The Galiano Library Presents: Meet the Artist

The Galiano Library Presents: Meet the Artist
Sunday July 2nd
5pm - 7pm
Artist's Talk 5:30pm
Galiano Library

Philip Buller was born in India, educated in California and now lives and works on Galiano Island. Buller spent many summers in the Mediterranean, teaching painting retreats in Italy and Greece. His work reflects his respect and admiration for the Renaissance and Baroque masters while including references to photography, printmaking and other more contemporary processes.

In addition to exhibiting extensively across the United States, Buller has had works acquired into public and private collections worldwide. He is represented in the US, the UK and Canada.

Exhibition runs July 1st - September 2nd

Source: http://sgicl.bc.libraries.coop/calendar/

Art Limited: Critic's Picks San Francisco

February 2017
by Barbara Morris
Art Ltd Magazine

Human experience, and the way our images and actions may coalesce in a variety of ways—often falling into familiar grooves, or patterns—informs the work of artist Philip Buller. This March, Dolby Chadwick Gallery will present an assortment of his large-scale works. Buller has recently begun working with found photographs that feature crowds, often employing an improvisational painting approach incorporating printmaking techniques as well as a Richter-like use of the squeegee, to create colorful, figurative oil paintings on linen. Brilliant abstract patches in orange or yellow may burst like poppies amid a scattering of hats, or a grid of windows. Mining sources ranging from vintage photo books, Renaissance art and Eadweard Muybridge to images found on the internet, the artist gleans visuals that speak to him for a variety of reasons, then subsumes his individual figures and actions into a vibrant display of intersecting forms. Inspired by screen-printing techniques, Buller often paints the linen through a mesh window screen, incorporating the residue left on the screen elsewhere in the composition, or in a different work entirely. Says Buller, “It is my intention to use these images as one might use a brush stroke… I intend to use them freely, with abandon even.” 

Philip Buller “Human Patterns” can be seen at Dolby Chadwick Gallery March 2 – April 1, 2017.

HUMAN PATTERNS, Dolby Chadwick Gallery

HUMAN PATTERNS
March 2nd - April 1st, 2017
Opening Reception on Thursday, March 2nd from 5:30 - 7:30 PM

Dolby Chadwick Gallery is pleased to announce “Human Patterns,” an exhibition of new work by the artist Philip Buller, opening Thursday, March 2. A painter whose practice is influenced by a range of art-making techniques, Buller explores patterns of human experience and organization by recognizing their echo in visual patterns.

Buller recently started working from found photographs that frequently feature crowds. Beach Memory (2016), for instance, is dominated by a network of interlocking bodies, both moving and stationary. While individual actors and groups are engaged in unique behaviors and interactions, when taken together, they produce a rhythmic, harmonious arrangement. 

Beyond the figure, Buller carefully attends to his paintings’ negative spaces, which not only are essential for describing a subject but contain truths in their own right. They also offer a “back door” into a painting that allows for a deeper, freer refinement of its formal and emotional elements. In a move that both deconstructs and highlights the role played by these loaded voids, Buller periodically transfers the negative shapes apparent within one painting onto the surface of another. Even if the viewer does not consciously recognize these recycled forms, they nevertheless have the potential to trigger an awareness of a deeper pattern.

Repetition of visual information, Buller notes, enables him to access a certain feeling in his work—one inflected by longing and familiar at a primal level. In earlier work, Buller used carefully comported faces—especially those looking back out, inviting us to partake in a shared experience—to ignite within us a recognition of what it means to be human and what it feels like to be alive. While this type of reflexive engagement is still of primary importance, Buller now sets it up through a focus on the power of repeated arrangements of shape and color. Here, cycles of human experience, such as loss and transformation, conflict and redemption, are newly articulated through direct visual proxies. The introduction of printmaking into the artist’s practice has proved invaluable in this regard: after painting through a screen set flush with the surface of a canvas, he uses the residue on the screen to reproduce the image—often distorted, flipped, or reversed—either elsewhere in the same painting or in a different work altogether. These visual echoes produce a numinous energy, which is heightened by his signature blurring and obscuring, while also opening up to contemplation the complex workings of memory. 

