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

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.

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.