Jenny Phillips’ ‘Changes Underfoot’ is abstractionist beauty inspired by everyday life

changes underfoot
Jenny Phillips/Courtesy

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A noisy sidewalk, a shimmering lake, a golden field. With its striking closeness to everyday scenes, Jenny Phillips’ exhibition “Changes Underfoot” will surprise you if you walk into San Francisco’s Inclusions Gallery and expect to see avant-garde abstractionist art.

Her art feels unassuming, resonating and familiar. Her creativity blooms best when she depicts daily and natural subjects, as she skillfully twists and reconstructs them into beautiful abstract lines and planes. In this remaking of reality, she aims to deliver no moralizing lesson to us. Instead, she leads us to notice and appreciate the smallest changes in everyday life that we tend to otherwise dismiss as trivial.

In work akin to Jackson Pollock’s, Phillips often paints her line with splashed watercolor or ink. However, unlike Pollock, she arranges her lines with greater care and patience to create a harmonious image that more closely mirrors than subverts real-life images. Her piece “Sidewalk Arrangement,” for example, leaves much of the canvas empty and white as if the pedestrian sidewalk is covered with morning snow. But on top of such muted planes, thin dancing lines become more conspicuous to the eyes. The lines twist and extend in different directions, often in a variety of colors such as pink, brown and dark blue. Like early spring flowers, these are the small signs of life that typically go unnoticed when we walk through sidewalks without much care for our surrounding environment.

Another prominent exhibit highlight is “Field Vision,” which illuminates a harvest field in a passionate mix of burning red and shining gold. The thrusting lines portray ripe wheat in the field, and the color of every single line gradually changes from dark brown to light orange to luminous gold, which testifies to the nuanced renderings of Phillips’s art.

An intriguing aspect of the exhibition is Phillips’ liberal use of mulberry paper, which she sticks to flat, white panels with wax. In “Coruscate,” overlapping short pieces of mulberry paper in somber black and gray dominate the panel. But longer strips of mulberry paper in light blue emerge from this darkness as if coming from a lighthouse that illuminates an inky night. Her choice of waxing mulberry paper strips to a panel makes an otherwise two-dimensional painting three-dimensional. The soft, long-fibered texture and deckled edges of the mulberry paper strips soothe the artwork’s chiaroscuro, or contrast between light and dark.

Instead of building a dramatic tension between bright and dim colors, Phillips perhaps hints at an implicit message that nothing in the world can be understood as simply black or white. These little philosophical illuminations are also echoed in her other series of artworks. For example, she gives titles “Scramble,” “Shatter,” “Scattered” and even “Fracture2” to some of her most organized pieces, contrary to what we might expect from her assertive titles.

In these artworks, she colors her multilayered pieces of mulberry paper on the panel with elegant, curvilinear shapes and lines. Contrasting the titles that suggest destruction, these visuals are about constructing unity and balance. And here is another message for her audience. New, lively aesthetics are only born from rearranging scattered, lifeless pieces of paper. Analogically, amid the chaotic times of the pandemic, positive and hopeful changes in our lives come only from our creative reimagination of those shattered pieces of our old lives.

“Changes Underfoot” is an abstractionist reimagination of daily life trivialities. Like a microscopic lens, it allows us to gaze more closely at the changes “underfoot,” especially those surrounding us in the natural world. It also invokes meaningful philosophical contemplation that leads us to enlightening lessons about life. After experiencing tumultuous changes during the pandemic, Phillips’s exhibition offers an ideal place to see changes of the past and envision hopes of the future — or to simply enjoy and appreciate art on a nice afternoon.

Contact William Xu at [email protected].