Both films will be played on a giant mobile video screen floating through the center of Venice as part of “Commercial Break,” presented by the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture during the Venice Biennale.
We spoke with Phillips on the eve of the premiere:
A still from "Sasha Grey"
Sasha and Lindsey are two provocative women, why did you choose them?
I think that they’re both at really important turning points in their young careers. And each for very, very different reasons. But insofar that they are turning points, what I wanted both of my films to really explore was positive trajectory of what their potentials really are, away from what the media has portrayed them and away from what society generally heaps on top of them, obviously for really different reasons and different contexts.
What was it about Sasha, in particular?
Sasha, in five short years, in her adult performance—which I’m using the term that she calls it—literally conquered the international adult performance world. She has shown this clear intention to move into her artwork and film with Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience and with her work on Entourage, both of which I thought were really sensational and really showed her potential as an upcoming actress. I was really inspired by that in the sense that here’s someone who’s at the top of her game in one profession and is deciding to make this important transition at a really young age into a different form of art. And I thought that is a really inspiring message that I want to look at in a really positive way.
It is beautiful, but also haunting and a little sad. What were you trying to convey?
I think that there is a kind of a gravitas in a way. In the adult performance film, rarely do you see that side of Sasha. Or even in the way Soderbergh portrayed her, there were hints of that, but what we wanted to do was not have this film have any relationship to the adult world. We wanted to look at the dramatic potential of her and her acting as an autonomous experience. One that in a way surveys her circumstances but then projects much more. Has a more psychological portent in looking at the psychological consequences, or at least psychologically of what has come before.
Though she still exudes this sexuality.
Absolutely. She is one of the brightest and most articulate exponents that I’ve ever heard about sexuality today. She is very, I guess the term would be ‘pro sex’, the term used in certain forms of art. She is, in any of her performances and in anything she has written or spoken about, is empowered by sexuality and definitely has made an extraordinary impact on the world with it.
A still from "Sasha Grey"
How did the collaboration come to be?
We were introduced by a friend and talked about collaborating in some form, although it wasn’t a specific form. Film wasn’t discussed. It really had much more to do with painting. We had a dialogue back and forth about where that possibly might go. For me, using the reference point of the Godard’s Contempt and Bergman’s Persona were in a sense grounding points for both films though they had very different results. I think that that is something that Sasha responded to differently. I think those more emotional projections that come from Sasha’s performance, that sadness or gravitas, was part of the discussion we had about being in a consequential point in one’s life where the decision to live within one’s art, there is sacrifice, there are challenges that are involved within that, and it does get expressed in sometimes more serious terms.
Why video rather than one of your iconic paintings?
This is a really important point. The last show I did in London, titled "Most Wanted," were appropriations of red carpet images of kind of the world’s most sought after celebrities. They were red carpet appropriations that showed them in front of commercial backdrops. In that sense I was thinking that art had reached this point that it was necessary for a celebrity endorsement and a luxury brand for it to be art at all. In that way, they were minimal paintings that just addressed their own self-necessity. So with these films, I was trying to really move past that. I felt like I really bottomed out that type of logic and I really wanted to look at what’s behind all of this and people with real experiences going through transformations with their lives. And I think that it was an extraordinary opportunity to explore a post-appropriation type of artwork in a sense, where I felt like I reached an endpoint with appropriation, it needed to be a content that was connected to individuals and this transformational state, which, in a sense, I felt like I was going through too by making the decision to renounce appropriation.
What was the song in the background?
In both films, the music is done by women that are the same age as the two actors that are in the film, which was important to me as a part of the experience of looking at them. In Sasha’s film, it’s this song called "Moses" by Chelsea Wolfe, this young dark folk musician. Her album called The Grime and The Glow has been very, very inspirational to me as has Tamaryn’s The Waves. It was the soundtrack to the other film. Music to me is very, very important in both films, but in Sasha’s it takes an even more important role in that if you follow the lyrics and then follow the precise emotions or movements that are happening within the film, there are these oppositions that are set up. When she says, “I can’t,” you see Sasha in the position of straightening her sweater and it’s very much “I can,” or when it says, “It’s heavy,” she’s lightly putting her hand on the glass of the door. So there are not only spiraling visual narratives or micro narratives going on within the film but also a relationship to what Chelsea is singing. Not coincidentally, Sasha is also a musician and her band is on the same label as Chelsea’s, though I still don’t think they know yet that the two are joined together. I’m sure they’ll be happy to find out.
"Sasha Grey" by Richard Phillips
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While Vanessa Prager's resume says "No formal education," for the 26-year-old painter, illustrator, and younger sister of photographer Alex Prager, artistic blood clearly runs in the family. Vanessa started painting at 19, had her first show in 2003 and has been wooing the art world with her unique works ever since, even garnering a recent commission from Shepard Fairey. "...It's exciting to see how she has developed her own unique voice," says Alex. "Her pictures now are super psychedelic. They feel like the 1940s mixed with Blade Runner and Mad Max."
Vanessa's paintings and Bic ballpoint pen drawings will be on display together for the first time for one night only at the ADBD gallery in Los Angeles on June 2. So, on the heels of her show, the sisters (who live together in Silverlake with their dog, Jake) sat down to talk building forts as kids, first paintings, sisterly collaboration and eating vegan:
Vanessa Prager's Smoke, 2011, oil on linen
Alex: Okay, when did you start painting and why?
