Buck Ellison’s Great White Society
Their inhibition of beer and blue blood hangs in the periwinkle twilight. The photo shows the two DeVos brothers, descendants of multi-level marketing empire Amway, finishing up a round of golf with their father. Two men squat on a short putt. We feed a box of low-calorie Michelob Ultra. The third stands behind them, his posture firm, his back to the camera and to us, emptying his bladder in a stream as straight as a titanium shaft. They seem firm and poised, in the prime of youth. And the fourth character, the caddy carrying the golf bag in the Everglades heat – who is he? He is everyone. He wants to be them, and maybe if he pulls hard enough on his bootstraps, he will be.
Buck Ellison’s preppy painting, “Dick, Dan, Doug, The Everglades Club, Palm Beach, Florida, 1990,” from 2019 seems implausible – not because scenes like this don’t happen every day on the ties, but because the rich and powerful so rarely reveal themselves to the lens. This is why the photo, like many of Ellison’s portraits, is staged. But his sets and actors end up revealing the thrust and pull of his subjects in a way that actual portraits never could. Their raw use of others, their informal approach to the landscape. Their stature as if the whole world lived like them. Their avoidance of scrutiny.
“It turned me on,” Ellison said in an interview in Los Angeles, “this idea that there might actually be a use for these myths to capture or expose ‘someone’s inner life. through photography, “because there is this very powerful group of people who do not allow themselves to be photographed. Finally, he said to himself: in a world where a billion photos are taken daily, here is something for which the photography is still good.
“We have all these caricatures of rich people in our culture,” he said. Base class critics often focus on splashy but mean-spirited outrages, like flying private jets or dining at the French laundry during a coronavirus surge. But “to say that someone inhabits privilege incorrectly implies that you might inhabit it correctly”.
As conversations about race, racism, and inequality spill over into the mainstream, Ellison remains one of the only artists to depict myths of white male power from within his walls. His contributions to the 2022 Whitney Biennale, on view until September 5 – three whimsical portraits of Erik Prince, the financier and founder of the private security firm Blackwater – portray a powerful white man at leisure among full rooms of work centered on abstraction and otherness. (Indeed, they raise the pointed question of what “otherness” would mean in an equitable world.) In 2019, Daniel C. Blight, lecturer in photography at the University of Brighton, included Ellison in his book “The Image of Whiteness,” and used one of her photos on the cover. “Living Trust,” the artist’s first monograph, won Aperture’s Best Debut Photobook of 2020. His work stood out at the Made in LA biennial the same year. Ellison will participate in the Lyon Biennale in September.
“White people are ghosts,” Blight wrote of Ellison’s work, “invisible to themselves.” And before more accurate and illuminating pictures of whiteness can circulate, they must be made.
Beautifully handsome, athletically built, it’s easy to imagine Ellison as one of his subjects. Our conversation began at a wine bar in Silver Lake. Over a glass of Vinho Verde, he noted that he knew enough social codes to organize a photo shoot of someone peeing on the green of a country club. (A concession: “urine” is green tea.) If you have to point, says Ellison, point it at him first. “I’m part of this problem and I take advantage of these systems,” he says.
Ellison, now 34, grew up among one-percent Democrats in Marin County, California, a milieu where, he says, an oil heiress could protest the US invasion of Iraq without seeing the irony. Her mother is an interior designer. “My father owns thrift shops and rag export businesses,” he says. “It’s the family business. My great-grandmother, Stella, apparently coined the word ‘thrift store’ to appeal to the sale of second-hand clothing with Protestant virtues.
He attended Marin Academy, a private school in San Rafael, then majored in art and German literature at Columbia University. Coming out as gay set him apart somewhat. Photography studies at the Städelschule in Frankfurt gave him a critical distance from his native country. It also sharpened his conviction to focus on the contemporary face of American elitism. That face — Democrat or Republican, East Coast or West, new money or old — is as pale as the founding fathers.
