As poetic in conversation as he is in presentation, artist Phillip K. Smith III gifts his audiences nothing more than the imprint of a memory and the beauty of the world around him. In practical terms, his prominent use of mirrors and light refracts the environments surrounding each installation, but his unspoken request for the viewer to focus their intrigue on the often vast stretches of sea, sand and sky surrounding his work is powerful. While many artists thrive on the enigma of presenting an opportunity for subjective interpretation, the message presented by Smith in his Milan Design Week collaboration with COS is one of a person who spent a childhood bathing in the arid glow of the Coachella Valley and a lifetime meditating on the landscape as his palette.
For their seventh year at the world’s most influential design week, COS adds Smith to an already impressive portfolio of creative allies. Having enlisted the likes of Studio Swine, Nendo and Snarkitecture in recent years, creative director Karin Gustafsson explains that COS looked to its own creative process for the source of 2018’s much-anticipated installation at Palazzo Isimbardi. “We first came across Phillip K. Smith III in 2013,” she explains, “when Lucid Stead featured on our collection inspiration moodboard. Phillip’s work looks to the natural world for subtle shifts in light and colour that inspire new ways of seeing.”
Reflecting on his international debut, Smith talks Palm Springs, reflection and the value of experience.
On redefining boundaries and materials…
“I think that certainly my interest with this project – because this is the first time it’s ever being seen – is that it is going to create an impactful memory not only for myself but for the general public that gets to experience it. It is a highly dynamic very unique experience that I will happily say has gone beyond my own expectations for it in a very powerful way. Certainly the excitement of working with a very specific site that has these specific parameters and this context that you get to interact with – I like doing that because it allows me to deal with ideas and parameters that I could never think about recreating in my own studio. I would never conceive of working within a palazzo within my own studio, so the thought of this project coming forward to me allows me to push myself as an artist, it allows me to think of new ideas and how I can translate my ideas and collaborate my ideas within this specific space.
“I’m already looking at the potential for this project to maybe be in another exterior site, maybe even to be in an interior site. You’re dealing with a vertical surface which is a piece of architecture – material A – then a horizontal surface above you, which is the sky – which is material B. That’s the case here in Milan, maybe if this piece moves somewhere else those materials A and B begin to shift, and the dynamic quality in which they merge across the surface begins to change.”
On finding beauty in isolation growing up in Palm Springs…
“For me, what is interesting when you think about the desert – when you’re standing in the valley floor, way out there and there’s nothing man-made in front of you – is that if you really distil what is in front of you, you’re seeing land and sky. You’re seeing two materials, joined across a horizon line. What’s interesting about Milan is that even though I’m here in the middle of one of the most urban cities in all of Italy, within that courtyard it is kind of a shielded view. All you have in front of you are two elements: architecture and sky. In a strange way, even within a setting there’s a distillation of the environment to these two key elements. I’m very interested in that.
“I’ll back up and say that certainly growing up in the desert has had a huge impact on me. I think being out in the middle of the desert, free from all that other stuff that we deal with in our daily lives, it forces you to deal with yourself. It forces you to ask what is important. Why am I here? What am I doing? That in a way is a constant present questioning for myself in my own work, and my friends who choose to live out there. It’s a bond that we all share that is unique to the desert.”
On painting with the sky…
“I talk less of the materiality of it – I think about it less as I’m using mirrors, because then I’m just talking about the material and what it is. What I’m more interested in talking about is reflection, and I’m using it because I want to use the material of the palazzo’s architecture, I want to use the sky as a changing, colour-shifting material that I can’t grasp in my own hand, but I can show it to you, I can present it to you in the same way that an artist is going to take acrylic and put it onto a canvas. That’s the way I look at it: I’m taking the sky, I’m taking the renaissance architecture and I’m putting it onto a canvas, maybe allowing you to see it for the first time.”
Open Sky is at Palazzo Isimbardi, Milan, until April 22, 2018.