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Andy Warhol’s Godson: The Pop Art of Philip Colbert

SEEN had the pleasure and privilege recently of talking to British pop surrealist Philip Colbert at the Saatchi Gallery where eight of his large-scale paintings are on display for Frieze until 16th October. Wearing an outstanding outfit of red jeans, waistcoat and hat with a self-designed tie, the Scottish-born artist/designer was bubbling with enthusiasm for this latest series, displayed to excellent advantage in Saatchi Gallery’s light-filled space on the second floor.

Colbert grew up in Scotland and studied Philosophy at St. Andrews, yet in 2008 he burst out of the small Scottish towns where he had been raised, and brought ‘The Rodnik Band’ to the world’s attention. The Rodnik Band is a fashion label whose designs traverse the boundaries between fashion, music, art and design. Gaining the attention of Kanye West, Lady Gaga and Cara Delevingne, and through collaborations such as Rolex, Disney, Chupa Chups, Absolute Vodka and Peanuts, The Rodnik Band articulated the idea of wearable art like never before.

Creations such as the ‘Urinal Dress’ from Colbert’s first gallery show in 2014, inspired by Duchamp, and sequin embroidered canvases, gave Colbert the well-deserved nickname ‘the godson of Andy Warhol’ by Vogue’s Andre Leon Talley. Known for his holistic vision of crossing art and design, and re-defining the aesthetic of contemporary pop, Colbert employs aspects of mass culture much like his Pop Art godparent, and removes them from their context to create a provocative, satirical language of his own. Each canvas creates a dialogue between different eras of Art History, as Colbert’s interests span from Rubens to Rosenquist. These 8 canvases on display at the Saatchi Gallery divulge deeper aspects of Colbert’s Pop world for the first time. Having worked in a range of mediums from sequins to steel, fibreglass and neon; for clothes, accessories and sculptures as well as furniture and ceramics, Colbert describes these canvases as the next stage of evolution for his niche pop brand, crawling out of prints and onto canvases.

What strikes the viewer is the sheer saturation of images. You could visit this exhibition multiple times and always come away with some new insight. SEEN asked Colbert if his ‘lobster’ persona (cheerfully present in all eight paintings) gave him permission in some way to juxtapose images. Many of them are, after all, brands and products that he’s ‘co-opted’ from modern culture and history. Colbert demurred, feeling that the ‘ribbon’ motif was his way of expressing his ownership of the process and the final product, as it weaves its way in and out of images of Shakespeare, emoticons, icons of pop history and breakfast cereals. The effect is at once nostalgic and disconcerting, evoking the dream landscapes of the surrealists whilst rooting the paintings very firmly in an ever-evolving present. Imagine Colbert’s world in Virtual Reality!

SEEN was drawn to images of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, painted in their trademark styles by Colbert. The paintings are uplifting and often witty, though that very sense of fun draws you in only to knock you sideways with a sly comment on the modern nature of consumerism and our own use of art history. Above all, Colbert never underestimates or patronises his viewer. We are all versed in our own favourite brands and we all have cultural capital. He trusts his public to construct their own narrative from his paintings.

SEEN’s personal favourite was that of the Lobster astride a rearing horse being attacked by a tiger. All around them are scenes of death and destruction. Picasso’s Guernica jostles for space with a Basquiat face, a maimed Van Gogh wrestling open the jaws of another big cat, Lucian Freud with a flag of St George shield, a louring sky portending disaster and undercutting it all, a rainbow-coloured horn on the horse and cheeky winky-faced emoticons. Could this be a response to the Brexit vote? That’s how SEEN read it.

While working on a suite for the Hotel Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, which caught the eye of Kanye West, Colbert found inspiration for his Joshua Tree canvas. The Joshua Tree is emblematic of the Palm Springs landscape, and Colbert repeats this motif throughout the chaotic party scene to successfully portray the enviable lifestyles within Los Angeles. He is further exploring this motif and expanding his Pop world, placing it within architecture as he is building his very own Cactus House in Palm Springs.

In one canvas, Colbert (as ever, in his trademark alter-ego of the lobster dressed in the Rodnik Band Fried Egg Suit) places himself in conversation with a Basquiat-Warhol collaboration, adding his own contribution to their print, while another canvas sees Canaletto’s once beautiful Venice now overpopulated by cruise ships and consumerism. These oil-on-canvas works represent the influence of social digital media on perspective and our saturation of art history and pop culture, yet can be taken as a light-hearted display of this by ‘putting the POP back into painting’, says Colbert’s gallerist Mila Askarova.

Colbert has shown at Art Basel and Freize London, has work on display at the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam, and at the Het Noordbrabants Museum, and was part of the WORLD GOES POP show at the Tate Modern in 2015. Colbert’s exhibition at the Saatchi presents a powerful new voice in pop painting. What will Philip Colbert do next, SEEN wonders?

Saatchi Gallery
Duke of York’s HQ
King’s Road

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