It seems that many artists are motivated by the fear of death. Why else do they take a painting, encase it in glass and hang it under lighting designed to limit deterioration? They do it to fight the inherent entropy of the universe, to pretend that it won't all turn to dust one day. The artist secretly desires to live forever—for their art to go on into the future, denying the inevitable race to extinction. At night, they lie in bed and imagine their name whispered in reverence by ancestors in distant futures.
Which is fine and dandy, of course, but it seems like such a waste when one considers the immediacy of visual art—its ability to affect the viewer in real-time. The image happens now, at the spot where the optic nerve meets the visual cortex, and using our ancient nervous system against itself, it tricks us into thinking pigment on canvas can be a melting clock, or the Mona Lisa's smile, or dogs playing poker. It seizes the emotional centers and makes us feel things that color and paper shouldn't make us feel, and it does it almost instantly.
I think about it as I look at the menacing, cartoonish face of Mayor Berry, painted in gigantic proportions, angrily snarling as he rapes the Bosque with a bulldozer penis substitute. Berry's flaring nostrils are big enough for me to put my fist into, and there's an immediate physical reaction in the pit of my belly to the the monstrosity staring down at me.
A few feet away, Larry Bob Phillips calmly lays down feathery strokes that become the negative space of a treeline on a wall. He's working on a piece that will be opening at the Graft Gallery in a few days. I watch his hands move without hesitation and decide not to tell him how impressed I am. He's using that visceral reaction of mine to make me examine something that's happening right now, right here—creating a change in the reality around him through the manipulation of images and symbols. It's the difference between living and dead art: the intention of result.
The piece takes up three walls of the gallery and is the latest in a body of mural work that Phillips has been leaving throughout the country. This one is different from previous work. It tells the story of a crew of time travelers sent back from the future to stop Mayor Berry from fucking with the Bosque in high-contrast black and white, Phillips' signature style. “It's a short-term, mostly unplanned, sort of on-the-wall comic which I've been wanting to do for years,” he tells me. “I'm treating things as cells, even though they might not be divided with framing lines. But there's a narrative; it's not broken. I don't have to dissipate into gratuitous psychedelia or something like that.”
The piece takes up the cry of local activists who are worried that the Mayor's controversial plans for the Paseo del Bosque Trail will run off wildlife and negatively affect the local environment, and uses the immediacy of art to literally paint the issue in stark black and white. Phillips is obviously aware of the power behind such timely work. “It's nice when an art community decides to feel vested in something, and the activism community overlaps with it. There's a lot of preaching to the choir that happens with almost any group, so it's good to try to engage current issues and target [a different audience].”
But with murals, the audience doesn't even have to actively engage to be affected. As Phillips is perceptive enough to realize, the subconscious picks up cues from the world around us without ever bothering to let us know. “Artists are always hacking their visual environment—creating beauty through color and pattern—and you don't have to consciously read every image to be affected by it.”
It's guerilla mind control. Art as a psychic weapon in the war of ideas. Meme bombs planted in the periphery of the passerby's perception, where they wait—armed and dangerous and completely undetectable. It's what art was probably invented for all those eons ago when a shaman daubed paint on the wall of his cave.
And it takes someone like Phillips—