equals the experience of viewing artwork (or people we love) in person.

What I hope might happen, once we’re allowed back into the world, is for the physical object to reclaim its power. Business may stay online, as a viewing room is cheaper than rent. Businesspeople do business, and they can’t be faulted for having realized, as a by-product of our current frightening situation, that money can be made in easier ways.

Rescued from our islands, however, I hope that all of us return to an older way of looking. That, just as we’ll undoubtedly cherish the opportunity to see our close friends and family members again, we’ll also cherish that we can stand for as long as we want in the Met, gazing into a slash of red paint in the bottom left corner of a Manet.

All rescue implies relief. We are, each of us, currently trapped in one way or another. I personally can’t wait to go watch a movie in the theater. I hope, after a year or more, that returning to the physical world, with the looking and touching, hugging and eating, will not wear off as most novelties do, but remain something we’re all grateful for. Maybe we’ll realize that being able to stand less than six feet from artworks, friends, and loved ones was something we unknowingly were taking for granted.

I know that I was, and that I won’t do it again.

END

 

[Table of contents]

The Island Issue #35

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