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Painting the past in the present

ANNA BLOOM, Of the Record staff

Destruction meets creation in Philip Buller’s paintings, where faces and echoes of faces weave in and out of squeegeed paint.

On one hand, he spends hours with a brush, crafting realistic portraits of visages old and new some are the familiar features of his family; others he borrows from centuries-old masters, like17th century Spanish artist Diego Velazquez.

On the other, the hours he spends are on a screen he will press against the canvas and remove like a giant homemade stamp, leaving the image brushstroke-less and blurred. At times he reuses his homemade print, and the same face pops up again, but more faintly, haunting the other faces like a ghost.

The result of his printmaking-type process is a body of work that composed of smooth, often faint faces, four, five, six juxtaposed, repeated and overlapping each other like a projected image from a kaleidoscope.

Atop the faces and between, he practices the art of demolition, swiping lightly over the images and in-between with a squeegee full of paint, in a palate that resembles the gray mineral-based paints the old master’s used. The technique creates a patina that mimics the fabric of aging, chipped hundred-year-old frescos that have been painted and repainted.

Buller, who lives on Galiano Island near Vancouver, visited Park City to kickoff his latest show titled "Looking In," which opened Friday night at Julie Nester Gallery.

Much of his aesthetic naturally emerges from the summers he’s spent since 1995 teaching painting workshops in Tuscany, Italy. "It comes unconsciously from looking at murals," he says.

But his interest in past painters is intentional and inspired by his desire to revive the craft of painting.

"The trick is to use the skill, but not have it be an anchor," he explains. "I look at the great masters and they remained contemporary, but at the same time, they were dedicated, committed craftsmen they needed to be chemists to mix their paint and scientists to know anatomy, just to paint."

But often he finds his wish to perfect his craft at odds with the creation of something new, which is in part why he chooses to smear the pristine figures he has spent a full day painting.

He says the tension between creating and destroying in his paintings "highlights the central issue of letting go it’s the skill that’s hard to let go of, so I risk obliterating it."

Buller says the best way of accessing the unconscious is to paint intuitively, and these days, to help him tap into his intuition, he begins with the color left over on his painting palate. He challenges himself to use up all of the paint every last drop of cobalt blue and burnt sienna to start his paintings.

"I start out with just shapes, totally intuitive, big areas of color," Buller explains. "It almost doesn’t matter big shapes of color."

A part of Buller finds that he is compelled by the composition in his paintings, and that it might not even matter what he decided to paint, so long as the relationships between the images pleases him.

"I’m working with the face, but using it as a formal element," he explained. "What gives a painting its power, is its composition."

That’s not to say that the faces he chooses are incidental. Buller’s images are of specific paintings and often have common characteristics. The faces tend to have quiet expressions with eyes askance or eyes closed. And there are specific sources he uses more than others. He especially likes the expressions of Velazquez’s "Las Lanzas (The Surrender of Breda)" (1634).

But he finds the heart of what moves him to paint is "ineffable." If he knew how to articulate the reason he chooses those faces he paints, he would be a writer, not a painter, he says.

Robert L. Pincus, art critic for The San Diego Union-Tribune was the closest anyone has come to spelling out his affinity for the figure, he said.

What Buller captures about Velazquez are figures that "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," Pincus wrote.

Philip Buller’s paintings will be on display through March 27 in the Julie Nester Gallery, located at 1755 B Bonanza Drive in Park City. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information call the gallery at 649-7855 or e-mail info@julienestergallery.com . The gallery also has a Web site at http://www.julienestergallery.com.


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