In addition to adopting printmaking techniques, Buller uses a type of alkyd painting medium that dries in twenty-four hours, forcing him to work for long stretches and without pause while the paint is still wet. He also frequently drags a squeegee across select passages in a manner reminiscent of Gerhard Richter. Buller explains that the squeegee is, for him, the tool of “letting go. It offers a wonderful moment of freedom—a freedom from the fear of ruining something hard won. Addressing the fear is what makes the process rich.” He considers how a commitment to generosity, writ broadly, exists at the heart of this impulse: “generosity, as opposed to courage, might be the opposite of fear. With paintings that move me, I feel that the maker is being generous. When the process feels like it is narrowing, generosity can break through that. The generosity is to work hard to create something, to become attached to it, and then to be willing to let it go.”

Many of Buller’s paintings can be understood as homages to the great painters of the Italian Renaissance, such as Titian, and the Baroque masters Caravaggio and Velazquez. He reveres these artists, he explains, for their unparalleled ability “to marry the aesthetic (symbolized by the eye), the conceptual or intellectual (the mind), and the spiritual (the heart)—and to recognize and manifest so profoundly human patterns of their time.” By studying their compositions and reworking them, he both participates in the original act of generosity that he strives to extend and repeats the age-old human custom of storytelling and interpretation.

Philip Buller was born in 1954, in New Delhi, India, to American diplomat parents. He earned a BA from Sonoma State University in 1992 followed by a MFA from California College of the Arts in 1994. In addition to exhibiting extensively across the United States, Buller has had works acquired into public and private collections worldwide. He currently lives and works on Galiano Island in British Columbia. This will be his first solo exhibition at Dolby Chadwick Gallery.

ICE, Julie Nester Gallery

ICE, Julie Nester Gallery
February 26th - March 27th
Park City, Utah

Interview by, Micah Schwaberow
January 6, 2016
 

Q:  What underlies this body of work that comes out of your personal history, is in your bones? How do you begin?

P:  I have a deep sensory memory from my childhood, that slightly vulnerable feeling of sliding over a slippery surface of ice, the cold making me feel alive. This memory is but the starting point, then the studio painting takes on a life of its own.  The work that unfolds has a power and an evolution and doesn’t necessarily stay with the original thought.

I invite figures from my references into the experience so that the paintings become not just about my personal story. It’s what authors say about writing their fiction; they end up following their characters. In painting a crowd certain figures are more intriguing and, over time, the others seem to fall away. Because these are paintings, which are visual before they are narrative, this inquiry often has to do with the shapes they make, the spaces between them, the light and shadow.

It is like I have a cast of characters that show up every night. They come from different stories and times and meet in my studio and together we build other stories than the ones they came in with. They fall out of time and space and re-order into something new.


Q:  What is the role of repetition in your work?

P: The repetition is a byproduct of my technical process. I paint through a screen and by the end of a long day I can use this screen to build compositions very quickly. I assemble all the characters and then I can manipulate (orchestrate) them intuitively. 

Humans have evolved to recognize pattern, repetition. Repetition also unifies the surface of the painting. The eye bounces from like to like. It could be a positive shape or a negative shape between. This is very much like music, when the chorus or a phrase of the music is repeated. 

With the paint on the screen I can transfer the image or parts of the image several times on different canvases until the image is only a ghost. I can also flip the image so recognition of the repetition happens subliminally.

Music is the perfect metaphor. repetition is not the melody; it is the rhythm. 


Q:  How do you achieve what could be called informed or articulate ambiguity in your paintings?

P:  Not everything needs to be depicted in the same level of detail. If there is a perfectly rendered face the mind can translate that information into other less distinct faces. The root of the viewer’s role is in the ambiguity. That’s where the mystery and the unknown reside, and where the viewer’s engagement begins. 

I spend all day rendering something as exactly as I can. But without ambiguity the painting doesn’t live. If my painting is too accurate, if it only has skill and facility, imagination and feeling are blocked. And so my paintings fluctuate between accuracy and chaos. 

Sometimes, looking at other paintings, I am struck by the skill and patience involved in creating it. But my involvement can stop there, with the mastery of the medium. If there is something unfinished my mind works to complete it. This is how the viewer enters the painting. Ambiguity invites and requires participation.

