Uffish Thoughts
Cecelia Phillips at William Busta

Given a choice, who wouldn’t dwell in a magical kingdom? Cecelia Phillips draws and
paints people and animals in a way that suggests that she lives, if not in such a place,
then at least around the corner from one. If it isn’t exactly a Middle Earth or a Narnia she
depicts, it’s still a storybook kind of place from which myth has only recently departed,
leaving behind a sparkle of strange significance and members of extended, possibly
magical families. Her show, titled Daydreams Being the Thing of Which I am Mostly Made,
focuses (or un-focuses) on the elisions and substitutions of reverie, exhibiting images that
are once intensely visual and highly literary. Like Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsense words,
her painted syllables evoke a vivid world between waking and sleeping, where momraths
might well outgrabe and a condition of uffish thought seems to await the coming of some

Take the drawing and painting that share the title Giving Birth. The one is a study for the
other, and each depicts a nude young woman from an angle just behind her left shoulder.
She’s lying on her back, so that we see only a snatch of profile, a bit of upturned nose and
disappearing chin; the main thing is, a baby rabbit appears to be sitting in her abdomen,
as if bathing in her flesh. As an image it is sufficiently striking and suggestive to stand on
its own, without any narrative context. Yet it also seems like an illustration of something --
and it may be that it is. Several works here are based on well-known stories and novels.

The painting reproduced on the show’s announcement card, for instance, is a
straightforward illustration of Canadian author Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which tells the tale
of a teenager stranded in a life boat in the Pacific Ocean. In Phillips’ painting the boy Pi is
seen in the company of a Bengal tiger and a partially devoured zebra carcass. The
uncanniness of this parable-like vision rendered in Phillips’ fluently  lush oil on paper
technique echoes the ambiguity of Martel’s story, in which Pi’s original account of nine
months at sea is like a layer of wishful thinking, through which bleeds a darker (though not
necessarily truer) tale of human survival and cannibalism, as in a pentimento.

In a more personal exploration of dreaming and double-ness, Phillips’ Beekeepers
presents two figures completely covered in creamy, space suit-like beekeeping garb. They
stand conversing in a pool of light surrounded by a vague, greenish realm like a forest
glade. Why beekeepers? It’s anybody’s guess since Phillips offers no explication of her
often deliberately obscure images, but to me the protective gear suggests the caution with
which most people approach life and art alike, guarding against the potentially stinging
truths that buzz forth from the emotional realm of the unconscious.

In a statement Phillips calls these paintings “windows.”  She reports that, “Since I was little I’
ve always lifted the curtain on the window with feelings both of terror and exhilaration,
anticipating hideous and glorious events happening on the other side.” She insists that
she does not attempt to depict alternative realities, but rather “a secret moment frozen in

Among the most charming of such moments at the Busta Gallery show is a smallish,
vertically oriented work titled Tree Kiss. Rendered mainly in sunset colors of pink and
brownish violet, it shows a couple perched part way up a tree on a broken branch. The
bare-chested, barefoot young man’s pants-sheathed legs slant downward, paralleling the
lines of the tree trunk. The young woman in his embrace leans against the trunk, her
knees raised so that her bare calves and feet are revealed, surrounded by the folds of a
long, luxuriantly green, improbably formal dress. The work amounts to a quietly eloquent
sonnet on the precarious nature of love -- especially young love -- suspended
uncomfortably yet beautifully between heaven and earth.

Elephant Ride is another lovely painting showing a girl astride a small elephant. Dressed
in a red two piece bathing suit, she leans forward across the elephant’s back, her arm
stretched along its head. Long brown hair hangs in front of her face. Perhaps a fantasy
based on Kipling’s Jungle Book, the work is mainly an expression of the sheer joy in line,
color and substance that is typical of all Phillips’ paintings here. In contrast to Busta’s
inaugural show this past May of new paintings by recent Kent MFA recipient Tim
Callaghan, which tended to be postmodern minimalist works with a “bad attitude” toward
paint, Phillips (who graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2005 and is currently
working toward her MFA at the University of Texas in Austin) is all about the beauty of oils.
Everywhere in her work accomplished underlying drawing is fleshed out with saturated
greens and blues and blacks, glowing tones that pay tribute to the sheer velocity of
traditional oil techniques as they speed into the eye, greased with virtuosity and visual
pleasure. Phillips’ almost overabundant technical proficiency lends conviction to twilit
images and concerns that might otherwise evaporate like dew. In te end her paintings
have remarkable staying power, bewitching disbelief into a state of suspended animation
as they tell about loves and adventures found just beyond the sill of daily reality.
Tree Kiss by Cecelia Phillips