In The Studio: John Phillip Abbott’s Choice Words

Occupying a small space in the long-since vacant, historic El Sol Theatre in downtown Silver City, New Mexico, John Phillip Abbott’s second floor studio is made immediately recognizable by the makeshift spray booth on the wall just outside his front door. Inside, I found him busy packing work for two solo exhibitions opening the same weekend in January: Turquoise Sunset at Devening Projects + Editions in Chicago, and On Any Sunday at Pierogi Gallery in New York. While the work that comprises On Any Sunday is a continuation of his familiar geometrically abstract text and word paintings, Turquoise Sunset marks the beginning of a newer, slightly more experiential body of work that has Abbott revisiting his approach to painting. Claude Smith, Albuquerque/Santa Fe Contributor


John Phillip Abbott |
Cosmos, 2015, spray paint on canvas, 36 x 30 inches; image courtesy the artist

“Tennis,” “Cosmos,” “Pontiac,” “Zen,” and “Fortuna” are some of the words that find their way into Abbott’s compositions; diaristic words that create an association to past experience and memory. While they often have deeply personal meanings, their ambiguity leaves room for multiple interpretations. Take Cosmos, a word neatly bisected and stacked within the pictorial plane, the letters C, M, S, and S clearly legible along the margins of the composition, yet the shared O expands upward across the center of canvas like a gaping void or portal that swallows the viewer’s attention. “I was obsessed with the New York Cosmos soccer team,” Abbott confessed, “So initially the cosmos paintings began as a reference to that, but over time, the meaning began to shift, taking on a more literal reference.” Two other versions of Cosmos also appear in his exhibition at Pierogi, each offering completely different stylistic approaches to the same word, an experience a bit like having the same conversation with three different people. The black on black Tennis combines a mix of satisfyingly clever geometry comprised of measured right triangles and straight lines, a composition that plays with perception and legibility. In White Pontiac, he constructs the composition using wood relief overlaid against a painted backdrop, a decidedly humble approach that humorously contradicts the thought of Abbott racing around in his first car, a sporty Pontiac Fierro. 


John Phillip Abbott |
Cosmos, 2015, spray paint on canvas, 36 x 30 inches; image courtesy the artist


John Phillip Abbott |
White Pontiac, 2015, spray paint, acrylic and wood on canvas, 48 x 40 inches; image courtesy the artist

Other words like “Buddy Holly” have made regular appearances in Abbott’s paintings for years, an association with a memory which he recognizes as being one of the most formative of his childhood. When he was 10 or 11 he recalls one instance of being approached by several of his mom’s teacher friends who asked him to draw some posters for their classrooms. “I was making drawings of these Disney characters and it was really the first time I experienced that time lapse of being so engrossed in work that nothing else mattered,” Abbott told me. “I’d just be up until like 2am listening to Buddy Holly’s greatest hits making these posters and I really just fell in love with that process.” For Abbott, Buddy Holly has become a mediation of that space that encompasses the best part of being an artist: the joy of creating. 

Abbott relocated back to Silver City in 2013 with his wife Stacey Heim (an accomplished artist in her own right) from Albuquerque–a decision he credits to the allure of small town living and its “off the beaten path feel,” something he previously experienced while working on his undergraduate degree there in the late 90s. “It’s beautiful here and very inspiring in that way, being so close to the Gila Wilderness I like to think it has a kind of Black Mountain type influence,” he said. After taking a job teaching painting and drawing at Western New Mexico University, it didn’t take long for the relaxed small town vibe to work its way into his work.


John Phillip Abbott |
Tennis, 2015, Spray paint on canvas, 24 x 20 inches; image courtesy the artist


John Phillip Abbott |
10, 2015, Spray paint on canvas, 12 x 10 inches; image courtesy the artist

Embracing more of a casualist impulse, the work that comprises Turquoise Sunset is decidedly looser, more organic and leverages discovery and the unexpected. For this reason Abbott refers to these paintings as “found” rather than made. Beginning with a large raw, un-stretched canvas, he begins by indexing his thoughts through mark making, staining and dispersing pigment across the surface, eventually mining out a composition. “I just wanted to get back to thinking about what painting can be and do, so for me that meant introducing more variables like working at different speeds, applications of paint, wet and dry, diffused line or hard edge.” While Abbott’s older work is very much grounded in construction and purposeful decision-making, he acknowledges his recent paintings are a response–perhaps even, a reaction to that. Even his word usage, “Zen” and “Fortuna” suggest a lightness, a carefree mentality and humor that comes with life in the Southwest.


John Phillip Abbott |
On Any Sunday, 2015, spray paint on canvas, 12 x 10 inches; image courtesy the artist

Although momentum around his work has been steadily building for several years, Abbott isn’t in a big hurry to trade the slow place of a small New Mexican town for a bustling art center. “If New York was affordable I’d probably be there in a heartbeat,” he says with a laugh, “But out here you really can’t beat the cost of living, quality of life and the space and time to get things done.”

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John Phillip Abbott received his MFA from the University of Wisconsin in 2007 and a BFA from Western New Mexico University. The primary focus of his work has been exploring the relationship between text and image. John Phillip Abbott lives and works in Silver City, New Mexico USA. Recent exhibitions include I Shall Be Free No.10, a solo-exhibition at Galerie Bertrand in Geneva, Switzerland, group shows at Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn, NY and Geoffrey Young Gallery in Great Barrington, MA. Abbott was also included in This One’s Optimistic: Pincusion at the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, CT, curated by Cary Smith as well as PRTY PPL at Circuit 12 in Dallas, TX, curated by Josh Reames.

Claude Smith is an Albuquerque-based arts administrator, curator and writer.  

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