The accuracy of the original image I paint is of the utmost importance. The accuracy is composed of many small movements and lots of observation and critical decision-making. It requires practice, skill, discipline and conscious, directed intention. I devote many long hours of every painting day and evening to this. I don’t want the viewer to have the slightest hesitation in believing the image. Any inaccuracy would be a fatal flaw. Confidence in the image is absolutely crucial. Yet in the end I will completely alter it.

But I do not want the final image to be distorted by lack of skill; it is distorted by a clearly observable physical act. I begin with precision and then, like an indiscriminate wind, I pull a squeegee across the carefully rendered surface. 

The squeegee is a crude tool. It only requires physical force and deciding where to stop and start. I agonize about it. The more I am attached to what I have painted, the more difficult it is to use the squeegee, to likely wreck everything I have just done. It only takes a moment. The squeegee asks, not for courage exactly, but for a willingness to let go.

The squeegee doesn’t always work. It is a blunt instrument, making a large gesture that breaks open the precise rendering and leads directly to the ambiguity. When it does work it opens a door. There is no door without the accuracy. But without the movement of the squeegee, the ambiguity, the door remains closed; the viewer cannot enter.


Q:  What are you seeking as you work?

P:  I think about three elements: the eye, the mind, and the heart. I relate the eye to aesthetics, the mind to thought, and the heart to feeling. Skill affects the realm of aesthetics. This is the only one of these three elements that is contained in the painting itself. Thought and feeling are not in the painting. They are only in us, the viewer. I want the painting to stimulate a resonance with and within the viewer (me).

Actually, a painting is a resonance machine. If a painting works, the events on the surface begin to create a resonance within us. Meaning is perceived because of this resonance between the visual object and our thoughts and feelings. Ambiguity, in the painting, makes this response possible by leaving a doorway open for the viewer’s imagination, and therefore, participation.

In the best paintings this resonance keeps going, from the painting into me/the viewer; back into the painting; back out to us. Harmonic resonance is the ideal; there is a wave, an oscillation, wherein the visual information in the painting is in perfect energetic rhythm with the subject of the painting, and with the mind and heart of the viewer.

An important part on my process then is to seek and find imagery that will facilitate this resonance. My figures are not less or more important than the abstract shapes or colors or values, but they are a critical factor. I can mix any color, make any shape, but I need to find those images of figures outside of myself. 

The pace of the activity I am depicting is part of the harmonic resonance. In the past I have painted people standing with almost no movement and I have painted figures dancing, moving slowly. Now, the rhythm of sliding across the ice, which is often standing still yet moving, resonates within me.

ICE, Julie Nester Gallery
February 26th - March 27th, 2016
Park City, Utah

Press: American Art Collector

PHILIP BULLER
Paint/print hybrid
August 2015 Issue 118

When Philip Buller begins a new painting, he does not have the piece planned out beyond much more than a feeling, a whisper of mood, a ghostlike image of an idea. 

"It took me a long time to realize that most of what we talk about with art comes from the mind. It's usually intellectual; this is not a bad thing, but it is dominant," he says. "When you see a finished work you think that maybe it was conceived and then painted. For me it's more of a searching, a discovery through the work. Saying I'm going to paint about X, Y and Z, I could never make an interesting painting that way. I have to start and let the painting gradually come out."

Some of the painting comes out in his unique process, which is based around Buller's history with printing. He paints onto linen with a fiberglass screen stretched over it. His paints penetrate through the screen, creating distorted imagery and scattered colors, after which he can move the screen, which still has wet paint on it, and transfer it to another part of the painting, or to another work entirely. This unique hybrid of printmaking and painting allows Buller to explore the idea of repeated forms, a visual deja vu of figures and objects. The process, he says, can look backward at time. 

"When I paint for the day, I'll choose an image, a photo I've found or one I've taken, and I will paint a representation of that as accurately as I can. That can take many hours," he says. "And then I sort of destroy it. It's never destroyed completely, but it's definitely altered quite a bit."

In Buller's new show, at Quidley & Company's location in Nantucket, Massachusetts, the artist focuses much of his attention on beach scenes with many figures scrambled together against white sands or blue skies. Detail fades in and out of his college-like scenes, as do colors and imagery-a product of his inventive hybrid style. He created the pieces near Vancouver, far away from the beaches in his painting. "Claude Debussy wrote The Sea in the mountains. Maybe he feared too much sea while writing about the sea," he says. Living here in an isolated place, I'm free to explore things differently."

