In the Noosa Hinterland, among the piccabeen palms and blackbutt trees, there’s a world-class art gallery you should see.
In the early ’60s, at the height of the pop art movement, the Birmingham-born artist Peter Phillips was in London at the Royal College of Art with contemporaries David Hockney and Allen Jones. His pioneering paintings and sculptures were splashed with advertising imagery, geometric forms and bright, bright colour. In the years since, he hasn’t let up, working solidly for six decades, travelling the world and showing in some of the world’s most prestigious galleries alongside Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and numerous other huge names in 20th-century art.
His six decades of work and global travel, living in London, Zurich and the Costa Rican wilderness, all converges in a gallery in a converted shed in the Queensland bush. Phillips Gallery is a functioning workspace, a tribute to the artist’s legacy, and a place to discover his work, most of which is for sale.
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“We use the word ‘gallery’ loosely,” says Phillips’s daughter Zoe Phillips-Price. “It’s evolved, and it’s still evolving.”
It started as an industrial shed scrubbed up a bit to function as a studio. But the family saw potential. “We decided to hang the paintings to get them out of the way,” says Phillips-Price. “Then we looked around and realised this looks better than most galleries do.”
Phillips’s work is loud and irreverent. The works on show here, including paintings and sculptures, are all identifiably from the same mind. In his iconic ’60s and ’70s works, women from mid-century glamour shoots beam and pose amid engine parts, geometric shapes and blocks of primary colour. In the past decade or so Phillips has been creating absurd landscapes incorporating collage, with themes of religion, consumerism and war. In them time and place and history collide. You’re as likely to see Ronald McDonald as you are a Renaissance sculpture or a crocodile.
To paraphrase the late visionary pop artist Richard Hamilton, the pop movement is popular, transient, expendable and mass-produced. But this gallery is driven by family, community and longevity.
Phillips moved to Australia to be close to his daughter, her partner and his granddaughter. He lived in Sydney for a couple of years before settling in this tranquil spot, about 12 kilometres of winding road west of Noosa, in 2017. Now, Phillips paints among decades of his own work, much of which he hasn’t seen since he first created it.
But what you’ll find in this gallery is just a few dozen choice cuts from Phillips’s personal collection. Phillips-Price put the show together and is responsible for her father’s archive. She estimates there are more than a thousand works out there, scattered across the world. She’s not sure where. Her dad has never been good with details.
“This is my tribute to him, because he doesn’t know what he has,” Phillips-Price says. “He says, ‘Where did you find this? This one is definitely not for sale’.”
When I visit the space it’s hosting a party in conjunction with the Noosa Food and Wine Festival to launch the gallery and celebrate Phillips’s impending 80th birthday. The gallery, house and surrounding gardens are full of well-wishers drinking gin cocktails from Fortune Distillery. Phillips’s bulldog, Bella, is napping on a lounge in the middle of the room.
When I angle for an interview, Phillips laughs and shakes his head. But he eventually acquiesces and gives me a bit of a show. He points at one of his paintings. “Bullshit,” he says, and I laugh. And another. “Bullshit.” I point at one, a 2006 landscape. “Bullshit,” he says. “They’re all bullshit.” They’re not. I ask a few questions, but we’re interrupted every 30 seconds by party-goers clapping him on the back and wishing him well. Eventually he brushes me off. The interview won’t happen.
Phillips-Price explains that he’s never liked talking about his work. I figure at 79 he’s earned that. The thinking and the talking about the work is for us. He is the doer.
The studio opening is the first step in Phillips engaging with the local community. In August he’ll participate in Noosa Open Studios alongside a group of other local artists opening their workspaces and homes to visitors.
“He’s a very private person but he loves local artists and regional galleries,” says Phillips-Price. “Peter feels flattered because the organisers said it’s like having the Rolling Stones play their high school graduation. He obviously loves the attention.”
The work in the studio won’t be here forever. Much of it will soon be dispersed across galleries in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.
But with Phillips still creating new work, this Noosa Hinterland shed will remain the unlikely home of a globally significant pop art collection for a long time yet.
The Phillips Gallery is at 36 McIntyre Lane, Tinbeerwah, Queensland, and is open by appointment only.