The Solace of the Sword
New York based painter Phil Frost (b. 1973) has evolved a consistent, instantly recognizable aesthetic synonymous with his name, which he refers to as “intuitive perceptive portraiture.” This first exhibition of new work at Ace Gallery testifies to his relevance and extensive cultural reach as a leading contemporary artist who is self taught. Frost’s title for the exhibition, with its multiple meanings, alludes to the ascetic life. Referring to the internal struggles involved in the act of painting, it is often an unnerving personal journey involving intense discipline and patience in self-imposed isolation. Encoded in the pursuit, there is no straying from a discipline in which he is immersed. As many artists and writers experience, The Solace of the Sword references the struggle with solitary confinement required to create. Frost’s visual language melds layers of flat-white, culturally indeterminate mask-like forms with bold typographical and fluid, glyphic, geometric, and sinuous shapes that dance above vivid spectrums of painterly color, forming the long-necked busts and repetitions of faces that are pronounced as his intuitive portraiture.
Raised in rural Western Massachusetts, from a young age he grew up searching for and sometimes finding Indian adzes and arrowheads in farm fields and forests, and he made use of a natural fountain found at the edge of the woods that spouted clay by sitting at its rim and forming shapes in his hands. Early artistic experiment found him repetitiously drawing the white streak found in the hair of comic book scientist Reed Richards of The Fantastic Four, as well as scenes of Pac-Man chasing ghosts, and the antennae found on Batman’s mask. Just before his early teens, Frost began to enjoy spending time on summer visits with an older cousin who was an authority on antique glass bottles found in Northwestern Ohio. Together they would go on expeditions armed with maps of former times from the library and dig farm fields and abandoned rural dumps for glass vessels.
The unearthed treasures were impressed upon his mind and this archaeological drive influenced him, and would continue to. It was later revealed when he began making work imbued with collected and found objects, as a way to present the actual passage of his life gesturally into the context of a painted visual passage—a representation to articulate how the now inflects a lineage of experience in time and space that is formed both physically and intuitively from what is around him.
In his adolescence Frost moved, along with his younger sister and mother, by whom he was solely raised, to Cooperstown, NY for just over two years. There, an early fascination with baseball and in particular the position of pitching and the arabesque-like gesture made by a swinging bat was deepened.
His teenage years were spent in Albany, NY and were consumed by skateboarding downtown in the Capital District, where various terrain included Ellsworth Kelly sculptures and the perfectly transitionally-formed marble quarter-pipes, the glass walls on the architecture of Wallace Harrison’s Egg, and the marble playground he designed known as The Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza. His often taking off on excursions to New York City to skateboard with friends led to an awareness and depth of interest in graffiti and anonymous mark making. Eventually cracking both of his kneecaps and repeatedly breaking both wrists, Frost was about to drop out of high school when a principal recommended an independent-study art class, to make up extra credit. With no teacher but the materials put in front of him, Frost would figure out how best to stretch a canvas, venture to find objects he could use as material in left over fire pits, and decide that he wanted to be a painter on his own terms. At a yard sale he attended with his mother he scored a 25-cent brown paper bag of oil paints along with a copy of David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon that led to his further conviction. Captivated, he read it intently and repeatedly. Also self taught, Bacon’s ethos resonated deeply and triggered in Frost, at the age of eighteen, an eager thirst for art-historical precedents, including in particular, Alberto Giacometti, whose fascination with heads, busts and figures in space began the evolution and direction that has defined Frost’s work today.
At eighteen, late in the summer of 1991, Frost moved on his own to Long Island City, Queens. Here, he took union jobs, laboring in the night on the backs of trucks so that he could have his days free to persistently explore museums, scour the streets for materials, and make his work in the tiny, windowless basement studio that he inhabited. Surrounded by many different ethnicities and without speaking or understanding any language other than English, Frost found immense inspiration in closing his eyes on the subway and listening to the sound of multiple languages being spoken all at once, recording fragments of words and charting with his eyes closed a hybrid of language. Early work with typography found him knocking out the negative space created by letterforms with white, as a way to "pop," or form random patterns of shape, to react against color. These fluid and sinuous patterns of white shapes that often dominate his work of late came from a progressive evolution of the reduction of words that in the same way often form a nonsensical lingual chanting woven throughout the intricate layering in his painting.
Phil Frost was born in Jamestown, NY in 1973 and currently lives and works in the Upper Hudson Valley region of Upstate NY.