The works-including pieces like Time Added and Striped Umbrella, pieces that show his playfulness with his ocean-side subjects-are designed to trigger memories of summer vacations, of childhood, or warm afternoons by crashing waves. They can also lean toward environmental causes of which Buller is passionate about. 

"I just feel a little helpless about the state of the world and its oceans. They're being overfished and polluted. It's just tragic," he says. "I don't make political art, but as I look at works of art on the water I'm reminded of this old whaling photo. It had been taken in the early 1900s, and it was of a young woman, maybe a girl. She's sitting maybe in the bow of a rowboat, and she's very carefully removing a hook from the mouth of a tiny fish. There's something about her care and attention. She is the antidote for what we're doing to the environment."

“I am impressed with Philip’s unique approach to the construction of his paintings. With a technique that is influenced by his background in graphic design, the layered forms and interrelationships of figures in his compositions are always compelling. But I am most drawn to the ways in which Philip is able to create a moving story in his works; subsequent viewings of his paintings reveal a constantly changing, emotionally evocative narrative.”
— Chris Quidley, owner, Quidley & Company

Whether it's through his nostalgic scenes or his subtle environmental messages, the artist is hopeful that viewers connect with his work on many levels. Many years ago, he was taught a lesson about art and how it comes from three places: "The aesthetic, the kind of most immediate response to what you see. It would be the eye, if it were a body part. The second category would be spirit, which would be the heart; and the third would be the intellect, the mind. The eyes and the heart and the mind," he says. "Many artists use one, fewer use two, and even fewer still use three. It's my goal to always try to achieve all three."

pg 098, 099 www.AmericanArtCollector.com

Paintings featured in the article:

Striped Umbrella, oil on linen, 48 x 48"

Summer Day, oil on linen, 36 x 48"

Time Added, oil on linen, 94 x 112" 099

Press: Western Art Collector

October 2013

Similar to a miner, contemporary painter Philip Buller says he feels like he’s often in the dark searching. Faced with the unknown, both professions often rely on intuition to guide them.

“Miners are in the dark, searching for something of value, and that’s what I feel like when I’m working. I’m searching for meaning,” says Buller.

Ultimately, Buller strives to blend the rigor of representation and the freedom of spontaneity through an intuitive process. He begins by accessing his unconscious, tapping into the same well as dreams. “My method of doing this is to begin by working with shapes and without subject matter.” As the process continious, Buller explains. “I ask ‘what does the painting need rather than what do I need’....it is better for me to arrive at my subject in this mysterious way.”

A designer and builder as well as a painter, Buller prefers working on large scale paintings. He exploits ambiguity and incorporates abstract elements to create naturalistic, captivating works of art suggesting universal themes. In his solo show at Quidley & Company, titled An Other, Buller explores crowds of figures with all of the implications, including how we are separated and how we are connected?

“Crowds of figures are full of compositional possibility. From a distance they can appear like a color-field painting.” he notes. “And even though my paintings don't begin with the subject matter, as they develop, my questions begin to revolve around the subject, in this case crowds”

Buller's process swings back and forth like a pendulum between careful representation and spontaneous paint manipulation. In “Cast” one can see this. He explains, “We recognize the figures in the painting, but then there are shapes of paint which seem to be unrelated to them. These negative shapes, separated from their places in between the figures, seem to float in front and create visual tension.”

An Other opens October 24 at the Boston showroom. Buller muses, “Looking at these paintings I hope the viewer would recognize something about him or herself, memories perhaps. And that the paintings might stimulate questions about the nature of relationship."

Interview Essay on Philip Buller

August 28, 2012 

Early Years: People and Places 

Philip Buller’s childhood was colored by the experience of vastly different cultures. Born in Delhi, India to diplomat parents, he also spent early formative years in Africa. Later in his development he lived in a northern Virginia suburb of Washington, DC, with time spent in his ancestral home, New England.