“What can a privileged white man like Ellison bring to the art world’s necessary conversations about racism and representation?” said Jim Ganz, senior curator of photographs at the Getty Museum. “It’s a tricky question, but a fair one.” Whatever his intentions, as Ganz puts it, the artist “exploits his own privilege”. It is – and should be – an uncomfortable proposition. But Ellison’s mix of sympathy and penitence sets him apart from portraitists of the ultra-rich, like Lauren Greenfield or Tina Barney, whose access depends on good manners. “Beneath their smooth surfaces, Ellison’s photographs are infested with emblems of systemic racism,” Ganz continues. His “scenes of the pampered lifestyle of the American ruling class [are] designed to leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Ellison’s early photographs assess the badge of white wealth, like the riding crop in the corner of “Untitled (Whip)”, 2011, or the jaded balance of the blonde in “Hilda”, 2014. A 2013 series capture fresh seafood in a Berlin restaurant, beautifully arranged over crushed ice. As with the Dutch memento mori, it’s also vanity: after taking his pictures, the fish were thrown away and sprayed with bleach to deter scavengers. Gradually, Ellison began to search for the deeper realism of fiction. The kitchens of Ellison’s staged interiors, where two pretty girls pick peppers or toned men hand-roll whole-wheat pasta, are airy, fresh, and composed. These might be stock photos if they weren’t pricked with reality – the housekeeper behind the girls, the cook’s bare cheeks behind her apron strings. “They fail as stock photos,” Ellison says. “They fail as pharmaceutical ads, they fail as family snapshots. What you’re left with is art. The lie that tells the truth.
In 2017, Ellison sent Christmas cards. The family in the front – comfortable, smiling – was not his, but the DeVos, their photo retrieved from the Internet. “Merry Christmas,” the caption read, “From our family to yours. Dick and Betsy.
Donald Trump wallowed in the spotlight, but Ellison turned to that brokerage power behind the scenes. The artist’s broad interest in US hegemony focused on the Prince clan. Not only Betsy DeVos (née Prince) the new Secretary of Education; not only did his stepfather, Richard DeVos, pioneer the quintessential American practice of multilevel marketing; but his brother, Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, had founded the notorious Blackwater security group in 1997. Four Blackwater guards were convicted of murder after a Baghdad market massacre and later pardoned by President Trump. There was real power there—evangelical, irresponsible—the kind that didn’t need bragging.
Ellison’s vision for their family portrait, “The Prince Children, Holland, Michigan, 1975,” from 2019, depicts the four princes in a living room. As in a Flemish painting, no detail is overlooked: a pearl earring. An eagle finial. The objects near Erik are particularly prodigious. Ellison shoulders three glossy-bound books by Abraham Kuyper, Dutch Prime Minister and early 19th-century Christian theologian. His wrist drapes over a drill manual by Baron von Steuben, an 18th century Prussian officer – one of the young Prince’s favorite reads. The foreshadowing is that of Ellison. Children, the Princes are innocent.
Dealing with a specific family gave his work leverage against the lure of sycophancy or lifestyle porn. Made in LA 2020 spanned the Hammer Museum, founded by an oil company CEO, and the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, the former Pasadena heap of a railroad baron. Ellison placed a photo of young women playing lacrosse in the Huntington Galleries; in an adjoining period room, next to John Singleton Copley’s 1783 dynastic portrait ‘The Western Brothers’, he hung ‘Untitled (Cufflinks)’, 2020: a still life of fresh tennis balls, requests rejected for a marriage notice in the New York Times, an open book on an array of aristocratic youths. Here, says Rita Gonzalez, head of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he had drawn a line between past wealth and current wealth. “The projected fantasies of ‘belonging’, from the Huntington clan to the subjects of Ellison’s photographs, hit me hard.”
Made in LA 2020 curator Lauren Mackler recalls giving tours of the show. “Upper-class white viewers would immediately react to Buck’s footage,” she said. “They often laughed at their humor and spent time unpacking the symbols, titles and landscapes that seemed familiar to them. That said, I don’t think Buck’s work is particularly sympathetic to his subjects. With an endless supply of like-minded white actors, “he emphasizes the genericness and replaceability of characters in the pictures; their insignificance. »
Ellison’s photographs contributed to the Whitney Biennial’s diffuse aggression in the eroticism of Ken dolls. The portraits imagine Erik, 34 – Ellison’s age when he photographed them – on his ranch in Wyoming. It is November 2003 and the US government has just awarded Blackwater its first contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Played thoroughly by Noah Grant, he engages in borderline role-playing: aiming a gun; shirtless in a barn flanked by photos of thoroughbreds; lying coquettishly on the carpet, finger in a volume of Clausewitz.
The problem, then: it’s ugly to say, but not all the rich are scapegoats for their wealth. It is difficult, but important, to admit how they actually reflect our values - how we abhor them, but want to be them. For Ellison, portraying a complex person like Erik Prince means embracing the tension between “wanting to watch and then feeling bad for watching”. For us, Ellison’s portrayals of the offspring of white hegemony have a similar, terrible thrill.
So far, he has received no response from Prince – or any of his subjects – although he has consulted lawyers just in case. “If I were to portray a public figure in a particularly crude or salacious manner, that might be cause for litigation,” he says, “but that doesn’t interest me as an artist. Tenderness has always been the strategy here, not to forgive or absolve, but to bring me closer to the truth.