Happy accidents

In a search for solidarity, Patrick Phipps shed his artistic baggage and found creative kinship


Patrick Phipps’ What Does it Mean to Excel? is on display through August 12, with an opening reception on Second Saturday, July 14, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento, 1519 19th Street; (916) 498-9811; www.ccasac.org. For more information on Sketch Klubb visit http://sketchklubb.com. Or learn more about the Sacramento branch at http://facebook.com/sketchclubsacramento.

When you call up the website for Patrick Phipps’ art collective Sketch Klubb, a tiny Bart Simpson head pops up—cartoon eyes moving just to the left of the URL in your browser’s address bar. Sometimes, too, new initiates into the Klubb (a bona fide club, by the way) find themselves “jumped in”—tasked with drawing Bart and Lisa Simpson in a “compromising position.”

It’s a bit that hints at the S.K. aesthetic—but there’s a lot more to Phipps’ art than such pop-culture regurgitations. This month, Phipps brings Sketch Klubb to the Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento with the exhibition What Does it Mean to Excel?

Launched in 2005, Sketch Klubb is Phipps’ brainchild, but in the years since, he says it’s taken on a life of its own. Based in Houston, where Phipps resides, the club is currently composed of 12 professional artists who meet every other Saturday to draw and socialize.

Phipps, reached via email in London, said he created Sketch Klubb out of a need for artistic solidarity.

“[I] needed some way to talk to sympathetic artists,” he said. “I needed some friends that were free from the baggage of the local art scene.”

A typical S.K. meeting, he said, is casual.

“We usually play some sort of music while we work, and often someone will bring [doughnuts] or breakfast tacos to eat,” he said. “There’s a lot of good-natured ribbing that goes on and people share new books and zines they’ve gotten with each other. The meeting lasts as long as people want to stay.”

Then, each month, a group member takes on the production of a zine, compiling the work from all those meetings into a handheld format.

“Most of us still believe in the seductive qualities of a book, and we’ve gotten pretty good at making some nice zines,” Phipps said.

In addition to the monthly publications (some of which have provocative titles such as “Bacon Tits” and “Nasty Butts”—the latter of which is entirely composed of line drawings of misshapen posteriors), the group also creates books and gallery installations.

Prior to starting S.K., Phipps, who has a Master of Fine Arts in painting from the University of Texas at Austin, worked as a successful gallery artist in the Houston arts scene where he sold work that exhibited “elements of drawing, photography, sculpture, and installation art.”

Then, after his primary gallery folded, Phipps said he decided to “back away” from art’s more commercial aspects.

“I realized at a certain point that I hated having misguided conversations about work with people who had no idea what they were looking at,” Phipps said. “It seemed shallow and disingenuous to have a conversation with someone just to sell a drawing or a painting.”

Sketch Klubb, he added, set a different but successful standard.

“We never intended to show our work to anyone. It was done purely for us,” Phipps said. “After a while, we began to get requests to see what we were doing.”

The result, he said, was liberating.

“I stopped caring about looking for an outlet for my work. I made what I wanted to make and was happier for it.”

Jenny Stark, a Sacramento State University associate professor of digital media and film who curated Phipps’ CCAS show, said she became familiar with the artist’s work while teaching at the University of Texas at Houston. At the time, she says, Phipps ran the bookstore at the city’s famed Menil Collection museum.

“His knowledge of art history and contemporary art was just amazing, so I would go and spend time in the bookstore looking at all the art books and talking to him about art,” Stark said. “He served that role for a lot of people.”

Stark said she feels a kinship with Phipps’ art.

“The lines of text make me think about the fragments of narratives, so there are these little moments, almost [like they’re] from movies that don’t make sense in a traditional narrative but relate to how I approach experimental filmmaking,” she said. “I’ve always felt a bond with the way he makes work.”

Phipps’ Sacramento exhibition, she added, consists of a series of illustrations that are compelling despite their seemingly inherent simplicity.

“[The exhibition] will have a casual, almost studiolike feel to it. I know having a grid of drawings is neither groundbreaking nor innovative, but I love shows like that,” she said. “It will be graphic and will likely have some mature content. …I hope it will be funny or compelling or inspirational.”

Much of Phipps’ work consists of small line drawings and watercolors; a clearly free-associated mix of grotesque nudes, clip-art-style figures, confrontational text, and yes, many drawings of Simpsons characters which would make the censors at Fox choke on their tongues. According to Phipps, the work is inspired by everything from pop art, Dada and the surrealists to the underground Zap Comix of the ’60s and ’70s.

As part of the Sacramento show, Phipps and members of CCAS hope to spark interest in a satellite Sacramento branch of Sketch Klubb. The first meeting is scheduled to take place during the exhibition’s opening reception on Saturday, July 14, with local artists Melanie Bown and John Conley at the helm. Subsequent meetings will continue monthly at Bows & Arrows (1815 19th Street).

The title of Phipps’ show reflects a bit of artistic fate.

Initially, Phipps said, Stark misread a snippet of text in one of his drawings as, “What does it mean to excel?” thinking of it, not surprisingly, as a philosophical question about striving for personal excellence. In reality, however, it was a question about the computer software program.

Though a “happy accident,” it sparked a conversation between the two about the nature of success, which is at the heart of the Sketch Klubb concept. Phipps said he’s changed his definition of success radically over time.

“Success for me used to be the whole idea of being an art star, of having a gallery and traveling the world to make your work. Now, I find the whole thing repugnant,” he said.

“Success for me, these days, is getting to make my work on my terms.”