Creativity was of high value in Buller’s family. He was encouraged early to follow his abilities and passions. After high school Buller left home to study graphic design at Carnegie Mellon University, but soon left school in order to pursue a career in music. During the next two decades, while living in Western Massachusetts and working as a musician, Buller developed design and building skills as part of an owner-builder school community.

During all these years, on the road as a musician and working as a journeyman builder, visual art functioned as a kind of journal, a record of a young man’s search for his true work. After moving to Northern California with his young family, Buller made the decision to study visual art more formally. He received a BA in painting and drawing from Sonoma State University and an MFA from California College of the Arts in 1994. During this time his most significant influence was the Bay Area painter Christopher Brown, with whom Buller studied independently.

For the next ten years, Buller exhibited at the Andrea Schwartz gallery in San Francisco and taught art at Santa Rosa Junior College. He also led painting retreats in Greece and Italy. During these summer retreats in Europe Buller was exposed directly to the works from the great western tradition of painting, specifically work from the Italian Renaissance. The brilliance and skill of Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Velazquez and others made an indelible impression and continue to resonate in Buller’s work.

Today Buller continues his painting practice on Galiano Island in the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia, Canada, where he has built a home and studios for himself and his wife, Janet Adler the founder of the Discipline of Authentic Movement.

Process and Materials

Buller has developed a unique technique that incorporates some aspects of printmaking within the practice of oil painting. Working often from photographic sources he paints through screens which retain enough paint to transfer the image to other parts of the surface or to other paintings. Often the paint is also manipulated with large squeegees.

"The tension between rigorous observation and intuitive paint manipulation is what interests me most these days. I think it involves both sides of my brain in some way and echoes the patterns of ebb and flow that I experience around me here on the island."

Subject Matter and Themes

Philip Buller’s work is primarily figurative and representational.

"For the paintings in my current exhibition, “Every One,” I began my research as I often do, with some interest in photographs. Stumbling upon an image of a beach filled with people I was drawn at first to the abstract qualities of the photo and to the colors. The close observation required in my painting process began to reveal details of the groups and the individuals that make up this sea of shapes. Certain figures and interactions interest me more than others and, as I enlarge and reposition the forms, the relationships between them inform my thinking about how to proceed and ultimately the themes that tie the paintings together.

All these little shapes, these tiny figures, each one full of secrets. All the spaces and connections between them. The visual complexity is a perfect metaphor for the ocean of relationships within which we swim. I have a sense that just beyond my comprehension, but perhaps within reach of my unconscious, is an ineffable truth concerning the relationship between the one and the many.

Of primary interest to me is the juxtaposition of a controlled and carefully rendered realism with a more intuitive and recognizably physical manipulation of the paint. The tension between these ways of working creates the energy in the paintings. Often I spend most of the work day executing the former and the last few hours risking the destruction of my labors by trusting more in my intuition and fostering a spirit of abandon. But for me the two ways are inexorably bound together. The one reliant on the other. I often hear in my head words from a Tom Waits’ song: “You must risk something that matters.”

Another important theme which has appeared in my work for some time concerns the gaze and attention of the figures in the painting. Often they are reacting to something which is happening outside of the boundaries of the painting, something we can’t see. This dynamic creates a space for the viewer’s imagination to inhabit. Something’s happening here but we don’t know what it is, an apt description of being alive."

Current Inspiration

"One of my favorite activities is sailing. Aside from experiencing the awesome beauty of moving through the great space, which seems more evident on the water, here the essential qualities which I seek are invited, sometimes demanded: a heightened attention, a presence, one which is broadly focused to include many variables. This is the state of mind I seek in the studio."

Press: The Park Record SCENE

November 18, 2009

Digging Beneath The Surface

Artist delves into Park City’s past “In the Mines,” by Alisha Self

Artist Philip Buller visited Park City this summer with a specific objective in mind: to find out what the town’s story is. 

Buller had been commissioned to create a large-scale mural for the new St. Regis Deer Crest Resort. The only requirement was that the work had to be historically relevant.

He came to Park City on a quest to find our about the town’s underlying theme. “It was immediately clear that it was silver mining.” he says. “I didn’t have to look far.”

To gather information, Buller perused the collections and photo archives in the Park City Museum and visited the remaining mine structures in the area. “I was trying to immerse myself in that whole story and trying not to think too much about the painting,” he says.

