The Charm of Philip Colbert | His New Journey from Karuizawa to Taipei


Philip Colbert – Journey to the Lobster Planet

Philip Colbert is a contemporary artist who has created a global following for his cartoon lobster persona, often seen wearing a crown and an iconic fried egg suit over its bright red body. The vivid hues of his innovative art is set to colorize the autumn cityscape of Taipei, with the Whitestone Gallery Taipei holding a solo exhibition entitled "Journey to the Lobster Planet - Taipei". Before we delve into Colbert's latest creative journey, we take a look back on his grand exhibition that ran until September 2023 at the Karuizawa New Art Museum. This article explores the essence of Philip Colbert's art through an essay by Eiichi Matsuhashi, director of the Karuizawa New Art Museum.

"Philip Colbert – Journey to the Lobster Planet" exhibition installation view

Philip Colbert's Artistic Technique

Eiichi Matsuhashi
Karuizawa New Art Museum Director

It was a pleasure to hold an exhibition of Philip Colbert's artworks, focusing on his newest works that include some large pieces of art. At first glance, his works seem to depict a cartoon character living in an animated world, but I think that this, in a sense, is Colbert's strategy to test if the viewer is willing to take his art seriously.

Colbert's art looks fun and bright on the surface, but it is actually more than just carefree compositions of a cute character in a fantasy world. He makes use of a unique style to softly express a critique of the complex and helpless nature of modern society, as well as the authoritative and hierarchical structure of the art world. Seeing his art is like drinking a powerful drug that is heavy but pleasant in the mouth.

"Philip Colbert – Journey to the Lobster Planet" exhibition installation view

I talked to Colbert about a variety of topics during his time in Japan, but what I found most interesting was how we shared many common sentiments, including a candid respect for Surrealist artists, and an admiration for handmade art.

Colbert's works, especially his large sculptures, are actually commissioned artworks. He creates an original design, then entrusts the work to a professional sculptor who shapes it from metal or stone. But his fixation for handmade art also applies to this commissioned work. I originally thought that his marble sculptures were carved by a machine based on data entered into a 3D printer, but in actuality, the work is done by a human sculptor. This is because Colbert places much importance on creating things by hand.

Similarly, he also makes use of various touches to create his paintings. Depending on the work he is creating, he chooses a historical painting style and uses certain techniques to replicate that specific style. For example, when he explains one of his paintings, he would say that he used a Romanticist style on one part, a printing method on another part, and Van Gogh’s style on another part. He adopts the most appropriate style for each part of the painting and implements all of it by hand. This is similar to the creative process used by animation studios today, where the character images and story created by an artist materialize through the hands of several people who refine the work and transform it into something more complete.

Philip Colbert explains his artwork to the exhibition guests

Colbert has a better understanding and higher affinity for digital technology and culture than the average person, and he is definitely an artist who makes use of new techniques proactively. However, he does not consider the future to be something entirely new and separate from the past or present world. Rather, he seeks to explore the future as an extension of the present, while simultaneously exploring the past. As a result, his paintings often depict the present in the center, with the past and the future expanding boundlessly on either side.

As evident from his large paintings, Colbert is known for depicting his lobster avatar alongside many famous artists and artworks from the past, regardless of the time period or genre. They are paintings that simultaneously evoke images of a movie scene or a stage play. By their nature, paintings can only express a single, unmoving scene, but when you look at Colbert’s works, you can see a progressing story with the lobster as the protagonist. You can even visualize the scene that comes before or after.

One of the most dramatic elements of his art is his lobster avatar, who is sometimes depicted as a shark, or as a cactus at other times. It sometimes wears Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal or Van Gogh’s sunflowers around its neck. To use Colbert’s own words, the lobster is often “wearing a costume”. In essence, when his lobster alter ego wears a costume, he is creating a multi-layered structure, and this ingenious system makes the story within the painting move forward. His paintings depict a specific scene within which time seems to progress.

Philip Colbert "Dark Hunt Triptych" (2018, 270.0 × 585.0 × 4.5 cm, oil and acrylic on canvases)

A painting can be a self-contained work that is complete by itself, or it can depict a single scene that captures a specific part of a continuous story. In Colbert’s case, his paintings have a very strong sense of the latter. This is why his paintings contain elements of story-telling and the passage of time. It can be said that this is the underlying philosophy behind his artworks, a quality that it shares with many Surrealist paintings.

If you look only at the character aspect of Colbert’s art, it can be hard to understand that it has a defiant spirit that challenges literary or authoritative ideas. This defiant stance comes from Surrealism, and I believe that Colbert’s strategic approach of digitally expressing this mentality in a bright and fun way makes it an important artistic style.

"Philip Colbert – Journey to the Lobster Planet" exhibition installation view

Colbert’s latest work is a digital animation project that actually contains various plots unfolding over the course of a story. The simple and flat characters encounter various situations as they go about the fictional city of Lobsterpolis.

Philip Colbert trying out the UBER LOBSTARBOT, an art-making robot

By simplifying modern society into a bright and stimulating world, and reducing daily life as well as various arts and music into flat elements, Philip Colbert presents us with a closer look at the issues within that world. Though it appears to be imaginary, it is a reflection of the truth. Pondering the modern aspect and meanings expressed by Colbert’s works is crucial to understanding the true significance of his art.

"Philip Colbert – Journey to the Lobster Planet"

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