“Philip Trussell has become a sort of godfather to the outsider artist and literary scenes in Austin, hosting salons, guiding the reading of counter-academic students, and connecting spiritual isolates like himself.” - Cuneiform Press
Though he hadn't shown work in public since 2019, Trussell nonetheless continued his relentlessly prolific painting practice. From May 20 through June 18, 2023, Cloud Tree Gallery & Studios presented a show of over 90 pieces he'd made during the pandemic, alongside a selection of works by his student, Connor Strickland.
Artist and proprietor of Cloud Tree Gallery & Studios Brian David Johnson invited Philip Trussell to discuss his show, life, art, and ideas on his “Art Talks from the Tree” podcast:
“Philip Trussell’s Sentences are fallen aphorisms from a hermetic cosmos: quotidian and mystical, cantankerous and surprisingly humane.”
Photo by Bill Daniel
In 2019, Cuneiform Press published Sentences, which they called “a singular literary debut by a seasoned outsider artist.”
“These cutting ripostes to the information age are more Elizabethan than postmodern, yet timeless in their devotion to the craft of disciplined observation. Trussell’s truncated satire probes at the habits of social life and the routines of ego with a nihilist’s shtick, discontinuous and unabashedly promethean.”
Some phenomena should be left inscrutable, beyond the reach of cause and effect.
Daily they took for granted the spaces that had been designed for them to take for granted.
To delight in illusions is not the same as to suffer from delusions. You believe me don't you?
The function of the senses is to fit you to circumstances beyond your control.
A lid on reality seems as impossible as a floor to it; or a belt to hold it in.
At the end of the block a machine grinds out certainties for people who live by grasping at straws.
With all the destinations shut down, destiny knocks around the house, climbing the walls.
Listen deeply to your enemies to find out what else to get rid of in yourself.
Most regard walking as extra-vehicular activity.
Searching among the poor and listening among the ignorant, our wise outcasts come into possession of a full gnosis.
He wanted a chance to talk to the composer of his recent dream in which he had been cast as thecomposer of a friend's dream using images plundered from a luminous cloud above her bed.
Do they know what I mean better than I do?
Information has become identical to the abyss in which matter participates in its ceaseless transactions.
Enthusiasms are particular to the year of life in which they have their ephemeral purchase on a soul destined to abandon what no longer enchants, bewilders, and captivates.
Eventuality has a genius for the inappropriate.
What it might be gradually emerges from a chaotic mix of conclusions about what it might be to someone else.
The differences of presentation, re-presentation and misrepresentation are now more difficult to discern; perception is political, and deliberate misperception is ideological.
The hindsight morality of historians gives us a past made safe for current standards of repression.
They were running a summer camp that promoted sensitivity draining.
With all the idols destroyed, the entities that were once embodied in them entered electromagnetic ubiquity that now haunts any place with the lights on.
What comes to mind brings to mind.
She admired the way dreams appropriated, repurposed, and reintegrated seemingly trivial details of a day into compositions just beyond understanding.
Philip Trussell is a painter and a poet living in Austin, TX, where he also mentors artists, writers, and other truants.
Born in Kingsville, Texas in 1943, Trussell trained as a painter at The University of Texas at Austin and Yale School of Art and Architecture.
As a teenager, he spent summers riding horseback through mesquite brush, herding cattle on his uncle's ranch. But cowboy life was only one side of his experience growing up in South Texas. Trussell's father was a jazz DJ, band leader, and writer. He was surrounded by a diversity of books and records which he realized was unique among his peers. As a child, his father brought him along to shows and interviews where he had the opportunity to see and meet jazz greats including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk.
In the early ‘60s, he arrived in Austin where he soon met a UT classmate named Stephanie Chernikowski who became a mentor, friend, and muse. An English major, Chernikowski pointed him not only toward readings, but also music; introducing him to friends like Janis Joplin. Stephanie would eventually move to New York City and became one of the great rock & roll photographers, shooting immortal pictures of her friends including The Talking Heads, Blondie, and Andy Warhol for the New York Times and The Village Voice.
While at UT, Trussell also spent time illustrating publications for the University press and other publishers. One such book, Deep Down in the Jungle: Black American Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia, has been called “indispensable” by the New Yorker and New York Times journalist Kelefa Sanneh.
When Trussell arrived at Yale in the mid-'60s, not only was the coldness of New England a culture shock but professors there didn’t understand why his work was so divergent and they told him to find a style. Eventually, though, some of his teachers like abstract expressionist painters Helen Frankenthaler and Al Held said he was the first true postmodernist they’d encountered given his acumen at myriad styles (and media, including sculpture and writing). Sure enough, Trussell's work was more inspired by filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Georges Méliès than by other painters at the time.
