Rising artists to watch: Buck Ellison

Carlo Prada

Born in San Francisco and graduated at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, Buck Ellison is one of the strongest voices now representing American whiteness and wellness contradictions.

Banality is its own reward. Buck Ellison‘s photographs depict the life of the Californian upper middle class like a commercial advert. But right when you think this is the portrait of the perfect life, there a dysfunctional detail begins to slithers under the immaculate surface.

If these images were stills, they could be out of a movie by English auteur Joanna Hogg. In Unrelated (2007), as much as in Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013), Hogg gives voice (or actually, we’d rather say silence) to a comedy of manners, while her camera invades the life and relationship of her moneyed English families, developing her focus on unsettling details, spaces and domesticity. Hogg’s films are rooted in very particular places. The same happens with Ellison who, after graduating from Frankfurt’s Städelschule in 2014, returned to his native California to reproduce through his large format camera the customs of a social milieu he knows very well.

Ellison’s photographic style recalls Tina Barney, a member of the Lehman family, who took large portraits of her WASP family and friends, describing a vanishing world and a vanishing way of life within the closed society of an enclave. Ellison, on the other hand, re-creates mundane scenes sourcing everything painstakingly. In this way, he is more similar to Hogg than Barney: in both cases in fact, real situations are staged and performed by actors (let’s not forget the Los Angeles based photographer proximity to Hollywood).

«I am not interested in their (ndr. characters’) subjectivity» explains Ellison, «I hire people to help illustrate a moment that we would otherwise not be able to see». In these pictures perfection is far from being flashy but is suggested by a whole series of props and elements that belong to a rarefied Ralph Lauren aesthetic: simple cashmere jumpers and neutral understated colors are safe and chic, informal and disciplined.

Let’s look at Cheeseboard, 2016, for example. Here a young couple is presumably wedding shopping. They wear the same kind of neat casual clothes we can expect from someone well behaved belonging to their class, and are considering a large size chopping board at the centre of the picture. The whole atmosphere, such as her bag and the type of products perfectly displayed, suggests this is the kind of environmentally conscious bohemian shop the artist approached when he started his own linen company after graduating from Columbia University in 2010. Precision and clinical vision make the situation very artificial despite the plasticized efforts of the subjects to communicate an authentic lifestyle.

In Pasta Night, 2016, we find another couple reproducing a scene from John Currin painting “Homemade Pasta”, 1999. Two men are pushing dough in a steel pasta-maker, surrounded by untouched still life of yellow lemons and green vegetables, possibly coming from their immaculate garden. While the fact that one of them is wearing only an apron suggests they might be married and living comfortably between them; this detail is not only functional to a narrative but throws the viewer in a voyeuristic discomfort by putting him right up in the action.

Wellness often appears in Ellison’s images, to the limit of being nearly ascetic. If this pasta is made at night, it probably means it is an exception to a type of diet that rules everyday life; if the girls are consuming hummus in the homonym photograph and not chips, it’s because being healthy to the point of being inhuman, recalls some sort of 17th century Protestant secularism that is part of this society striving for perfection through discipline. «Wellness is an industry, so that’s one explanation, but there’s also a deeper denial-of-the-flesh undercurrent to it» says the artist, «I hear echoes of it everywhere: “I go to boot camp every day at 5:30 a.m.,” “I avoid orange – and pineapple based juices – too much sugar. A little beet juice is sweet enough for me. Dinner is the one meal I sit down and enjoy, simple things like roast chicken and big salads”».

Wellnes plays a big role in another couple of pictures. In Sunset, 2015, two young boys are sticking political bumper stickers onto an expensive car. We witness here moments of profanity and search of identity through rather innocents acts. Besides that, the guy on the right is wearing a tank top and showing a mark on the back of his left shoulder. “Cupping” is a traditional Chinese-medicine therapy popular even among the preppiest students at Bay Area private schools, the kind of school Ellison attended.

In Thyroid Problem, 2015, a looking not that ill girl sitting on her bed reminds the definition given by Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor (1978) to tuberculosis as a symbolic illness of the 19th century, which in novels and operas, affected a specific segment of the society. In his subtle but sharp critique and by being simultaneously in and out that world, Buck Ellison turns out to be one of the strongest voices out there to represent the American whiteness and its contradictions in the age of Trump.

October 12, 2017