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."