When he returned to his home on Galiano Island, British Columbia, Buller had at his fingertips and arsenal of images, research and stories. All he had to do was decide how he wanted to portray Park City’s mining heritage on a 7-by-27-foot rectangular panel.

They asked for something historical, but they did not specify anything more than that, which was really nice for me because it gave me some freedom,” Buller says.

He spent about a month sketching a pastel drawing to present to the St. Regis management. Once he had their approval, he got to work on the larger project, which consists of three linen-covered panels that will be placed in the resort’s bar.

“My interest and my excitement about it was to have the painting depicting what it would actually be like to be in the mines,” he says. In order to explore the miners’ limited light sources, he took a series of photos of himself and his son illuminated by candle light.

The effect was similar to the lighting in paintings that Buller has studied from the 1500s and 1600s. He went back and examined paintings by Caravaggio and others that he used while teaching at painting retreats in Italy. “I was exposed to a lot of those paintings and loved them, and I always look at them for inspiration and consider those painters to by my teachers,” he says.

As he started painting, one of the challenges Buller ran into was visualizing the angle at which people would be viewing the work. The mural will be situated about four feet off the ground and extend to the ceiling. “I realized in the beginning that I really needed to be able to see it in that location in my studio,” Buller says. He hung the panels and created a block and tackle system to hoist himself to different levels. “It was something right out of the Renaissance, and it was quite satisfying,” he says.

Another challenge was deciding which type of event - or moment in time - he wanted to depict. “Most renaissance paintings are about a single event,” Buller explains. “Because I admire those painters so much, I wanted to work in that direction. I wanted to have an event of some kind, and the three panels would function as one painting of a moment in the mines when something happened.”

It soon occurred to Buller that he didn’t want to encapsulate just one moment, but several moments. “It became clear to me in the process that if I stuck with this idea of one moment, it didn’t include a certain kind of timelessness,” he says. He strived to encompass memories and suggestions of other moments in the mines as well. “It kind of broke through a singular time and also a singular space in a way,” he says.

The miners portrayed in Buller’s work are not specific people, but he took great pains to create authentic realistic expressions on their faces. “The fine tuning was a lot of the process...painting and repainting the faces over and over just to get the right expression and the right balance,” he says.

He also grappled with the balance between the conscious and the subconscious components of the painting. “To me, a very important aspect of painting is a certain kind of a meeting between the left brain and the right brain,” he says.

When the painting starts to drift in one direction, he reexamines his method and tries to pul it back the other way, reveling in the tug-of-war between mystery and clarity. “Those two aspects together are what really make painting exciting for me and they’re what lead me,” he explains.

“For the viewer, you see something that’s recognizable, but you also get a feeling of something that’s a little harder to pin down or explain,” he says. “You can feel some change happening. That’s a lot of the work of painting for me, keeping that delicate balance and trying to arrive at the right mixture of those two sides.”

Buller describes his process as traditional oil painting with elements of printmaking. Before he begins, he attaches a piece of fiberglass window screen over the canvas’ surface. He paints through the material, and when he removes the screen, enough wet paint clings to it that the image can be easily transferred to another canvas. He also uses large rubber squeegees to move the paint around, which creates a unique texture and blurs the brushstrokes a little bit.

The process lends itself to creating a series of paintings rather than a single work. That’s why, as Buller was working on the piece for the St. Regis, he painted 10 other pieces of various sizes, which will be displayed at Julie Nester Gallery starting Nov. 20.

I have a whole body of work that kind of grows as one,” he explains. “They all progress; I don’t finish one painting and put it away and start another. I’m working on them all at once. In one sense they’re all one painting, but they have their own personalities.

Buller took the project as an opportunity to reflect on mining both as an experience and as a metaphor. “My understanding of the creative process is that the subject might be about the mines, but to really transform and become something illuminating, it also needs to be about something much larger than that,” he says. “The mines become a metaphor or the miners digging deep for something of value, and that’s what we all do. That’s certainly what I’m doing when I’m painting.”

