Philip Bakala and Emily Wilker are studio neighbors at Vulpes Bastille in the East Crossroads. They have a longstanding relationship with one another’s studio practices, as they met freshman year at KCAI. The conversation between these two artists has long developed into challenging one another and pushing subject matter. In opposition to the speed of our lives, Bakala and Wilker have co-curated their landscapes — of observed and fictional spaces — into a conversation in Home & Away.
I spoke with both artists together about their shared love for landscape painting in which each takes a divergent approach.
Emily Wilker: Phil and I met in 2009, “Freshman Friday” I am sure. We became friends immediately.
Philip Bakala: We were in studio together freshman year, and while we were in the same major, we never were in the same major studio classroom together. This didn’t stop us working together and working off of each other still.
EW: We were always hanging out. Myself, Phil, and Andrew (Ordonez) we have always been kind of a trio in our collaborations. That has continued. We became roommates.
Melaney Mitchell: All three of you?
EW: Oh no, let me clarify, Phil and I became roommates and then studio mates here at Vulpes Bastille.
PB: We have been here almost a year. This exhibition came about when we realized we both were working in modes of landscape.
MM: Can you talk about that a little? The idea of working from the landscape?
EW: I personally work from landscape as a way for me to keep my hand busy while trying to figure out what to do. And Phil was working on responding to his trip to Ireland.
PB:The way that it came about for me related to this very new landscape work. This year has been big, it started with an exhibition at Kiosk Gallery of older work in January of 2017. I have been thinking a lot about that work and returning to past projects, pulling them back out and looking at them.
We both had work that was older and in progress before we had the spaces here, we worked in a large bedroom in our shared apartment.
EW: The mutual interest in landscape came naturally. We have always been receptive to one another.
PB: I feel like I have learned a lot about the way Emily paints, thinking about color and composition, the possibilities that are available with a medium like paint.
MM: So your practice, Emily, seems to be talking about how observation and the landscape is a way to keep yourself busy. I am curious to know what practices you have to keep yourself busy?
EW: Working in plein air, I am working directly from the environment. That practice for me is an insanely meditative practice and I say meditative super intentionally. Going out and painting is more of a reflection on my environment, what I’m seeing, and my reactions. I am trying to objectively experience reality. It is my attempt to be out there and respond and not necessarily have a center focus of a specific focus. Some turn out ugly, some turn out beautiful, but it is important to have the action of doing those paintings.
MM: Your old work, as I remember it, was very sculptural.
EW: My other practices are very reactive and fundamental. I work often with sculpture but always focus on moving color from the 2-D to the 3-D. This exhibition was a sort of culmination of that practice for me. I don’t see a differentiation for me between painting and sculpture. I am using latex paint as a sculptural element.
PB: That becomes really visible with the works that are more collage based because its acting in a 2-D way but it reads up close as a very physical object.
EW: Right, that painting in particular is a study off of Vuillard. Creating a landscape that I couldn’t quite comprehend. I took on something to use for challenging and complicating my imagery a little bit.
MM: Phil, I am personally familiar with your own work that deals a lot with media and the filters through which we experience mass media and things like fashion advertising. This new work is really quiet, so i am interested in you talking about that departure.
PB: It came to a head a while ago. The example I have is of Malin Head in Donegal, Ireland. I was working from photographs I had taken of these places. Back in 2014, I was thinking a lot about why I have been working from photos. A lot of my paintings back in undergrad were reliant on the images as a source
MM: They were very Rauchenberg-esque. That’s why I liked them!
PB: Yeah, but that painting was me trying to get out of the box I put myself into. As far as exercises that keep me busy I would just start copying a photograph and landscapes seemed like a good place to start. There is a lot of room to translate marks and find a way to train myself in other ways. I realized through this that maybe the direct photo reference was not a good thing for me. That segwayed into this work. Malin Head is one of the only pieces using a photographic source. I have some collage works in here, but I have been trying to break that boundary.
MM: It is interesting because Emily, you’re coming at this from a point of the body as mediator between your mind and the landscape, and Phil, you’re looking at it as the photograph is mediative source. It is interesting when you look at the conversations happening visually here. The relationship that Phil has with color is something that I instantaneously, go back to your work. Gucci-or-Miu-Miu-style, maximalist use of color, whereas Emily, yours is feeling very quiet and contemplative.
I am curious to know how you were curating the show you were making color-specific considerations?
EW: That is it! It really came down to color relationships and intuition when building the show.
