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Relics of the Chameleon

Peeling back the layers of interdisciplinary artist Philip Gabriel Steverson

Written by Anitah Diggs

May 7th, 2024

“Habits Change in different habitats.

Adapt. Blend. Evolve.

Adapt. Blend. Evolve.

Adapt. Blend. Evolve.”

The meditative chant is the overture to a video of a young man preparing to box. He cleanses his punching bag – the object onto which his rage will be inflicted – with rain like spritzes of water. He warms his body – his physical protector of spirit – by solidly beating on his chest, testing its sturdiness and will to withstand unsolicited attacks. He pounds his fists against each other, colliding the roughly padded boxing gloves, echoing a bomb-like sound on impact. The fighter jogs in place, shuffling his body at a disciplined, memorized pace. He meets the punching bag, releasing steady concentrated blows while the bag mirrors his every movement, encouraging his continued release of hot-tempered emotion. After he’s finished, the punching bag remains still, behind him. His gloves now removed to reveal his fists. His body reflects the remnants of the layer he just shed during training – a thousand tiny water droplets cling to his upper body, each water molecule holding onto a layer of rage.

“Inflicting R.A.G.E.E. is kind of a big experiment in understanding and healing through the work. So rage is going to be put toward everything,” Phil expresses.

Interdisciplinary artist Philip Gabriel Steverson introduces his solo exhibition Relics of the Chameleon with the question: “How was discipline portrayed in your life?” The 23-year-old artist from Philadelphia has recently tasked himself with exploring the concept of discipline in his life, among the many other habit-centered philosophies the artist frequently ponders. Having a foundational background in poetry and writing which further developed into working across the mediums of painting and design more intensely post university, Phil’s work documents his spirit’s encounter with the Black experience, masculinity, grief, emotional evolution and adversity, among an array of other themes that naturally reveal themselves in his work, and through the eyes of those who observe it.

“Just being able to walk in and see the first couple of pieces and then see the video really helped me understand the landscape of every piece that you made in there – and it really set the tone for me. Just navigating from that, to the textures, to the linens, to the different textures on the punching bags and some of the artwork,” Phil’s friend, Brandon, recounts about his initial reaction to the show. “And seeing the second video, which was like man, that felt like a roller coaster in itself. It just felt like a heartbeat, like I was up and down, up and down, and what I was taking in as far as like the magnitude of how serious it was. But there was also moments of comedic relief,  and then it kinda sucked you back in…”

I entered the venue on the opening night of his exhibition to a quietly tucked away art gallery on the outskirts of Downtown Phoenix; a gallery space you could very quickly miss if distracted by the gaudiness of the other tall buildings that incubate the downtown area and light up the night. The cozy room in Luna Culture Lab is humming with quiet chatter, with small groups of people flocking to each of the monolithic art pieces like curious school children on a field trip. The gutted out area appears spacious yet sterile, with hard cement floors, white walls, exposed beam ceilings and a dimly lit ambience: the perfect stage for Phil’s work.

Initially, my eyes naturally float to a metal plated notebook sitting between two concrete slabs. I sift through the heavy industrial notebook to reveal meticulous notes centered on the artist's material gathering, which reveals his infatuation with found materials and daily reflection.

I set the clunky notebook down and immediately shifted my eyes to an assertively tall and rugged repurposed “Everlast”  tarp hanging from the ceiling. I lock eyes with a glimpse of Denzel’s Washington's face concealed within the tarp – he’s messily coated with cement, smeared paint, and glitter. Through the textured tumultuousness, underneath and to the sides of Denzel's face,  is the repetitive, glittered-over phrase, “You Ain’t Built for This Shit.” The phrase overwhelmingly consumes the majority of the service area of this tarp, seemingly swallowing his face whole altogether. Above the chaos and taunting phrase, on top of Denzel’s head sits the phrase, “I Will Not Lose.”
"Feel my Wrath (Feel Pain), 2024"
He adds,“I think if a painting is too clean, there's definitely going to be a way I’m like messing it up,” Phil shares. “I'm very, very attracted to texture as well. So touching it, being able to like feel the work and kind of see it, but also feeling it as well. Like you can see what it feels like just by not touching it.”

“I don't know why but subconsciously, I'm attracted to things that have violence connected to them. Things that have been put through, weathered storms and things like that, put through hell, is something I'm strongly

attracted to. It's kind of like this trauma bonding with materials, in a way, which I've come to realize, is I'm attracted to things that have a similar history that I do. And giving them new life, giving them new meaning, is very, very important.”

