Who ARE we? Philip Buller’s “Images of Ourselves” at Julie Nester Gallery

“Gitana,” Philip Buller, 60″ x 60″

“Gitana,” Philip Buller, 60″ x 60″

Collecting and displaying damaged artifacts, like broken pottery and scuffed postcards, was almost certainly a matter of necessity before it became a preference, but if the choice is between a flawless replacement and an original that shows a mixed patina of age, history, and prior condition, the latter will beat out the former on account of its palpable authenticity. Philip Buller is not alone in his apparent conviction that the characteristics of age and use are sources of great beauty, ones that also lend feelings like depth and warmth to images of contemporary life.

In the 18 paintings on exhibit at Julie Nester through March 27, the focus is on images from found photographs that Buller has layered and manipulated, sometimes using the same photo in contrasting ways in different paintings. While it might be as simple as his being unwilling to settle for a single approach for envisioning a subject, treating the image differently allows us to imagine someone who survives in a single photo at different moments of her life, as in “Gitana,” “Ourself,” and “Darkness.” Sometimes a single photograph appears several times in the same painting, which can lend an antique appearance a distinctly modern feeling.

Anyone who studies old photographs will know the effort that went into making them look like the dominant medium that photography was striving to replace: the formal, painted portrait. Underneath the embossed paper frame that replaced the gessoed wooden precedent, templates eliminated or masked the characteristic borders left by optical and chemical processes. Sometimes the image faded away where the light ran out, while other times brushstrokes revealed that the emulsion was applied by hand onto the paper. Only in the last half-century have some leading modern photographers allowed the evidence of such processes to show. Mistakes that would have been eliminated in the past have been brought to the fore, including the pixels that evidence enlargement of silver grain patterns. Buller in effect “quotes” these effects, painting through a variety of stencils and working in layers, rubbing some out and allowing others to show through like ghosts. Such strategies enrich these antique images while ushering them into not only the fact of the 21st century, but its look as well.

Of course, there are still more ways that modern pictures differ from older ones. Illuminated manuscripts were one-of-a-kind treasures of great value, while today’s books are identical copies, most of them cheap and disposable. Just so, painted portraits were unique and hard to copy, while photography initiated an age characterized by cheap, interchangeable, and disposable copies. Sometimes the value of the image, or lack thereof, seems to bleed back into the original. Those portraits we brought home from school, sleeves of identical faces sufficient for family and friends to share, were a benign variation on the file folders full of IDs serving the nefarious purposes of totalitarian and Kafkaesque bureaucracies. In fact, it was a common experience for immigrants, some of whom may be among Buller’s subjects, to surrender their names along with their homelands, leaving only photos, and later fingerprints, as evidence of their lives and fates. Something of that modern anonymity creeps into “How So” and “Blue Face,” and even “Look,” where a closer look reveals two women, not one, but raises questions just the same about their individuality.

There is a certain amount of blue, a primary color of mechanical reproduction, in these paintings, but no feeling of the Blues. Rather, a lively range of other primaries—red, yellow, and green, alternating with purple and gold, convey a sense, if not of ennoblement, then at least of sovereignty: a dignity surpassing the inexpensive processes that produced the originals. “Emma at the Oars,” in which the woman’s gaze down her oar conveys a universe of hints about her life and personality, does the opposite, as art should, of simplifying her. Two views, possibly of the same woman as was seen rowing, are particularly charming. One is titled “Bug Bit,” a dubious phrase that appears floating over her in the original photo. The explanation appears when “Bug Bit” is compared to another version of the same image, this one incorporating more of the original, in which all of what was written can be made out. “A Bug Bit Me” suddenly makes sense as the subject’s original narrative inscription on her picture. Together, the two works reveal something about the vagaries of life and the fragmentary stories that recount it, of how our knowledge of each other is never complete, but must somehow be found to be enough. The evidence that remains, if it survives, and, even better, is fortunate enough to be transfigured by Philip Buller, is the image of ourselves.

“A Bug Bit Me,” 22×30, oil on paper

“A Bug Bit Me,” 22×30, oil on paper

Images of Ourselves, paintings by Philip Buller, Julie Nester Gallery, Park City, through March 27.

View Entire Exhibition

Author: Geoff Wichert
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.


IMAGES OF OURSELVES at Julie Nester Gallery


February 23rd - March 27th, 2018
Artist Reception: Friday, February 23rd
Julie Nester Gallery
1280 Iron Horse Drive
Park City, Utah

New Works on Aluminum and Paper


A Savage in the Laboratory

To Whom it May Concern,

There has been a break in at the laboratory. It appears that, during the months we were away, someone has been living in the space and using our sensitive equipment. Somehow, without training or technical experience they have created images which include, not only our likenesses, but other mysterious shapes and symbols. We have gathered them together here to show you.

Our laboratory is remote and I have been aware for some time, that there are creatures living in the forest around us. Last year, along the shore, I found bare foot prints in the snow. And many times blurred movements at the edge of my vision have attracted my attention. But when I look, just a swaying branch, or nothing. I have always had the sense I was being seen.

On our return from a winter break, when we first unlocked the doors and turned on the lights, my first thought was that we had been vandalized. But seeing that none of the equipment is missing or obviously damaged makes the whole event more confusing. New developments confirm that, whoever these primitive creatures are, at least one of them has an interest in us beyond warm dry shelter. I found evidence that our visitor had even looked in our files. Without knowing our language, it is hard to imagine what this information would mean to them.

But what has been most surprising is their apparent attempt to communicate back to us. They have left us these objects, images of ourselves. We have no idea what they mean.

Yours Truly,
Philip Buller
January 2018


Part of my painting process involves searching for images which move me in some way. Again and again I find myself drawn to images from the early days of photography; the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I feel a sense of wonder, following in my mind the path that light has taken over 100 years, to reach me here in my studio.

Imagine: in 1900 sunlight reflects off a face and registers on a light sensitive plate. That impression is printed and finds it’s way into a book which I, in turn, scan, print, and manipulate. Here now, under this light, in this time, I work with the very same patterns generated by that long ago light.

I am aware of the time, attention, and effort of those who created these images. For this body of work: “Images of Ourselves” I want to acknowledge two photographers working around 1910: Frank Eugene and Baron A. de Meyer. They both produced stunning photogravure prints, where an image produced from a photographic negative is transferred to a metal plate and etched in.

While visiting the east coast several years ago I discovered another source image in a small book written by Carol Miles about Walter Sargent, an artist and educator working in New England around 1900. I was particularly attracted to some small intimate snapshots with notes written across the top taken in 1901 on his honeymoon with his bride Emma.

In our time so much information, including imagery, is at our fingertips. It’s so mysterious and satisfying to participate in this visible manifestation of connection across time, where memory and light are made tangible. 

Philip Buller
January, 2018

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.

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

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