Tom Phillips - Word and image
Rosie Lesso looks at the work of Tom Phillips and finds evidence of a brilliant and restless talent in his illuminated manuscripts at The Dean Gallery
In 1966 the artist Tom Phillips went on a shopping expedition in Peckham, casually looking for a book to play with and adapt. Chance led him to a copy of WH Mallock’s A Human Document, an obscure and relatively forgotten Victorian novel, which the artist later described as a ‘feast of rich and lush vocabulary’. Phillips set about reworking the novel, exhuming a new book from the old one by scoring out passages of text, leaving behind only a few evocative words or sentences and painting imagery around them with ink, watercolour or gouache. The new book, retitled A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, destroyed the narrative of Mallock’s original story, turning it into a kaleidoscopic feast of poetry and art, the ranges of styles within it including cut out comic book shapes, watery, loose abstractions and scrawled linear figures, the colours rich and lavish. Over the many years of its evolution Phillips’ book has achieved cult status as an exemplar of postmodernism, with thousands of copies published in London and New York and sold worldwide. Yet, in spite of this popularity Phillips continues to work on and revise new editions and pages for his work even today.
The Dean Gallery’s current display of selected pages from A Humument in the Gabrielle Keiller Library celebrates both Phillips’ 70th birthday and more than 40 years of engagement with the project, displaying early pages from the book alongside recent revisions. Examining the pages laid out singularly in glass cases forces us to absorb their intricate intensity. One page, for instance, forms a dreamy, abstract blue-green pattern, with beautifully nonsensical words reading, ‘she folded her attention to the carpet, and arrived at impossible music, velvety, like love . . . even the piano listened with admiration.’ Other delightful plays on language include phrases such as, ‘reason under a ruined hat’ and a quiet nod to Samuel Beckett in ‘as years went on, you began to fail better’.
Alongside these pages the curator has thoughtfully laid out a number of other texts which have influenced Phillips’ book. These include William S Burrough’s The Naked Lunch (1959), from whose slicing, non-linear approach to narrative Phillips drew inspiration. Similarly, Francesco Colonna’s Renaissance novel Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: the Strife of Love in a Dream (1499), the first novel to explore stream of consciousness, influenced Phillips’ surreal and disconnected language. Graham Rawle’s playful novel, Woman’s World, is also cited as influence in its cut and paste sentence structure, created entirely from chopped up and reassembled women’s magazines.
The pages on display at the Kieller Library are intense and absorbing, yet they reveal merely the tip of Phillips’ prolific creative output. He is also well known as a painter of large abstract paintings and intricate portraits along with his work as a writer, composer, theatre designer, art critic and Royal Academician; here we are given but a tantalising glimpse into the workings of his brilliant and restless mind.
Tom Phillips: A Humument, Dean Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 6 Jan 2008.