Buck Ellison, Little Brother @Luhring Augustine

JTF (just the facts): A total of 6 color photographs, framed in black/white, and unmatted, and hung against white or wallpapered walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. (Installation shots and film stills below.)

The following works have been included in the show:

  • 6 archival pigment prints, 2021, sized roughly 40×53, 48×60, 48×64, 56×42, 58×43, 64×48 inches, in editions of 5+2AP
  • 1 eight-color silkscreen on wallpaper, 2023, dimensions variable, in an edition of 5+2AP
  • 1 digital film, color, sound, 2022, 1 minute 57 seconds, in an edition of 5+2AP

A sourcebook/monograph accompanying the project was self-published in 2022 by Piglet Press (here). (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Buck Ellison’s newest project, titled Little Brother, is a direct outgrowth of the work he began several years ago, which ultimately took shape in 2020 as the artist’s first photobook Living Trust (reviewed here). We might call his new pictures (and a related short film) an amplification or a refinement of those initial ideas, or simply a few steps further down an increasingly obsessive artistic path he had already discovered.

The largely staged photographs in Living Trust are an incisive skewering of white privilege, from images of prep school lacrosse games, Range Rovers, and Vineyard Vines pullovers to posed family Christmas cards and guys drinking beers on the golf course, and part of the critical re-creation of the trappings of wealth and influence that sat at the center of its conceptual framework was a series of imagined images of Erik Prince and his family. For those that might have forgotten, Prince was the founding CEO of Blackwater, a private military contractor that made a name for itself doing work for the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prince’s sister Betsy DeVos was later Secretary of Education for the Trump administration, and between their wealthy Michigan upbringing and their insider political influence in Washington, the family became a perfect target for Ellison’s attentions. Living Trust includes staged images of Prince wearing military garb and holding a kitten, and an eerie family portrait with the clock wound back to 1975, when Prince and his siblings were children.

As a body of work, Little Brother builds on those few initial studies and dives much, much deeper into the world of Erik Prince. With a 2007 massacre of Iraqi civilians on his Blackwater resume, as well as countless other off-the-books and under-the-radar assignments during those war years, Prince built himself a public reputation of infamy, and Ellison seems to have been drawn in by the horror and disgust that surrounds Prince, trying to fill in the biographical backstory to the public ire. In this way, Prince becomes a kind of specimen of 21st century evil, which Ellison has then proceeded to study and dissect via a far-reaching investigation into Prince’s life. It is this systematically gathered background material that then becomes the intellectual and visual framework for the new works in Little Brother.

The six photographs on view in this show extend the few which were first shown at the 2022 Whitney Biennial (reviewed here), each an imaginary moment set back in 2003 at Prince’s Wyoming ranch. Using an actor as a stand-in for Prince (and later digitally manipulating his features and physique to be an even better match) and employing a meticulous eye for relevant props, settings, and locations, Ellison has crafted a precise series of scenes that try to get underneath the surface of Prince’s persona. A small handbook accompanies the show, listing out all of the tiny details Ellison has incorporated into each of the photographs, making it clear that each image has been painstakingly crafted – nothing has been included by chance or without thought, and even the most cluttered of pictures has been mapped out with exacting fidelity to Ellison’s research.

While Ellison’s photographs have been printed at a decently large scale, they have been composed to mimic casual 2003-era snapshots, with Prince as the central figure in all of the moments. We see him ambling on the ranch in the light of a full moon (with a herd of cattle in the background), aiming a rife wearing a hunter’s orange vest and a camouflage baseball hat, and pensively looking into the distance, his hands muddy from some unnamed chore, each scene filled with a mix of ranch-hand/hunter tropes and military contractor/defense industry logowear. The allusive masculine symbols of the guns, the Western ranch, and the “dirty” hands are generally understated, Ellison trying to make them a natural part of Prince’s aggregate portrait.

Ellison’s interior images of Prince are more densely packed with resonant signs and artifacts, offering clues to his history and personality. A setup with a shirtless Prince standing in front of a cupboard that is doubling as a desk area has details everywhere: a baseball cap from the conservative Hillsdale College (Prince’s alma mater); snapshots with his SEAL team unit and with Blackwater contractors; Post-It notes with details about centrifuges; wooden clogs referring to his childhood; stacks of economics books (he was an Economics major in college); an image of Erik as a volunteer fireman; and anesthesia supplies tucked away for safe keeping. Ellison constructs a similar tableaux of personal associations in a portrait of Prince lounging on the floor: the Von Clausewitz’ On War (supposedly Prince’s favorite book), the SAIC logo shirt, the Casio G-Shock watch, the ranch-hand scratches on his arms, and the finger stuck in the book (like the sign of intellectual mastery from classical paintings). Each photograph is a kind of visual reconstruction, with Ellison methodically piecing together Prince’s personality. Ellison has even crafted an old time opium-motif wallpaper design for the show, the design based on Prince’s assertion that his plan for Afghanistan was modeled after the British East India Company.

The show concludes with these singular moments and many others woven into a short two-minute film (titled Little Brother) that ties all the loose ends into one neat package. With the optimistic religious refrain “That’s how he works, that’s how the good Lord works” sung as an emphatic backdrop, Ellison takes us on a whirlwind cinematic tour of Prince, his ranch, and his 2003 life. Western and military motifs are liberally intermingled, with Prince seen at his desk and on his phone, his “work” seen in parallel with the work in the song; at one point, Prince even gets down to pray (with his feet crossed over each over in back) making the tie to religion even more explicit. Prince’s wealth is never very far from view, from the sweeping views of the ranch to the many barns and outbuildings staffed by various ranch hands, and his masculinity is repeatedly tied back to working on the ranch, shooting guns, and brushing his teeth with his shirt off. The result is a film that feels both like caricature and homage, an inside look that is almost fetishized like propaganda, which makes it all the more biting and quietly absurd.

What this all amounts to is a very slippery character study of white privilege run amok, with all the details lined up to attest to its grievous authenticity. Having now gone deep on the relatively murky figure of Erik Prince, and further refined his model of staged photographic biography, perhaps Ellison will turn his attention to other contemporary figures equally worthy of this kind of investigative artistic satire. 21st century white America is filled with contradictions and hypocrisies that would make easy pickings.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $22500 each. Ellison’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2023 (no website link). Hardcover (21.7 x 28 cm), 98 pages, with 58 black and white photographs. Design by the artist. (Cover and spread ... Read on.

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