JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 works, framed in white and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the office area. All of the works are wet photograms with ferric ammonium citrate, potassium ferricyanide, and suspended watercolor, made in 2020. Physical sizes are 30×22 inches (or the reverse), and all of the works are unique. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: When a contemporary photographer chooses to use an antique process like cyanotype, one of the primary reasons for the decision is often a desire to reintroduce some hand-crafted unpredictability back into the art-making flow. In an age where the perfection of digital reproduction is the norm, embracing the uncertainty of hand-applied chemicals can be liberating, if only because it makes room for the inspirations of chance and accident.
The deep blue color of cyanotype is the hallmark of one of its pioneers, Anna Atkins, whose mid 19th century botanical studies combined scientific rigor with natural precision and elegance. And while it is still entirely possible to make cyanotype photograms in much the same way Atkins did more than a century ago (using hand coated papers and the light of the sun), Brian Buckley’s recent works expand the traditional cyanotype palette to include a range of other ethereal hues, by experimenting with the addition of watercolor pigments to the traditional chemical mix. Not only do his works probe the depths of various blues, soft versions of orange, pink, purple, and yellow open up other atmospheric alternatives.
The works on view in this show all share the same general subject matter – an octopus, or in a few cases, an octopus joined by a tiny baby octopus or two. Buckley’s compositions find the expressive side of these specimens, making the most of their suckered legs, their many elongated tendrils, and the classic form of their bulbous rounded heads, as seen from both the side and from underneath. As a group, the works take on a theme and variation structure, with each individual picture seeming to capture a momentary glimpse before the animal slips away into the surrounding darkness.
Many of the images feature the main octopus surrounded by or hovering over one or more babies. We might normally attach a maternal meaning to such compositions, seeing a protective parent using her arms and body to shield the young ones from danger. Buckley upends this assumption by tying his images instead to Dante’s story of starving Count Ugolino and his children, freighting the pictures with an altogether more dark and grisly mood. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux famously captured Ugolino gnashing his teeth while the children beg for his mercy, the question of whether he actually ate them or not never answered by the well-known 19th century sculpture. Buckley’s modern variations use splashes of unexpected watercolor to add haunting touches to the compositions, both the main octopus and the babies alternately dappled with bloody red or seething pinks and purples. Along with the size difference between the adult and the babies, the coloring amplifies the ominous tension in the small ones’ vulnerability, the tiny animals nestled in among the legs of the parent, but potentially still very much at risk.
Buckley’s other compositions are much more open ended. A few make a connection to Aphrodite, adding sensuality to pinwheeling legs in yellow and sweeping dance-like arms in orange. The rest turn the octopus into an elegant formal study, with Buckley noticing spiraled arms and webbing in pink, fluttery tendrils reaching up like seaweed in purple, and more muscular draping of arms and massing of bodies alternately in blue and gold. His pictures find grace in these fluid arrangements, the organic forms offering a wide range of expressive possibilities.
Buckley’s colored cyanotypes don’t feel self-consciously retro or old timey, but instead add mystery to his many octopus personas. From sea monster and devouring father to anthropomorphized manifestations of enticing seduction and tangled urgent grasping, Buckley’s octopuses have become more than just scientific studies or dull natural history specimens. The best of the works seem to allude to age old stories, filled with diluted echoes of both attraction and repulsion.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $5000 each (plus framing). Buckley’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.