For the past 40 years, Phyllis Green has questioned the nature of objects and their social context, using a wide range of materials—video, fiberglass, steel, concrete polymer, wood, textiles, polyurethane foam—and fabrication techniques such as hand construction, sewing, and digital milling. Her interest in the surface of things is yoked to a deeper interest in metaphorical content. Deploying odd juxtapositions and widely diverse sources, her work draws on popular culture, Asian art history, ceramic history, and fashion, tipsily negotiating a path between the look of a thing and its meaning. Peruvian vessels, Hindu shrines, Chinese tables, Amelia Earhart, and clothing all bear deeper meaning and carry pointed messages about the female body, consumerism, and notions of spirituality. Green’s polymorphously perverse and experimental thinking counters art historical assumptions regarding gender and culture, while her pun-making, glittering, and whimsical imagery acts as a shadow-screen for the serious and profound.
Kay Whitney: How do you perceive your job as an artist?
Phyllis Green: My work has always been concerned with the personal, cultural, and political, as well as the contrasts between the world of consumerism and the immaterial worlds of belief. I’ve worked to define what it means to be an artist, mainly dealing with issues of identity. My work is non-formal and idiosyncratic, very distant from Modernism and Post-Modernism. I view myself as an outsider making work that engages tangentially with current dialogues around issues of identity.
KW: Much of your work seems concerned with issues relating to feminism and femininity. What do you see as the conceptual through-line in your work? Who and what have been your most consistent influences?
PG: There were two big changes, nearly 40 years apart, that influenced my work. The first, in the ’70s, was feminism and consciousness-raising, which really made my head spin. Feminism emphasized the idea that “the personal is political,” and consciousness-raising changed how I thought about art. Before then, I would have said that art was about making pretty things, with nice colors. It wasn’t until I thought about my work in the context of my personal life that I realized I could make art that supported a particular way of looking at the world.
For me, the core of feminist art is the idea that your work reveals your personality and place in the world. My work is based on the notion of “women’s work” and the use of female-identified techniques coming from craft and craft materials. My work is extremely labor intensive, related to ideas about “domesticity,” and it also makes reference to the female body.
KW: At what point did you start making the work that most represents your ideas and working methods?
PG: The mid-’90s were a turning point for me. Until then, I was still influenced by Modernism. By ’93, I decided that my work had gotten too big and heavy, so I redeployed the feminist-inspired, subverting notion that craft is women’s work. I decided to make work that was as decorative as possible—lay on all the frills, be anti-“less is more”—and that was when a kind of intimate personality came out. The pieces were playful as opposed to humorous. I instantly loved making them. That’s also when I rediscovered clay. I then decided that since I was using clay again, why not go back to using glazes?
KW: In what ways did you engage feminist notions?
PG: Feminism showed itself in my techniques. I loved to sew as a teen. I still had my Kenmore sewing machine, and I could make ruffles, ornamental bits, and pillows, and then combine them with the clay pieces. All of my work referred to the female body: organs, body parts, protuberances. I started thinking about what I had experienced in my life—fashions, certain heroines of mine, and how these things link to time periods. Thinking about old movies and cartoons, I started a series of hairdo/wig pieces. My favorite is L12 (Duchamp Party) in which I re-created an approximation of Duchamp’s bottle rack holding a dozen cast ceramic hairdos based on a favorite “do” from the ’60s.
These pieces led to a series based on utilitarian objects from different cultures and eras inspired by my travels. I got interested in how geography is connected to the transmission of certain ideas, and I did a series of pieces based on Peruvian ceramics and another derived from Asian functional objects.
KW: Even though you’ve concentrated on making objects characterized by laborious handwork, this focus has been punctuated several times by your use of digital technology.
PG: In the early 2000s, I got obsessed with Amelia Earhart and made a brief animated film about her that ended with the crash of her plane. This interest initially emerged from the “hairdo” series, but it grew to encompass something bigger—her whole saga, from her life as a pilot and role model for many women to her disappearance in the plane crash. I made a number of objects about her, and that was the first time I began sewing garments. Computer animation is tremendously labor intensive, and I learned on the job. After three digital video projects, I was dying to get my hands into actual stuff.
KW: You mentioned two big influences on your work. What was the second?
PG: My association with the Christopher Isherwood Foundation led me to read My Guru and His Disciple. Isherwood, newly settled in Los Angeles, went to the Hollywood Vedanta Temple for the first time on a certain day in August—so I decided to go on that same day. This inspired the second major change in my work in 2014. Vedanta, which is a spiritual philosophy based on the Vedas (the sacred scriptures of Hinduism), has profoundly shifted how I think about and look at the world.
KW: Do you see yourself as combining Vedanta with pop culture, using it as a metaphor dealing with the spiritual in everyday life?
PG: Definitely, because this makes it palatable. Western religions believe in a dualistic system: here is me, there is God, and we’re separate. In Advaita Vedanta, which I follow, God exists in a non-dualistic system and is part of everything. The goal of life is to realize the god in yourself.
KW: How did this shift in your perception manifest itself?
PG: The first time I started using Vedic-influenced imagery, I focused on a passage that describes the first step toward enlightenment as “walking to a guru with wood on your head.” A whole iconography opened up to me; I was thinking about it in Western ways—how one could carry wood. I made a series of cage-like, wheeled carts where I could get inside and walk around. Each one had a different cloak, with different accessories, and on top of each moveable pedestal was a different representation of a pile of wood. I also made a number of headpieces that used branches and pieces of wood in various ways. These works ultimately led me to performance. Demonstrating the utilitarian aspect of individual pieces recently encouraged me to choreograph an event that included multiple performers engaging with multiple works.
KW: You’re clearly not proselytizing but using these ideas metaphorically.
PG: Absolutely. I’m combining my attitude about fashion, sewing, and the whole idea of clothing with the Vedic notion that we change our lives like we change our clothes. One of the Vedanta gurus said, “In the West, we think we’re a body that contains a soul; in the East, you’re a soul first and then you find a body.”
KW: How closely do the works in your recent exhibition, “Life After Life After Life,” relate to these principles?
PG: Each piece is based on specific Vedic parables and concepts. Tree and Birds (2017), for instance, refers to a Vedic text that describes a tree surrounded by fluttering birds trying to reach the top. The most beautiful bird sits serenely in the top of the tree. In my interpretation, this bird becomes a hat, the crown of an object that is part costume and part sculpture. In Hinduism, there are five layers, or sheaths, of being: the physical, the breath and body systems, mind, intellect, and bliss. These are reflected in Five Sheaths (2017), five pieces of clothing, in representative colors, that hang on branch-like hooks from the ceiling. These “clothes,” sculptures, and surrounding objects are all infused by an awareness of the challenge that spiritual aspirations impose in our turbulent, hate-filled, material culture; they also embody the humor and whimsy that are required, in part, to navigate that world. The green, feather-lined coat reveals the essence of the Vedantic message: “Close your eyes and feel peace. Open them and ask what good you can do in this world.”
This article appears in the March/April issue of Sculpture.