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.