Buller’s mural at the St. Regis Deer Crest Resort will be unveiled at the hotel’s grand opening event on Nov. 24. Julie Nester Gallery will host an artist’s reception for Buller on Friday, Nov. 20, from 5:30 until 8 p.m. The “In the Mines” exhibit will remain on display at the gallery through Dec. 28. For more information, visit www.julienestergallery.com or call (435) 649-7855. 

 www.parkrecord.com

Review: In the Spirit of Velazquez

The San Diego Union-Tribune; Visual Arts

November 02, 2006

Philip Buller uses an image from the master as a springboard for ‘seeing’ 

In the Spirit of Velazquez by Robert L. Pincus, Art Critic

Referencing great historical paintings can be a tricky proposition for a contemporary artist. Adhere closely to some beloved artist or school and the painter flirts with the danger of looking like a slavish recycler of glories past.

Philip Buller, who recently relocated to Galiano Island near Vancouver after a quarter of a century in Sebastopol, eludes this unfortunate fate with his new paintings. He is reverential toward his sources without becoming redundant.

The exhibition is titled “Seeing”. The stated source for at least some of the 14 selections on view at the Susan Street Fine Art Gallery is Velazquez’s “Las Lanzas (The Surrender of Breda 1634)", one of the great Spanish painter’s large-scale history paintings. Though it is a painting about war and conquest, as the title says, it depicts civil behavior on the battlefield: The Spanish victors are being gracious to their Dutch counterparts, who are handing over the key to the city.

Buller’s own paintings don’t reveal a strong interest in the historical particulars of Velazquez’s picture. Scores of painters commemorated events for royal patrons across Europe in the 17th century. But Velazquez's survive not only because they are dazzlingly executed, but because the faces take on a life of their own. Velazquez was ever so modern in the way he conceived of character. Figures don’t exist simply as props for the public moment depicted, but as individuals who look as if they are following their own stream of thought about events.

This is the aspect of Velazquez from which Buller teases out a sequence of his own arresting paintings. In most of the 14 examples on view, the figures are not directly borrowed from Velazquez’s image. They are in the spirit of his figures - men, women and children of his time painted in a style that owes as much to the late 20th century and the 21st as the 17th.

The figures are defined by broad sweeps of color and look as if their faces are in the process of dissolving or materializing. They are done in close-ups. Buller seems like he is imagining a picture as some detail of a larger one. And in some portion of nearly every canvas, he applies the paint through a screen, suggesting a sort of veil through which we are viewing the image. (In a few, he literally attaches a section of painted screen.)

One stellar example is “Occurrence”, with its three figures standing close together, all cropped at about mid-chest. They are lost in thought: one with eyes closed, the middle figure staring into the distance and the third looking at something nearby. Buller makes it appear like we are standing close to the trio and yet they display no awareness of the viewer. The effect is haunting.

His subjects sometimes become phantoms, as in “Woman’s Face, Open Mouth”. The face is separate from the soft blocks of color that surround it and yet inseparable from them too. In “Open, Closed”, he isolates a pair of faces. One has eyes and mouth open; the other, closed. Again, background and human subject are virtually one.

Buller cites Christopher Brown, a stellar Bay Area artist, as a mentor and, like Brown, he reveals a keen interest in the way a painting can incorporate abstraction without losing sight of the figure. But Buller has clearly figured out how to apply Brown’s influence in his own distinctive way, just as he has found a way to turn his passion and close study of Velazquez and other old masters into paintings that speak poetically to the mysterious bond between present and past. 

Press: Artweek

September 2005

Philip Buller has spent years studying such famous western art historical masters such as Della Francesca, Caravaggio and Velasquez, and their inspiration is apparent in his current work. Particularly interested in a dramatic use of contrast, Buller specialized in framing light and darkness as ideas which themselves hold meaning and reflection. 

In previous works, Buller placed specific focus on a mysterious figure who looks back, drawing the viewer in the painting's internal story. Borrowing fragments of semitransparent images lifted or copied from renaissance compositions, Buller creates a plan between familiarity and disorientation. We somehow recognize the images, but are thrown by their removal from their original context, and by their studied repetition. The focus, placed so intimately on the close-up detail of the human face promises some kind of intimacy that is frustrated by the repetition and ambiguity that permeates the space. 

Philip Buller: Recognition will be on view October 6 through November 19 at Andrea Schwartz Gallery, 525 2nd St., San Francisco.