Michael Phelan

Michael Phelan, artUS Issue 15
by Gean Moreno
When Philippe Sollers was done suffering the Calvary of radical écriture, he willed himself into a sort of French Philip Roth. His supporters must have been baffled by the move, though more cynical ones may have gotten the joke. I imagine Sollers these days to be like the slightly corrupt and jet-setting intellectuals featured in his bestsellers, idling away in Venetian villas and caught up in slightly ludicrous schemes, like writing saleable novels or peddling stolen paintings—aware of how ridiculous their situation is but also certain there is no alternative. They could still believe if there was something to believe in. Their faithlessness is a matter of circumstance and not of character. The times allow them nothing else.

Behind Michael Phelan's work I think I can catch a glimmer of this Sollersian hero, someone at once knowing but disenchanted, faithless but aching to believe. Sollers's protagonists, as I imagine them, could still take up politics if that were possible in a world where the power of the bottom line didn't put everything through the grinder of general equivalency. Everything is worth exactly its exchange value, and nothing else. Phelan, as I imagine him, could make art—earnest art in the mold of hard boiled American modernists—in a world where art was more than a penthouse-bound luxury good. He could, if the times allowed it, still believe. But for now, he has to put everything in quotation marks, load up on irony, connect the referential dots, and make his own the dandy's principal strategy—the appeal of the least possible labor to the greatest possible effect.

For "If today was perfect, there would be no need for tomorrow" in Geneva, Texan-born Phelan showed up with four tie-dye paintings and a couple of sculptures. The psychedelic reference and craft technique not-withstanding, these paintings feel light years away from the neo-hippyism that has been running rampant and unchecked in New York for much too long. Phelan seems to have been spared that strain of archival fever that has his peers unreflexively plundering their parents' countercultural past. These paintings feel too knowing on that. On the one hand, they load up on current déclassé referents, though of course always keeping them in quotation marks. They bring to mind little Wal-Mart towns where mainstream fads go on to become traditional American garb. They allude to the Albuquerque modernism of feather-clad dream catchers and faux Native American rugs. They want to address the American landscape and must, therefore, tap the heartland's blue-collar vernaculars.

On the other hand, these paintings are steeped in art historical allusions. They negotiate with the medium as if it were dead language, and have fun with its mummified parts. They're like Neo-Geo with the last bit of faith in historical validity drained out of it. The unprimed canvas tunnels us right to Helen Frankenthaler. The seeped dye is doing a homey version of Morris Louis pours. The tondos place us in the vicinity of Kenneth Noland's seminal paintings, even if the tie-dye's charmed imperfections give us a girlie's version of them. Phelan is splitting the difference between a kitschification of American muscular abstraction and a tweaked homage to it. He's having it both ways, doing Painting and "painting". Like I said, faithless but aching to believe.


Michael Phelan
, Art Lies, Contemporary Art Journal
by Evan J. Garza
Shit is, and is not. Shit is dead. Shit happens, rama rama.
While it is certainly possible to argue the validity of any of the above statements, doing so would be futile. Each declaration, as trite or true as it might be, is an existential fabrication evocative of truisms that have been delivered, ad nauseam, in easy-to-swallow packages. Aphorisims are applicable—even "saleable"—across a slew of religious and cultural beliefs. Contemporary artwork that confronts ideas of cultural co-optation and consumerism can often be preachy, its aesthetic sensibilities overpowered by cliché and polemics. However, an exhibition by Beaumont native Michael Phelan at samsøn proves that mass-produced things can yield successful critique.

Shit is, and is not. Shit is dead. Shit happens, rama rama. These phrases, among others, are etched in black enamel on various solid-colored aluminum panels scattered throughout the show, some leaning against the gallery walls and others expertly framed and hung. Glowing ten feet above the room, the phrase "BLESS YOU TACO BELL" in neon casts a sterile, white, smoldering light over the entire space. Rife with the implication of ethnic appropriations by consumer goods manufacturers and an obvious reference to how culture is both reflected and diluted in what we buy, the statement is literally and physically distant—out of reach and almost out of sight. Devoid of color, the work is also a flavorless and inaccessible beacon for products originally designed to be accessible to as many as possible.

Here, Phelan is neither a painter nor a sculptor: he is an arbiter of things. Revolution is not a dinner party is a series of large, machine-woven polypropylene rugs hung on one wall with dyed bamboo poles leaned intermittently against them. Purchased online from the world's largest manufacturer of area rugs, Oriental Weavers, the rugs' vaguely abstract motifs are actually modeled after early Warhol illustrations, but they have been reduced to unrecognizable commodifications. Originally designed for retail, like the sign that looms over the room, these articles have been drained of their purpose by negating the mass production process by which they came into being. They now recall Duchampian readymades in both conceptual framework and execution more than the saleable products they once were.

Faint echoes of Minimalism also carry across the exhibition. A rectangular sea of slag—glass chunks on the floor—is highly minimal in presentation, forming a jagged, site-specific counterpart to the adjacent rectangular wall rugs. The black opaque crags in Tomorrow's a new day are found objects discarded from glass foundries, assembled into a man-made reconfiguration of a "natural" landscape composed of ninety-degree angles. Here, Phelan's material approach is reversed, but his conceptual lens remains trained on a critique of consumerism; in this case, consumer waste.

Tellingly, the artist's hand is almost entirely removed from each piece in the show, and nothing less would be appropriate. Phelan's inclination to scrutinize consumerism through an art historical lens is not only noble, it is refreshingly nondidactic. Everything in the exhibition is a stale caricature of its former self, revealing and reversing muddied ethnocentric and historical affectations refigured for mass consumption and, fortunately for Phelan, mass appeal.


Excerpt from Just Kick It Till It Breaks, The Kitchen, catalogue essay

by Deb Singer
Engaging art historical, design, and mass media references, Michael Phelan's works recontextualize mundane icons of consumer culture to explore how ersatz versions of non-Western aesthetics and practices have become associated with certain "lifestyling" values in contemporary American culture. For The Best Way Out Is Through (2007), a series of tie-dye "paintings", Phelan created large-scale "target" designs of multicolored concentric circles, referencing the format of high modernist works by Kenneth Noland or Jasper Johns as well as the lyrical hues of Color Field painters like Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler. At the same time, the tie-dye fabrication alludes to how folk art traditions, like the centuries-old production of batik in Central Asia, have been appropriated and recycled for a popular American sensibility. Tie-dye has an especially active lineage: a signifier of peace, love, and protest against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, it has more recently been repurposed again in mainstream fashion. Phelan's "paintings" once more reiterate a formal vernacular, alluding to a post-ideological condition of global culture in which signs have been "emptied" of their original historical contexts, cancelled out by a conflation of reference points through mass-marketing and assimilation.