MM: Speaking of color Phil, are you interested in talking about your performative practices? I get that sensibility from the way you are applying paint and selecting color.
PB: Yeah! Definitely, color and the expressiveness. When I started to get into drag a lot more it put my visual art making practice on hold for a moment. I was exploring things in life that I was aspiring to in paintings. That was what my obsession with utilizing the imagery of fashion photography stemmed from. I really wanted to live out these images that I loved.
When I finally did come back to painting, I had all of these half finished projects and I was thinking about process so much differently. The color became really important and the intensity of it as how it relates to expressing our range of emotions. Having an outlet for all of that subjective information was really important.
MM: The color you use is so bright that it brings the work almost to a place of fantasy, bringing it to a near fictional realm.
EW: Phil’s use of color, reminds me of those moments that are so fleeting in the landscape. If you were to try and capture them in paint, you would have to make giant color decisions in seconds because they are so specific to the light sources during storms, sunrise, and sunset. That really relates to the immediacy of being in an environment. When I am responding through paint, I am working through my mind rather than a specific photographic reference. But I think in these cases, it’s important in Phil’s work. The direct source with this, the light and color relationships capture such a specific time. Its responding to the beauty of technology, how else could you capture the color.
MM: That also gets to the point where – in defense of the photo – you can capture it and potentially replicate it.
PB: That is really my fascination with photography because on one hand it doesn’t seem quite the same as our eyes, but it gives you enough of a momento to save for later. I keep coming back to photos and reconsider what the resonance of that moment was. At the time I was travelling in Ireland, I didn’t have a proper cell phone and I had to take a disposable camera.
MM: Did the technological limitations make you more decisive with what you were going to capture?
PB: That’s a good question! I think so! I bought two or three and it was really hard to ration images. Where as with my smartphone I have thousands of images that I can take at any given moment. There is something that is more banal about that
EW: I don’t know how many times I am on site painting on the blue river and I’m like “Oh i’ve gotta go eat dinner, I’m gonna take some pictures and finish this up later” Yet the depth perception is never the same. Even though I need glasses, the photographs just don’t reconcile the original perception. Its broken, and not the same.
MM: Right, it flattens the horizontal perspective. Which is counterintuitive to the way we live now, we’re experiencing things no longer from one point but fragmented with our in our lived and digital experiences. Yet, that’s how we get to the beautiful things that call for our attention.e
EW: Honestly, we are addicted to our phones and to that digital experience. For me as an artist, getting a studio again, being in nature painting is reconnecting me to why I did this in the first place. I’m reconnecting with five-year-old Emily’s desire to retain information and take in new perspectives.
PB: It is very much experience related, you’re experiencing and making at the same time. Yet in your more sculptural and collage work you are responding to the memory of your experience.
MM: So with that, im curious for you to both talk about your relationship to simulation. That idea of trying to recreate an experience.
PB: I think there is being an artist and having our training it is something that I take for granted, my ability to paint and create a world. I have the ability to simulate something that is not there or not really based in the real world.
EW: My simulation of space and time mostly comes from my manipulation of color. I would like to portray or give you a representation of space but I want to give this grounding portrayal of a specific time, like when a tornado is on the horizon. That strange moment of pink and green foreboding in nature is something everyone can relate to in the midwest. I want to connect to that vibrant feeling with color and allow that to resonate with my viewers. I want color to be an emotion instead of being a representational tool. Because I manipulate one color, I’m going to manipulate all of them. I can change relationships and make them into something else.
Corey Antis has been a huge influence to me in figuring out color relationships and the importance of experiencing color through the phenomena of observation. Light is extremely crucial to me.
PB: It’s the root of perceptual painting, giving yourself that permission to explore the world in that way you can take a little piece of the world and create it in a new way. You both keep your skills sharp but it’s just a lovely opportunity.
EW: But it’s also just, there is no reason not to. It is easy for artists to get really cynical in this particular moment in our country. It is a process that is fun to remember how cool it is to learn about light and color and an ongoing process of inquiry.
MM: When all else is going to shit, at least we have little bits of the world that can astound us.
EW: Yes! I have been making all this work and I realize that when I wake up every day, I can’t wait to make time to paint.
PB: I think it is so important to still find beauty in the everyday world, and it can be hard to make yourself open to that. It is a mindset which, if you’re open to receiving, it makes it worthwhile.
EW: The vulnerability is more and more rare.
Home & Away ran from December 8th 2017 through January 26th 2018 at Vulpes Bastille at 1737 Locust St. Kansas City, MO 64108.