By David Leigh
Larry Bob Phillips recently completed a mural in the men’s restroom at the Atomic Cantina. It’s a beautifully complex mess of desire, sadness and digestion involving bombs, pasta and sex. Phillips lives in Albuquerque and will be an artist-in-residence in Roswell beginning in August.
How did you begin working on the drawing at Atomic Cantina?
I had been kicking the idea around for maybe six months ... and probably being in the bathroom buzzed just thinking this place could use a mural of a really specific character to match its intensity as an environment.
How did that architectural shift—drawing in the men’s bathroom—affect your work?
I’ve been thinking about the viewer’s agency—how a viewer's mindset makes or breaks the work—and I felt like I’d been holding things back or sort of hiding things that I wanted to talk about or think about, and this place hit me as a possible locale for some really dark stuff about hipster angst, desire and self-destruction. One thing that I like is that it’s a new way to imagine the whole, because I usually deal with the whole page, or maybe the whole wall ... but the whole room, with toilet fixtures stuck in it and thousands of staples and stickers and the smell: It feels more like a feature-length film to me now than a drawing.
When you make a drawing in a gallery—a proper gallery—the expectation is already at that gallery level, so no matter what you’re working on, it’s going to be seen through that prism. It seems like because it’s in the restroom it would be easier to deal with the darker stuff without it seeming out of place.
And in some ways I’m dealing on the level of bathroom humor, anonymous insults, graffiti, people’s phone numbers ... the lowest of the low.
How has it been received by the people that have seen it?
I think only one person said they didn’t like it to my face, and some guys complain that there are too many dicks. [Laughs.]
So do you feel like you were able to push the drawing over the edge, to that low?
I can do bathroom humor without worrying whether it’s smart enough to be in the gallery. That allows me to be a little more overtly threatening and some room to learn about it, to feel for that edge. I do have control over the environment in a way that I would have a hard time getting if it were in a gallery—because it ambushes the unsuspecting viewer, and they’re there to pee, and they’ve got to do that. ... I’ve sort of got ’em, in a way. To answer your question, I’m not sure whether I’ve found that edge or made it compelling. I think that parts of it are very honest and the piece does have depth and breadth. I guess I’m trying to lay it on the line, and when you do that you’re sort of naked, in a place where if you’ve done it right, what people think is what you are.
Most of your work has a sweetness to it. Maybe there’s something very necessary about the images you use, where you embrace rather than pass judgment?
I think that’s true. I’ve noticed some art empathizes with the perpetrator and the victim and owns the action in a very human way.
The image of the guy washing his hands over the sink is a real gift, too.
The person washing their hands is supposed to imagine his head as a gaping torso. [Laughs.] Your mind can never really be clean, so you gotta at least wash your hands!
And the sexual imagery?
There are a few propositions and I think there’re two deeds—the monkeys and the couple in the bushes. I’ve been thinking, thanks to Cormac McCarthy and other doomsdayers, of the potentiality of violence within the human psyche throughout history ... and the notion that history is still with us. That’s sort of the bombs and the killing ... that killing and fucking do really seem related.
It’s interesting to think of the bathroom as a possible on-deck circle at a bar, men getting ready to jump into the mating game—and here you’ve laid out this cautionary tale. There’s this sinister narrative that could deflate the ego of someone who’s been ramping himself up thinking the next dance is gonna set him on the path to heaven.
I have a friend who says that when you have a show someone can buy something, someone can write about it or you can get another show. When people look at this piece, they can take a shit, puke or text their ex-girlfriend. That’s the vulnerable state that I was trying to nail people at.
Does it have a title, by the way?
“The Piss-Teen Chapel.” [Laughs.] I’ve been honored to have lots of people take pictures of the piece, and I’d like them to tag their photos “Piss-Teen” if they post them to be searchable.
David Leigh and Larry Bob Phillips were co-founders of the now defunct Donkey Gallery. The Atomic Cantina (315 Gold SW) is open Monday through Saturday 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. and Sundays 7 p.m. to midnight. See more of Phillips’ work at larrybobphillips.com.
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