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The Quest for Irma: I

Evening Hill Poole

epson and silkscreen
edition 100
image size 42.3 x 30 cm
paper size 51.5 x 37 cm

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Notes on this work

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The Quest For Irma is a series of five limited edition silkscreen prints with 22 colours and glazes by renowned British artist Tom Phillips. These five images are reproduced from the iconic series of gouaches that Phillips created in 1973. The series relates to the opera Irma composed by Phillips in 1969. The eponymous heroine represents the ideal woman of the hero (Grenville’s) quest. The inspiration for Irma was germinated from Phillips’ ongoing project A Humument. This project, which Phillips’ has continually worked on since 1966, is a transformation of W.H Mallocks Victorian potboiler A Human Document, published in 1892,

Phillips’ treated novel is now in its 4th edition and he continues to re-work its pages and find fresh developments in Mallock’s source material. Irma is based around pages of A Human Document transposing the main characters Irma and Grenville to a new format, and text from the novel appears as pendants to the paintings of the Quest for Irma series. Irma’s face is never entirely seen, giving this ideal woman an element of mystery; she could be any woman, anywhere. Irma is not only chased through prose and opera; here she is trailed through the shadow- world of the postcard, from which numerous possible Irma candidates have emerged. She is frequently seen from the back or with her face in shadow, in this manner Phillips freezes time, forever delaying the moment of recognition. We are caught in the powerful moment of ‘could it be?’ with all its anticipation and possibility, which so often gives way to the ‘no’ of broken illusion when the followed turns to face the follower. The Quest for Irma is about unobtainable love, forever just out of reach, and the heightened state of the lover who thinks he sees the object of his affection in the features of strangers on the street.

Phillips’ choice of postcard imagery- found imagery- rather than self-created portraits of what Irma might look like also increases the potency of the idea that Irma could be any woman, or perhaps every woman. It embraces the element of chance, the artist has not created these possible Irma’s, he has found them. Phillips has used postcards as a source material since the late 1960s, for several years they became the equivalent visual source to Mallock’s A Human Document as a textual source,

Each Quest for Irma piece is in effect a treated page of Mallock’s A Human Document, just like A Humument, however these works are not in a book format and are in a uniform composition. The imagery is the primary focus, with the text placed at the bottom, acting as a kind of pedestal supporting the framed images of ideal womanhood. The text used in each piece is taken from a single page of A Human Document, the chosen words having been extracted and circled by Phillips, with the rest painted over, though partially visible. Phillips has found and used pages of A Human Document containing fragments of text that are pertinent to the scene represented in the postcard eg. in Quest for Irma I the text refers to the ‘summer sea’ and ‘the hours she devoted to watching the waves fall’, or in Quest for Irma III the text refers to ‘wind-swept the beach and the shining sea’. Beneath this each piece is has a footer of stencilled lettering listing the title, details of the postcard used and the date of the original work. These three aspects; the use of postcard imagery, the use of text from A Human Document, and Phillips’ stencilled cataloguing of each work, are key motifs throughout the artist’s career and body of work.

Text from CCA Galleries 2011