artnet Asks: Painter John Ransom Phillips on Finding Truth When We Are Sleeping

The painter believes he has lived previous lives, all of them as an artist.

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John Ransom Phillips is a painter, writer and filmmaker. He likes to say that he works in each of these media to explore what is “beyond the physical world.” In his upcoming show, “Beyond Nature,” at Georges Bergès Gallery, he is searching for “truth beyond reality.” Curious about this claim, artnet News asked him a couple of questions:

Tell us about your latest show and what you are trying to convey?

The show is called Beyond Nature. I choose that title because I am very interested in looking past the comfort of nature and I am looking to go beyond reality in art. I really enjoy the writings of Walt Whitman, who says “we are more fully who we are when we are asleep then when we are awake.” His poem The Sleepers discusses invading people’s dreams to find out who they really are. I really like that image. In my writing and painting I look beyond what is the everyday, what is ordinary. Looking at dreams there is a more honest and truthful representation of who we are, where we can find truth about life, more than what is ordinary or expected.

So what would define as the essence of the paintings in Beyond Nature?

I want visitors to see and experience the underlying unity and energy in the work.


hands, heads, nature


Are all of the works here recent pieces?

The paintings are works that I have been working on over the past three years, so 2013, 2014, and 2015.

You are a screenwriter and a filmmaker as well. How is painting, directing and writing different to you?

I started out as a painter and began introducing words into my watercolor paintings and drawings. Then I started writing independently from these paintings. However, I would keep my paintings in mind while I was writing. The words really started to resonate with the themes I was trying to convey in my paintings; looking beyond nature to find truth. Then I wanted to hear my words spoken so I started writing screenplays. I was interested in how these different forms of media represent another way of experiencing unity beyond nature. Reading, speaking and painting are all entirely different processes.


John Ransom Phillips Painting


Who or what do you look to for inspiration when you paint?

Artist Richard Diebenkorn was my professor and is a great inspiration. I was fascinated by how he develops a vision and executes it. It was very powerful. He believed that we take from lots of experiences and then shape and transform these experiences to fit us and our work. I am also inspired by Francis Bacon. I like how he paints and what he does with it. I would love to be Francis Bacon but without the imbalance.

How long have you been painting?

I believe in past lives, so I say that I have been painting in many lives and I have been an artist many times. I have appropriated those experiences into my paintings. Hopefully gaining insight from all these other lives.


Mathew Brady: Shooting


If you had to choose your favorite painting in this show, which one would it be?

These paintings are my children so I love all of them and I believe every parent loves children for different reasons. Shooting, a painting from my series about Civil War photographer and the first celebrity photographer Mathew Brady, is a triptych that shows different levels of shooting. Brady interests me because he had this way of taking pictures, simplifying them then elevating them. Essentially branding them. This painting has a lot to do with branding and how we shape and configure popular imagery. Also, Barack Obama In Watery America from my president series. I am very interested in presidents. I think about Whitman’s idea; about invading someone’s dreams to find out more about them. I believe if you were to talk to these politicians they would give you a formal answer, however when you invade their dreams you would find the truth. Just imagine invading Donald Trump’s dreams! I was inspired by the book that Obama wrote about his father, Dreams From My Father and I see this art piece as positive. I have painted all 44 presidents and I am very interested in this private and public dimension. I think that the energy we project isn’t real but when we are sleeping there’s truth. I believe these presidents are wonderful examples of how this dynamic works.

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