Vanessa: When I was 19. Seriously, sometimes I can't even believe all the years I spent without! Remember I was really bad at drawing when I was younger?
A: I wouldn't say really bad!
V: Yeah it was bad, really stiff and I was trying so hard to get it right but it just wasn't. I used to sit next to mom while she drew faces and I couldn't for the life of me figure it out. Not until I was 16 did I even start to draw with any skill.
A: Well, we used to act when we were kids--it paid our way through some of our private schooling.
V: Yeah, but I wouldn't say those commercials I did took an artist's touch. My talents more lied in building forts, drawing with that neon puffy glue on t-shirts and using that crazy device that let you draw tons of ellipses in a big circle over and over again. We built the best forts in history out of that brown couch by the way.
A: Yeah, that was fun. Well, what was the first painting you ever made?
V: I did my first painting when we lived in that apartment on Beachwood. Technically I was okay. I got caught at his hands, it just kind of fades out there.
A: Why did you start painting?
V: Mainly because I wanted to work bigger and use more color than my pencils would allow. After using straight graphite for a while I tried colored pencil and oil pastels, but it wasn't good enough. Someone suggested oils, I think it was you!
Paintings by Vanessa Prager
A: Alright, tell me something I wouldn't expect that has inspired your art.
V: You must suspect... but electronics from anytime before the 90's, especially ones that emit light. Old televisions especially, and things like clock radios, computers, toasters. They have this weird deadened kind of life about them, as if they have numbed personalities, you know?
“Let’s head to the bar,” said one woman to her husband upon entering.
“That’s exactly what I need,” he said.
“Where did you get that Bellini?” queried Bettina Zilkha to the designers Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs.
The girls had gotten theirs from a bar hidden at the end of a long, snaking red carpet and step and repeat.
“It’s your reward for doing the line,” joked Cushnie.
Only one lady seemed timid about her beverage choice.
“Not with the drink, it’s very tacky!” she trilled at a photographer as he tried to snap her picture.
From left: Courtney Love and Mario Testino; Yaz Hernandez and Josh Hartnett
She was clearly the only one with such an attitude—at an event like this, how could anyone be embarrassed about having a wee bit of a good time? In the side room off the main dining area, Carolyn Murphy, Gucci Westman, Fe Fendi, Crystal Renn, Arlenis Sosa, John Legend and a phalanx of editors mixed with many feather bedecked ladies, one of whom declared to her conversation partner, “I am the Pisco sour lady, the president of Pisco sour,” before handing the woman her card, offering her a “Pisco tour” of New York City. The festivities had even drawn a hermit-like Josh Hartnett, fresh off a movie shoot in India, out of his anti-social haze.
“I wasn’t in this sort of realm at all and I wouldn’t be out for anybody else,” he said of Testino. “He’s very easy to shoot with, he makes the experience like a party.”
A few steps above him in a quasi VIP area, Kate Winslet (who snuck in unnoticed, skipping the red carpet) chatted with Anna Wintour, Carine Roitfeld and Stephen Gan had a tete a tete, Prabal Gurung posed with Joan Smalls for photos and the man of the hour Testino seemed to still be recovering from the rigors of the red carpet.
“I just did one hour in that line,” he said apologetically as he ducked any questions. “I need a drink.”
The gong had already rung for dinner, so he popped behind the vacant bar and poured himself an inch or two on the rocks.
The evening’s speeches were briskly delivered as guests ate their goat cheese and beets appetizers at baroquely romantic tables, bedecked with long high, candelabras and lush roses.
The El Museo del Barrio chair Tony Bechara, introduced Gala chairs Alex Gonzalez and Yaz Hernandex, who related how Gonzalez had brought up Testino to her a year ago after a gala which had honored Placido Domingo.
“But he’s Italian, why would we honor him?” she recalled telling him (El Museo del Barrio, in case it wasn’t evident from the name, is a Latino organization). “He told me, “He’s Peruvian, though he may look Italian sometimes.’”
Winslet then took to the podium to speak about Testino.
From left: Donatella Versace; Kate Winslet, Valentin and Yaz Hernandez
“Kate Middleton and Kate Moss weren’t available, so I’m afraid you’re stuck with this Kate,” she said self-deprecatingly, saying of Testino, “We know he will talk us into doing absolutely anything for him. And why? Because we trust him. Not only because he is capable of surrounding himself with beautiful assistants who help keep us focused. So when he says ‘It’s beautiful, but it would be better naked, no?’ How can one say no?”
“Well first of all, it’s not my fault that all the people born in England are Kate,” countered Testino as accepted his Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award. “People think it’s funny that I cast for assistants. But I do. I think it’s very important to have good-looking people around me. Then the girl feels beautiful.”
One such girl is Donatella Versace, who admitted she had been seduced by Testino’s charms seven years ago on a shoot.
“He makes me go in my house and stand up in the bathtub in all my clothes,” she said. “I never thought I would do such a thing, but with Mario, he makes you do anything.”
Photos: Neil Rasmus/ BFA
Patti, 2011. Color pencil on paper.
Isa (Isa Genzken 1980), 2010. Oil on panel.
Elizabeth Peyton at Gagosian Gallery, 4 rue de Ponthieu, Paris. May 27 — July 28.
All works © Elizabeth Peyton. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery
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