Former Cheyenne artist merges art, AI
April 14, 2022
CHEYENNE - Kevin Phillips is still getting used to his mustache.
For the most part, he can hardly grow a beard. It comes in thick around his jawline, but he points and laughs at how not a follicle will appear on his cheeks.
After a year of perseverance, the hair above his lip is sculpted with classic, maniacal handlebars that curl up next to his nose. His inspiration was one of his earliest influences, Salvador Dali, who grew his own mustache out to where its ends nearly reached his eyes.
"Everybody is gonna be a brand in the future," he said over coffee. "It's like, 'How do I differentiate myself from them?" In the last month and a half, I've decided to go full on with a mustache, and I'm gonna go Salvador Dali with it."
Phillips is a Front Range artist. He grew up in Nebraska, moved to Cheyenne when he was 16, and now lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was here that he pursued a degree in fine art at Laramie County Community College, and where he learned to really critique his own work, refine it and, only after mastering the technicalities, break all the rules.
Phillips has taken on an unexpected new endeavor in the past year, one that's growing more and more prevalent in the life of a professional artist. He's sharing his work, critiquing others and creating a community more than he ever expected.
"My brother was the one that convinced me to get a TikTok a couple years ago, and it was like within the first month, my first viral post went crazy." Phillips said about being "moderately famous" on the popular video sharing app. "Two million views ... Hanging art in a coffee shop is nice, and people see it, but $300 to $400 worth of sales isn't paying the bills when a 15-second clip on TikTok makes thousands of dollars."
His popularity on TikTok escalated quickly. He'd spent years marketing his artwork on other social media platforms, like Instagram, but had failed to gain a following.
He now has about 55,000 followers that he consistently interacts with. One of his earliest videos reached more than 2 million views, several others are in the hundreds of thousands, while others fail to gain any traction.
"It's like, that's Cheyenne," he said, comparing his number of followers to the city's population. "Minus the military base, that's Cheyenne. It's like, holy smokes, what if everybody in Cheyenne just knew about me? How would I be perceived around here?"
Phillips has a unique art style. He's influenced by Dali, but then there's the famous street artists Banksy and Shepard Fairey, and Alyssa Monks, an American figurative painter who creates abstract, hyperrealistic portraits.
For so long, Phillips was absorbing the work of artists like these, incorporating abstract elements and street art techniques to create colorful multimedia projects of pop art and psychedelic oddities.
Phillips mentions the quote 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' in reference to the most unexpected experience he's had online. Recently, he's been tagged in videos of people recreating some of his original artwork as he did in his tutorials.
"It's kind of come to a full circle, where I'm seeing people that are recreating pieces that I've done. It's weird," he said.
But it hasn't come without a good deal of change – like growing a mustache, for instance. It's a product of the realization that to build a fanbase, he first must build a persona.
Always the introvert, Phillips now has to work to be a more approachable character. In a sense, the person in his videos is different than himself – he needs to smile, crack jokes and keep energy high. Growing his presence on the popular app has forced him to reconsider how people perceive him.
His image dictates how people interact with him and his content, which makes all the difference in whether his art is selling. Already, he's started making a small amount of money through some viral videos, and the rest through traffic to his website, all while continuing to gain a following on the app.
It's a precarious position to be in. On one end, he has to please viewers and structure videos so that the mysterious TikTok algorithm curates them into everyone's feed. Serve the viewers too much, though, and he'll lose sight of his craft.
"I'm doing it for the craft," he said. "I'm putting a lot more thought into the stories that my artwork is telling now. I used to want the artwork to speak for itself. Now, I need to speak for the artwork a little bit more."
About a year ago, he leaned a little too far into his pop art style with the intent of attracting views on TikTok, sticking mainly to recreating celebrities' likenesses in colorful portraits. Thanks to this approach, he had a good three- to four-month period where he was questioning his passion for art.
Then he had a realization. Phillips was letting the social media algorithms control him, and there was something to that concept that he wanted to explore.
Combining his fine art experience – including a fascination with color theory – and his talent for multimedia street art, he chased the concept of humanity's increasing interaction with artificial intelligence.
It's possible that humans and AI programs aren't so different in their actions. Phillips came across a growing movement of artwork created by AI, where programmers create algorithms that instruct AI to learn a specific aesthetic to create an image, similar to the inner workings of the human brain.
The result is a new kind of art, one that is the accumulation of thousands of codes. This is what his "Glitch" series is about, along with much of his work since – finding the parallel between AI and how humans interact with one another electronically.
"I wanted to tell a story and put forth the narrative that things are chaotic, but very structured," he said about his "glitch art." "That's kind of an AI type of thing. They create these really crazy looking images, but AI is extremely structured.
"Line by line, you could tell it what it's doing and why it's doing it. I'm trying to replicate that, but in a more human way."
Out of his catalogue, this concept heavily applies to his personal "Last Supper," titled "Rebirth."
The painting conceptualizes time as a cyclical entity, creating a chaotic and multifaceted image of color and abstract symbolism, detailed and eclectic, that comes together as one image, similar to the thousands of digital coded dots laid in place by a computer program.
The big difference is that all of Phillips' work is painted, not digitally designed.
"I'm definitely putting my own twist on it," he said of his AI-inspired art. "I'm making a reference to how AI interacts with humans and how humans interact with AI. Humans really are being affected by social media and things like it."
There's more work to be done in the field of AI art, and Phillips' ability to forge his own style becomes more evident as he continues to paint. He's identified a connection between his TikTok presence and his artwork, and his most recent series draws a connection between the hidden algorithms of the popular app and the controlled chaos of AI art.
Visit the online forum Reddit, and search the subreddit called "place." It's both a forum and an art movement where thousands of people contribute to one moving image, one pixel at a time. Somehow, complex images comes together in the end, though they're constantly changing over a span of five minutes.
Phillips remembers watching one of these come together. Then, as the timer wound down, there was a coordinated attack on the final product, anonymous participants sabotaging the image with white pixels.
"It blanked out the whole thing," Phillips said. "But it was really strange to me how it looked like an AI was doing it. It made me think that AI might be more like us than we think.
"If you told somebody that an AI did that, they would believe it with the way it was branching out."
Both on the canvas and online, Phillips is learning think in algorithms.
A body of Phillips work will be hanging in Freedom's Edge Brewing Co. beginning April 14 as a part of the final installment of the second-Thursday Cheyenne Artwalk. His work is also online at https://linktr.ee/KAPGallery.
This story was published on April 9.