Julia Phillips, installation view of “Failure Detection,” with (left to right): Extruder (#1), 2017, partially glazed ceramics, screws, metal structure, metal pipes, concrete tiles, and lacquer, 86 x 130 x 173 cm.; and Fixator (#2), 2017, partially glazed ceramics, screws, metal structure, and partly glazed ceramic tiles, 177 x 64 x 79 cm. Photo: Kris Graves, Courtesy MoMA PS1

Julia Phillips

New York


Julia Phillips’s minimally expressed and disturbing works suggest isolated body parts placed in conjunction with elements that evoke instruments of torture or at least cold mechanics. Her formal language is not easily placed within any specific context, yet it implies that the technology for healing has turned frighteningly destructive. Her disparate fragments of things—thin metal pipes, dark tiles, and body parts like the pelvis—don’t really cohere; instead, they create a dissonance that feels medically driven. Indeed, the metaphor governing Phillips’s work may well have to do with references to a dysfunctional corporeal existence—even if we never see a body—while the presence of other, clearly disagreeable objects, such as drains and unidentified implements, encourages dystopian interpretation.

Whatever the motivations behind these strange but affecting sculptures, they are clearly skewed toward a sense of violence, both physical and metaphysical. In Drainer (2018), a dark ceramic cast of a pelvis hangs from the ceiling over a long, narrow steel drain. Exact meaning may be elusive, but the ambience is forbidding, bizarre, and aggressive. Most of the pieces in “Failure Detection” presented genuinely macabre emanations reinforced by troubling associations with industry, exercise, and torture. The distinctive unease stems from Phillips’s deliberate use of fragments; her sculptures consistently communicate a desire to provoke through their inherent disarray and the implied necrosis of their materials.

In Extruder (#1) (2017), a steel apparatus of some sort is installed on a floor of large, partially glazed tiles. Two shapeless black masses cling to the armature, which is accompanied by an instrument resembling an oversize corkscrew. Phillips expertly invokes a general feeling of distress and pain, intimating rather than explaining. Scene I (2018), a low-relief, glazed-tile wall installation, reveals a black inchoate mass—much like a stain with an actual physical presence—rising from the surface to spread into almost figural blotches and smears that leave the impression of a body. As in Phillips’s other works, this vague but menacing imagery overwhelmingly suggests that something strange and hostile has taken place. It is hard not to think of violent death.

Manipulator (2016–18) consists of five unrecognizable tools hanging from a rack attached to the wall. Seeming more than a little like handmade instruments of torture, these objects (usually with rounded edges) give the sense that they serve a purpose more or less inimical to kind relations. Phillips makes no effort to please or comfort; these implements trigger deep anxieties made worse by our inability to identify their precise function. They are accessories to monstrous rituals, the specifics of which are unavailable. Phillips is an artist not so much of form as of mood—the intimacy of these pieces derives from their ability to touch our most perturbing concern—mortality. Phillips makes it clear that death, or its devices, can lead to work that stays in the mind not because of its aesthetic allure but because of its capacity to disturb.