Debra Phillips studied at Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney, completing a Master of Visual Arts (Research) in 1990. Although photography is central to her practice, Phillips’ work also ranges across other forms such as sculptural objects, moving images, artist’s multiples and printed matter (including books, prints and newspapers).
Phillips’ practice focuses on her interest in systems of knowledge and understanding and their relationship to the making, thinking and shaping of individual and world views. These ideas are explored through recurring themes such as the indeterminacy of the physical world, the limitations of imperial quests for knowledge, disappearance and obsolescence. Her art examines the actions of photography as a wilful, aberrant and imperfect form of record that partakes in the processes of everyday history-making. Her exhibitions draw attention to the nature of photography – its structures of representation, convention and classification – and the way it supposedly records the real world. The idea that photography can operate as a physical space in which to place things for consideration or as a structure through which we can critique the world has preoccupied Phillips throughout her career.
Phillips often presents her exhibitions as multi-part components that emphasise the associative relationship of one photograph to another. Her interest in the desire for absolute knowledge and the implausibility of its attainment is evident in the exhibitions 52 sidelong glances (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2001) and The world as puzzle I and II (Boutwell Draper Gallery and Canberra Contemporary Art Space, 2001). Philosophical questions and their relationship to material objects, representation and everyday life are explored in the solo exhibition The roundest object in the world (BREENSPACE, 2012). This includes photographs of fabricated forms drawn from nature and advanced science that focus our attention upon moments when knowledge systems – including measurement – collide with material objects, presenting us with new ways of conceiving the world alongside aspects of its disappearing past.
In 1995 Phillips’ work was the subject of a solo survey exhibition Debra Phillips: Work 1992–1995 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Other solo exhibitions include: On this day, Anna Leonowens Gallery (Nova Scotia College of Art & Design University, Halifax, Canada, 2011), Debra Phillips (BREENSPACE, Sydney, 2009), Sit pretty (Institute of Contemporary Art Newtown, 2008), One thing leads to another (Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, 2006 and Boutwell Draper Gallery, Sydney, 2004) as well as exhibitions at Artspace, Sydney, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne and Adam Art Gallery, Victoria University of Wellington.
Major group exhibitions include: Photography & place: Australian landscape photography 1970s until now (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2011), Contemporary Australia: Optimism (Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2008), Perfect for every occasion: photography today (Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2007), Points of View: Australian Photography 1985-95 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2005), Photography is Dead! Long live Photography! (Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1996), and Australian Perspecta 1993 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1993). Phillips has undertaken various public photographic commissions including CSR Photography Project and Parliament House Construction Authority while site-specific projects include: Artists in the House! (Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney, 1997) and Swelter (Palm House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, 1999). In 1999 she undertook a major public art commission Viva Voce for Speakers’ Corner in Sydney Domain as part of the City of Sydney Sculpture Walk.
Debra Phillips is represented in national, international and private collections and she is the recipient of a number of residencies, awards and grants. Her work has been published in Twelve Australian Photo Artists (Blair French and Daniel Palmer, Sydney: Piper Press, 2009) and in Look: Contemporary Australian Photography Since 1980 (Anne Marsh, Melbourne: MacMillan Art Publishing, 2010).