So it was serendipitous when in the late ‘60s he had the opportunity to work with Stan Brackhage on the design of his A Moving Picture Giving and Taking Book. He had moved to West Newbury, Massachusetts, and begun working with Harvey Brown at Frontier Press. In addition to the Brackhage book, he also designed and illustrated books for the poet Ed Dorn, a protege of Charles Olson. Dorn had been a student of Olson's at the short-lived Black Mountain College alongside other luminaries like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Buckminster Fuller. Dorn was not only one of Trussell’s favorite poets but the two also became life-long friends.
In 1982 Trussell returned to Austin and eventually became a sort of godfather to the outsider artist and literary scenes there, hosting salons, guiding the reading of counter-academic students, and connecting spiritual isolates like himself. On Dorn’s tip, he worked closely with Skanky Possum Press and made art for their publications for over a decade.
Although he shuns involvement in mainstream art-world politics and will only show his work in alternative spaces, he's regularly been cited by the Austin Chronicle in their top 10 arts lists, has had paintings shown in the Austin Museum of Art (The Contemporary Austin), and has a multitude of collectors like his friend, filmmaker Richard Linklater who, at last count, owns around 45 of Trussell's paintings.
In 2012, Trussell started writing discontinuous sentences as a daily practice which he soon began arranging into sequences on postcards and mailing out to people on a map he calls a “speculative geography of his fellow dog-paddlers in the river of shit.” In 2019, Cuneiform Press published Sentences, an 84-page book of his poetry.
Trussell's prolific daily writing and painting disciplines continue.
This short video by Richard Swafford shows Philip Trussell at work in his studio, explores some of his paintings, and features his commentary on the work.
“I was born in Kingsville, Texas in 1943. I started painting when I was 14, guessing Mexico City was the center of the art world. That would have been 1957 — the tail fins on our Plymouth convertible were spectacular.
Between 1961 and 1965 I worked toward a BFA in painting and a minor in art history at the University of Texas in Austin. My mentor was Robert Levers, protestant like myself and mystical: he taught that good drawing was mysterious. I agreed, and followed up.
At Yale University from 1965 to 1967 I worked toward an MFA in painting and a minor in art history. Most of my time there was spent adapting aspects of experimental filmmaking to my painting, instead of paying much attention to the fashionable avant garde hysterias. Andy Warhol’s multiple silkscreen prints on canvas chimed well with the works of “underground” film makers Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas. Brakhage’s hand-made 8 millimeter work in particular reoriented my sense of the possibilities open to painting: cognitive thresholds in projected light. I also stududied with George Kubler the art of the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas.
One practice learned at Yale continues all these years later: work in series, don’t do just one, do as many as seem possible to outrun precious and egotistical attachment. A series may run anywhere between 20 and 200 before exhaustion sets in. The point, while working, is to become completely lost in the ongoing unfolding. Uncertainty is key, and suspension of criticism. The jazz standard “Let’s Get Lost” says it all. Good things are found, not forced.
Some of the paintings are divided into panels. They look something like movie storyboards or film clips or contact sheets. The imagery is calculatedly low-grade, gritty, bleached-out and hard to read. There is a good deal of image completion required of the viewer: Much of what you see is what you project. Another set of paintings explores the effect of drawn black lines on complexes of color heavily applied by painting knife. How a simple black outline tilts the cognitive processes at work in perceiving an image, how it actually changes the color of shapes how it hovers between annotation and denotation, and how it determines possible readings while at the same time subverting them — these are all dynamic possibilities. Mapping, writing, graphing and charting come together here.
One of the influences in these line works is the drawing tradition of the Maya in Central America, works dating from the 6th and 7th centuries AD. Screenfold books, cylinder vases, and large platters display dazzling brush-drawn images of gods, heroes, dancers, ball players, warriors, and local rulers among spoken words in brilliant hieroglyphs. Another series is a selection of 12 black and white drawings — like stage sets without actors. There is an internal logic in the way they present, fold, slide, and maneuver to make provisory places, imaginary, where events might be enacted.
Cutting across the various series are some common traits — a landscape structure — ground plane, middle distance, glimpsed horizon, and sky. This is from years of appreciating J. M. W. Turner, the early 19th-century landscape painter, and from studying Eugene Atget, the early 20th-century Parisian photographer. Another hero is George Méliès, the French film magician.
Part of a painter’s task is to translate any and all influences into something original. An artist’s originality consists in broad and deep awareness of the achievements of others accompanied by a power of reduction and adaptation in producing a necessary formulation.”
This site is run by Philip Trussell's son, Jake Trussell. Please get in touch with him below if you have questions, comments, aphorisms, critiques, or wisecracks.