"Untitled (Scarlet Array), 2024"
I depart the trance of the tortured tarp and turn around to notice the energy has shifted to one corner of the room. A crowd calmly circles around a punching bag, and everyone is looking intently ahead to a speaker that stands in the middle. I see Phil for the first time that night,  standing in close proximity to the audience, painting his words with his hands, while passionately relaying details about one of his pieces to a friend in the audience who had prompted him a question. His spirit stands directly in front of the backdrop of another one of his pieces: two dilapidated tattered curtains juxtaposed against two intact velvet red curtains. When he sees me, Phil pauses conversation and embraces me in a warm, sturdy hug to welcome me to his show – a gesture he gives to almost everyone he greets.

“How I kind of defined it is this full 360 around the work where you can look around it, above it, underneath it. And you know, kind of dig, dive in closer for little, little details,” Phil confirms about his intended viewing experience of the show. “So I've been trying to experiment with making work in that way. And I think Luna was a great space to experiment because it has so much space to kind of... Let the work breathe.”

Phil has spent the better part of the past year curating this solo exhibition – internationally traveling with his ideas, collecting items of close connection, all towards the pursuit of venturing further into the concept of discipline. Beyond the opening night, the artist hosted several other intimate viewing experiences of the show, to optimize its viewing experience.

“It's a lot of work to put up for a night and then take down immediately. So if I can just sacrifice my own time for people to be able to see the work outside the opening night, you know, we'll make that happen,” he says.

While Phil is adamant about his alone time being an integral part of his creative process, forging bonds within his community and maintaining family ties is also another vital component. Currently based in Phoenix, Arizona, but originally from Philadelphia, Phil’s work commonly references themes surrounding his upbringing, making available his private joys and tribulations across the media he uses.

Several of Phil’s paintings directly reference or involve his family, reimagining them in protected painted capsules, directly relating to Black home life and media consumption he recalls from his youth. Most recently, Phil has continued exploring familial themes in his work through the continued memorialization of his mother, who recently transitioned to the afterlife in 2021. His close relationship with her and her spirit continues to inform his artistic integrity, most recently dedicating his studio space, “Sugared Strawberry Studio,” to her legacy.

Photo by: Brandon Lavariega
“I always say that home is where my mother is at. So currently her spirit is just with me every day, so I'm trying to make these spaces that I'm taking ownership of as home,” he shares.

Beyond his familial relationships, Phil has developed friendships and community bonds that serve as a reflection of his dedication to artistic initiatives outside of his own, and a further testament to his selfless character.

“When people are asking what I have going on, I always use ‘we’ to try to not just talk about me,” he states.  “I use we because there's a lot of spirits behind me.”

One of those spirits standing with him is John Lafferty, better known as YEK, a Phoenix based multidisciplinary artist. The two met through attending similar social settings in the Phoenix area, which further developed into a friendship where both were able to feed into each other's artistic endeavors and spiritual wellness - which often naturally overlaps, as both artists emphasize utilizing their art as healing tools.

“I know Phil's spirit. And I feel like he knows my spirit. That's like the best way I can explain it. Like I see him for who he is,” YEK shares about his friendship with Phil. “You know they say that you choose your family, and I feel like he's absolutely someone who I've chosen as my brother, I would trust him with my life. He's someone that's very patient, and we'll take the time to understand a certain vision, and do anything that he can to to amplify or bring that vision to fruition.”

Most recently, the two have worked together on one of YEK’s projects “John Sunny,” which was guided by the phrase “sunshines follows rain.” Through the mediums of apparel design, medicinal instruments and photo/video story, the project intimately reflects some of YEK’s personal experiences with mental health, and additionally, honors some of his indigenous family lineage. As a part of this project Phil contributioned poetry – a cornerstone vessel of his artistic process – which further amplified the message of “sunshine follows rain.”
“I just really appreciated his eye for things. And I think that's why he's been so involved in my projects, and really the brand as a whole. Because he's so versatile,” YEK explains.

“Not only does he have an eye, but he has the skill to sew, the skill to style, or the skill to notice certain things that I may not be seeing, because I have my hands full. I would say he's a good second eye for me, and I trust that eye. It's hard to find that, because someone could have a good eye, but do they really understand?”

