Joel Daniel Phillips’ Disarming Portraits Look at the Frayed Edge of San Francisco’s Social Fabric

May 25, 2016 1:02AM

Countless artists, writers, and filmmakers have tried—sometimes successfully—to capture the particular charm and energy of the City by the Bay. But few have taken the route of Joel Daniel Phillips, whose depictions of San Francisco’s human side are now on view in “Belongings,” a solo show at Hashimoto Contemporary, also in San Francisco.

Phillips’ renderings of city life are far from idealized. His subjects are real residents of his neighborhood—the men and women he encounters around 6th and Mission, where his home and studio are located. Forget about catching a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge or a glowing sunset over the bay—these aren’t glamour shots. In large-format, hyper-realistic style, Phillips portrays his subjects in charcoal and graphite on paper. Many of the men and women are homeless or impoverished, captured here against empty white space.

In excising the setting and visual details of the street corner, Phillips emphasizes the humanness and dignity of people who tend to blend into the background. And that’s not just the homeless population, but all kinds of city dwellers who, for one reason or another, seem to have found themselves on the fringe. Through his portraiture, “the subjects cease to be dark matter in our communal space,” Phillips has said, “and instead are revealed to be the main characters in their own narrative.”

These narratives, and their stars, have been exhibited many times at Hashimoto Contemporary, mainly as part of a group show or at art fairs in the gallery booth. But “Belongings,” his second solo show with the gallery, sees Phillips making his own star turn. And as the show name suggests, the artist serves up many of his latest portraits with a conceptual twist. Four of the new works are diptychs: portraits paired with solitary objects that serve as extensions of the character.

There’s the punk-ish woman and her patched leather jacket in Alex and Alex’s Coat, and the blanketed, bedraggled man and his out-of-place ski helmet in Spaceman #7 and Spaceman’s Helmet (both 2016). Alex you might offhandedly identify as a bohemian-goth-hipster-feminist; Spaceman looks like the guy you might see people crossing the street to avoid. Neither is a typical subject for fine art. As Phillips has said, they’re the people “we bypass on the sidewalk and don’t make eye contact with because we don’t know how to respond.”

And then there’s the surprising Billy #5 and Billy’s Orchid (2016). A delicate potted orchid is about the last object you’d expect to see in his belongings—and that’s what makes the juxtaposition so powerful. “It is the capturing of the vulnerable, un-invented narratives that make us human,” Phillips has said. “Seeing and understanding these is my ultimate goal.”

—Bridget Gleeson

Joel Daniel Phillips: Belongings” is on view at Hashimoto Contemporary, San Francisco, May 5–28, 2016.

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