Artist Profile: Phillip Michael Cotton

Feature by Lee Ann Norman


Phil Cotton’s latest solo exhibition at the South Side Community Art Center may have confused some who aren’t familiar with his work, since it was called Vessels of Inquiry.  He doesn’t typically work with clay or make standard sculptures, but he views paintings as urns of sorts, believing they assume a sculptural quality.  “I feel like paintings…are not just flat surfaces but that they can be containers for ideas, feelings,” he explained.  Cotton often thinks of his 2-dimensional painting practice in conjunction with 3-dimensional practices because of the ways that they allow ideas to dialogue with each other.  Knowing the artist (who is also a visual art and design teacher for Chicago Public Schools), it isn’t surprising to learn that he’s always approached art making from a point of study – experiments with materials, with colors, shapes, lines, textures, forms.  Most work begins with organic explorations in mark making – pigments and materials on the page or the canvas – explorations in possibilities and discoveries, all seeking to find new ways to communicate and express ideas visually.


For as long as he can remember, Cotton has been making art and been interested in art making.  He grew up watching his mother create work, and his parents encouraged him to develop his skills, creativity, and talent.  This lead to studies in art education in his native Buffalo, where he initially maintained a steady exhibitions schedule in school and beyond.  Upon arriving in Chicago to study graphic design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, his professional fine art practice began to slow.  At the time, the IIT program focused on applied arts, so Cotton shifted his focus while pursuing his studies.  A hand injury put those plans on hold midway through the program however, and he had to drop out; yet, those influences from sculpture and design remain central in his work. 


Cotton’s artwork has consistently explored three concrete themes through abstraction: mind (our thoughts and ideas), myth (stories we tell and create), and reality (reflections upon lived experiences).  Early paintings and drawings probed these areas through mark making leading to organic figurations using shapes, lines, forms, and textures.  Cotton’s process has continued to focus on evolving explorations, wanderings, and experiments, which lead him to create multidimensional works that force a viewer to see differently.  An earlier example of this idea is a sculptural 2-dimensional series called Circle Prime Theory challenged viewers to focus on the periphery of the works through the construction of the artistic elements on the frame and sides of the canvases.

Works in the South Side Community Art Center exhibition represented a retrospective of works created in the last 2 years, showing the natural progression of Cotton’s work and how his process manifests 3-dimensional qualities in 2-dimensional artworks.  In the Sentinels series, for example, Cotton created abstracts on canvas in combination with carved and painted “head pieces.”  Each headpiece features two eyes and the third eye, and some have cutouts for mouths, as if the paintings are in conversation with each other or the heavens, while some are silent.  Each of the paintings continues to use visual elements Cotton favors, like punchy, bright pigments, often unmixed, textural components like sand or gravel mixed directly on the canvas, geometric and organic shapes, and lines. 

Newer works unveiled in this exhibition build on these ideas, and show heavy influences of Al Loving and Sam Gilliam, along with other abstract expressionists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Motherwell.  Cotton explains, “I knew I wanted the work to move along to a place that was more visceral and tactile, away from more traditional painting which is somewhat lyrical and flat.  These pieces have allowed me to actually construct the painting.”  Each piece consists of layers of oil pastel drawings, in which Cotton cuts a completed drawing into shapes and re-assembles it into a different pattern. He then places it on top of another oil pastel drawing, which serves as a background.  He is still interested in the ways that color and shape create visual movement, though he is considering how this series can continue to evolve and move away from vertical and horizontal movement into more organic progressions.  Cotton is also experimenting with this idea on canvas by cutting painted shapes and strips of the material and draping it on another canvas to create visual movement. 


For Cotton, it’s all about how far he can go with the imagery, how far he can push the envelope through visual elements, as well as how far the viewer can push themselves.  “Successful art should educate and engage…raise questions about the work and through the work,” Cotton said.  “I don’t want the work to be so reliant on (my) explaining…I’d rather have the viewer explore and interpret on their own,” he added.

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