YEK cites the piece that resonated with him the most from Phil’s recent exhibition to be “Thirst Trap,” a video performance piece documenting Phil’s relationship with physical discipline.

On the night of the opening reception, we all gathered standing around “Thirst Trap”, awaiting Phil’s remarks on the piece. He rather naturally chose to sit down when addressing us, as opposed to the regular assumed formality of presenter-audience dynamic, and invited us to sit with him. We comfortably sat on the cool concrete floor, at a level headed conversation with the artist, offering speculative questions as he responded in his philosophical candor.

On a quarter split screen, the artist engages in four physical acts; each uniquely contributing to his perception of discipline as experienced through the body. The 8-minute video is narrated by Phil verbatim re-reading a texted response he received from his grandmother answering the question: “how did you discipline your children?”. One frame observes him holding stacked books in his palms, over his head, and arms extended outwards; an experienced discipline method native to his childhood. Another frame observes him slowly moving through yoga stretches, which serves as a reflection of his daily 15 minute yoga practice.  Another frame observes him alternating between jumping rope and doing push-ups - a workout he likens to being like a breath of fresh air for him. Another frame observes him repeatedly beating the ground, and abrasively beating his fists together with two large Hulk gloves.

The artist’s critical analysis of discipline is an extension of personal equations he carefully calculates to make sense of the virtues he’s evaluating. He is no stranger to a disciplined mentality, according to his younger sister, Cynthia Steverson.

“We had to mature a lot faster than a lot of other people. I'd say, we, or he's, always been like that,” she shares.

He has constructed the equations “Discipline + Sacrifice = Consistency’, and “Expectation + ( ) = Endgame” to reflect the truth’s he’s found in his journey in abandoning quick work when it relates to his artistic ascension.

“That equation means a lot for me. Jammie Holmes is very consistent in his work, where he's just painting every day. Reginald Sylvester is very consistent in work because he's painting every day, and that's how they're figuring out their practice. For me, writing is my drawing. Like when I write okay in a journal, that's my drawing because I'm sketching through words,” Phil acknowledges. “And then, you know, sacrifice is a lot of different things. We're sacrificing time, sacrificing meals, sacrificing funds, sacrificing sleep, to make sure everything is done to the right accord to the specific vision that I have for the show.”

His regimes of discipline in pursuit of his art, have proven fruitful thus far, with a resumé encompassing four gallery exhibitions in contemporary art spaces in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Notably, a residency at Palabra in 2023, a TAFF grant supported solo exhibition at the Mood Room in 2022, and a group exhibition at Modified Arts Gallery during Black History Month in 2022. All his exhibitions and additional artistic efforts have served as an extended branch of the artist's personal growth, prompted by internal ruin, sacred time spent with loved ones and memories of his youth.

His second equation, “Expectation + ( ) = Endgame”,  is tasked with exploring an unfinished narrative – unironically in alignment with his artistic ethos of being guided by narratives he’s still investigating.

“Do I want the expectation of who's showing up, or do I want the expectation of how I want people to interpret the work? And I’ve come into a point where I'm like I just don't care. It's like the people that show up, show up. And the people that take something away from the exhibition will do so, you know, so it's still unfinished. I'm trying to figure out what that one exactly means. Always investigating things, which is nice.”

I departed Relics of the Chameleon feeling like there is something worthy to be gained from R.A.G.E.E. A turbulent, usually destructive emotion, but also an acronym the artist has developed to reflect Resilience, Acceptance, Grief and Emotional Exploration.

As the Arizona summer heat approaches and dusk falls on Relics of the Chameleon, the artist plans to travel abroad with his ideas into the summer and leading up to his birthday, which he considers to be the true start to his new year.

“This was probably the last body of work that's going to come out of that studio. My mother's spirit's gonna be carrying on to different places.”

Phil’s work offers a glimpse into the truths found when we self speculate, and embody our inner hunter-gatherer. His rugged, deeply personal, yet universal themes, caked in gritty layered textures and pink glitter, reveal the beautifully tragic reality of how to persevere through spiritually, physically and emotionally impactful happenings.

“Some of the best work comes from pain and Phil does an amazing job at telling those stories through his art,” YEK summarizes.

“I don't necessarily make pretty work. Yeah, I don't think that's me. And I'm, I'm fully okay with that too,” Phil reflects.

ENVY Magazine