We had the good fortune of connecting with Ashton Phillips and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Ashton, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
In 2015, I made the incredibly risky decision to stop practicing law, in order to pursue a full-time art practice. I had just recovered from a health scare that required surgery and left me with partial facial paralysis. My partner and I were also expecting our first child. In retrospect, the coincidence of these events forced me to examine what I wanted out of the rest of my life and how I wanted to be in the world, as a person and a father. I felt my own mortality in a very concrete way, at the same time that I felt the immense promise and bounty of renewed life. And, somehow, I knew that the world would find a way to nourish me on this path. It hasn’t been a straight or linear journey, but I wouldn’t trade it. And, I know none of the rich experiences I’ve had as an artist – my first solo show, my first museum acquisition, or my first public art commission – could have been possible without jumping off that initial dramatic cliff. So, I’d say that I’ve experienced how liberating and empowering it can be to embrace the unknown and honor our internal wisdom, even when that wisdom doesn’t sound particularly rational. But, I also know I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to pursue this path, and the road owes as much to the people who’ve believed in me and challenged me along the way, as it does to that initial decision.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Since relocating to Los Angeles from New Mexico in 2019, I have been working with urban dirt, urban space, and discarded or obsolete artifacts of contemporary life as my primary materials. I work directly in the ground in site-specific installations, constructing negative sculptures in the land and marking the extraction sites with reflective surfaces and mineral pigments. The excavated dirt is, then, combined with local water, sand, fibers and lime to create a glue or body that binds objects and materials gathered from the surrounding area together into complex, non-representational forms. When possible, I test the excavated dirt to determine its contaminants. This testing allows me to seed contaminated sculptures with the material of their own remediation, including bio-remediating fungi and plant spores. Critically, the promise of repair held in this dormant life depends on the disintegration of the form and the future dispersal of its components into an environment capable of supporting life. This work is a meditation on the cyclical and interdependent nature of all physical things – a way of considering and experiencing how everything is in a constant state of “becoming” and “unbecoming.” This material performance is supported by a cast of materials gathered from my immediate surroundings: discarded limbs and branches from a neighbor’s tree, the dirt underfoot, scraps of leather from a nearby leatherworkers’ studio, chunks of broken asphalt from the adjacent parking lot, kelp harvested by hand from the nearest beach, forgotten toys, worn out textiles, obsolete electronics. I empathize with these contaminated, broken, and unwanted things. And, I recognize them as fragments within a dynamic material ecology that includes my body. And, the viewer’s. In addition to working with these materials in real space, I also use sound and video to examine, dissect, and merge fragments of the material ecology. These time-based media allow me to incorporate additional materials and processes into my formal vocabulary, like flowing water and billowing steam, and to collaborate with living organisms, like earthworms, as they emerge from and submerge into the ground. Sound and video also allow me to work with time, movement, and my own body in new ways that feel especially fitting for this seemingly endless period of isolation and waiting. My path to this practice has been windy. I began as an oil painter, interested in the land and the experience of communing with a particular site, as I worked within it. Illustrating the particular imagery of a site was never very important to me. But, the process of observing, sensing, and engaging with the site was essential. As I developed this practice, I became more and more aware of how wounded the land around me and the humans within it were. I could no longer look out into the landscape and see only beauty. Increasingly, I looked out and saw a complex web of human and ecological trauma. In 2018, I was commissioned to complete a 170 foot mural in front of a solar power company in Albuquerque, NM. This work, “Helios Rising”, helped coalesce my thinking about my practice and purpose. Working outside under the harsh desert sun, in a parking lot sandwiched between an interstate and the company’s headquarters, I became intensely aware of the sun’s power to both destroy and save us. I see a similar dynamic in the post-industrial dirt I am working with now, except the powerful force that can save or destroy us is humanity itself. I was given the opportunity to explore this dynamic in a recent show at the Torrance Art Museum, “Rewilding Structures,” curated by Hope Ezcurra. I’m particularly excited about the “Catch and Release” series I put together for this show, which incorporates video, sculpture, and installation to evoke both the threat of destruction and the possibilities of repair present in this moment. My path has not always been easy, but it has been rich. Along the way, I’ve learned to accept that my work is not “for” everyone. That it is not meant to be “understood,” but felt. And, that it is stronger and more alive in its ambiguity, provisionality, and openness. I’ve also learned some lessons about myself and how I want to be in the world from the objects I make. Through making vulnerable, but potent, things, for example, I’ve learned to find and trust the strength of my own vulnerability.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
The Sunken City in San Pedro is a very interesting – almost mythic – place that conveys so much of the beauty and precarity of present day Los Angeles. It’s not a particularly safe place to visit, since it is the abandoned site of a major landslide, but I think it holds a lot of lessons as we think through our relationship with the planet in the wake of the pandemic. The nearby cliffside tide pools on the Palos Verdes Peninsula are also magical at low tide. I took my SLR camera with me on the last visit and came away with hundreds of photographs of fossilized rocks and minerals, geological formations, and tiny sea creatures. The San Pedro fish market is also a fun, casual spot for lunch in a post-CoVid future, if you like seafood and watching giant container ships float by. On another day, I’d recommend a show at the California African American Museum, with a walk through the Expo Rose Garden and the Natural History Museum’s outdoor space, followed by lunch at the nearby Mercado La Paloma. Mark Bradford’s Art + Practice in Leimart Park, the artist-run spaces in the Bendix Building, and the ICA – Los Angeles in the Arts District are also some personal favorites for art shows and talks.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Yes, I’d like to dedicate this to my fierce, loyal, and brilliant spouse, Laura Figueroa – Phillips. I am forever lucky to have her as my collaborator and co-pilot on this adventure.
Other: Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/user118309797
Justin William Galligher, Torrance Art Museum