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

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."