Heather Raquel Phillips creates art that brings marginalized identities to the forefront
“(S)Extra: Bait & Switches” is a playful, provocative new exhibit by Heather Raquel Phillips, a local artist whose work focuses on kinksters, queers and people of color, whether cisgender or trans.
Phillips, a former Ms. Philadelphia Leather as well as a lecturer in Penn’s Fine Arts Department, said her work is about breaking down the barriers around social constructs, “representing underrepresented and marginalized identities.” The people depicted in this exhibit are friends.
“(S)Extra” offers a generous sampling of Phillips’ recent work, including photography, videos and what she refers to as objects. Viewers see examples of her “Flagging” series, comprised of pennants, and also her “Non-Binary History of Heels.” Much of the work was completed in the past few months, a fact that lends it an immediate feel.
As amusing and revelatory as those objects are, photography forms the foundation of Phillips’ artistic practice. Eight photos from her “SpeciMan” series are on view. They are extreme closeups focusing on body hair — a recurrent image in her work. In these photos, the lush whorls and thickets of hair appear to symbolize the unruliness of our animal nature.
Elsewhere in “(S)Extra,” body hair might be an object of disgust or sometimes a fetish. It can even be a potent symbol of female power, as in “ManAkin, The Matriarch.” This piece, which hangs on the gallery wall, is constructed from part of a dress form and synthetic hair. In this object, a thick shock of dark hair twisted into a luxurious braid sprouts abundantly from the hot-pink pubic area. It’s an arresting image, beautiful and unsettling.
There are also several photographs from Phillips’ “Reclining Nude” series. These vivid, colorful images simultaneously refer to art history and pop culture. They also toy with ideas such as appearance, reality and looking, especially the male gaze.
In “The Shining (Homage to Scatman Crothers),” a feminine-looking person with a lush Afro is seen kneeling on top of a dark purple bedspread. Her body faces sideways and her head is slightly tilted, as if looking toward viewers. Her posture is neither seductive nor submissive. At first glance, she appears to be naked, but on closer inspection it’s apparent that she’s wearing a “nude” body stocking. It’s just one of the “bait and switches” referred to in the exhibit’s subtitle. That photograph also nods towards Phillips’ videos. Initially, she explained, she was wary of the medium of video. While working on her MFA, however, something clicked. “My subjects were always in a state of performance,” she said. “So somebody challenged me: Why aren’t these moving pictures?”
“(S)Extra” presents three responses to that initial challenge: “Hair Cycle,” “Sextra Curricular Activity” and “Thirst Trap.” They’re all interesting to watch, but “Thirst Trap,” which is projected in a large room and runs almost 35 minutes,
is particularly intriguing. The video is surreal and nonlinear, but it still has a story of sorts, albeit one told primarily via images. What little sound there is comes out slightly out of sync, emphasizing the oddness.
“Thirst Trap” presents an off-kilter world inhabited by eccentric characters, including “adult babies,” a “human pup” and a jaunty fellow in a captain’s hat and yellow ascot. Recognizable locations around Philadelphia add to the feeling that we’re glimpsing an alternate reality, one that exists alongside the so-called straight world, albeit unknown to most.
What will viewers make of this video? Phillips wisely leaves it open-ended, allowing people to form their own opinions.
“To me, that’s what art is for,” she said. “It’s to expand someone’s mind on their own and let them figure out the questions they want to answer and throw up things from their subconscious mind that they want to connect with.”
“(S)Extra” is on display at the James Oliver Gallery, 723 Chestnut St., through June 16. It includes an artist’s talk on May 31. To learn more, visit www.heatheraquelphilllips.com.