Buck Ellison: Little Brother
Luhring Augustine, New York
March 17 through April 29, 2023
By MIKE MAIZELS, April 2023
“Naturally, a point must be reached where the costs of organizing an extra transaction within the firm are equal to the costs involved in carrying out the transaction in the open market…” Ronald Coast, 1923
Closing at the end of the month, Buck Ellison’s Little Brother is the latest in the artist’s examinations of zones of white privilege through a distinctive, queer-inflected gaze. While previous exhibitions have tackled this diffuse topic in more general terms, Ellison has recently begun to home in on a particularly loaded nexus of religious and political conservatism with its roots in Michigan. Last year, as the the New York Times detailed, it was the expanded DeVos family. This year, it was the family’s most controversial relative by marriage, the Navy Seal cum “defense entrepreneur” Erik Prince.
Ellison pocket show at Luhring Augustine consists of deluxe, oversized photographs of an actor Ellison hired to portray Prince as he might have appeared in the early 2000s—a seminal moment in the which Blackwater defense contracting firm received its breakout deal as part of George Bush’s War on Terror. The photographs, well executed but deceptively familiar, draw self-consciously on tropes of the American collective masculine imaginary—a thru line connecting paintings of frontier woodsmen of the 19th century up through Boy Scout posters and LL Bean catalogues . How well these translate into the modern battlefields of the Middle East (or the Ukraine) one is left to wonder. But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves just yet.
Through Ellison’s large format camera, we see the fictionalized Prince portrayed as a kind of reconfigured American nobleman—at home hunting, laboring, and relaxing on his vast estate in Wyoming. He casually dips his finger into Von Clausewitz’s On War, a double citation of both the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth (in which her casually placed finger denotes dominion over the American colonies) as well as Prince’s own claim to have modeled his Afghanistan strategy on the approach of the 19th century British. Loaded surfaces indeed.
According to the artist, these densely coded photographs, which are also compiled into the kind of short musical film, were staged so that they could open onto an a nuanced understanding of the complexities of human motivation. It is worth quoting Ellison at length on this point:
“Erik Prince is often touted in the media as a war criminal, as a political shadow figure, even as a monster, especially following Blackwater’s massacre of seventeen Iraqi civilians in 2007. I’m interested in what happens when a viewer is forced to get close to a snake in the grass. If the camera allows us to desire, or to be curious, or to feel empathy…I wanted to try to look at him with tenderness…Not to forgive, but to claw towards precision and understanding with a gentle heart.”
This is certainly an admirable ambition, but it is born out in the work in only the most oblique ways. It is not a window into Prince’s world the audience is given; it is a staged synthesis dripping coded allegory, from book fingers to brandished rifles. In place of the seeing into that is a requisite of empathy, the audience is left with something more like seeing onto. The result, at least for this viewer, was an effect more akin to Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” in which the hardened surface is at once all too familiar and yet completely inscrutable. Erik, we learn from Ellison’s exhibition text, is particularly fond of Powerbars.
This lapse is particularly unfortunate given the richness of the subject that artist intends to probe, the psychology of the ostensible mastermind behind a massive privatization of American military power. But perhaps psychology is the wrong lens through which to approach this topic anyway. By definition, privatization cannot happen in private. Indeed, that’s supposed to be the problem with it anyway—that it shields government-sponsored wrongdoers from the courts of public justice. Those who lived under the American Occupation of Japan in the early 1950s might argue that it sounds like a distinction without a difference.
But privatization is most certainly a salient phenomenon. Militaries always have relied on hirable market actors; and for those interested in a deep dive, Peter Singer’s Corporate Warriors (2008) is a striking time capsule. But the field of battle has shifted enormously since the days of Prince and Singer—the unholy pace of technological progress has thrown enormous weight on the strategic necessity to outsource key capabilities to for-profit companies.
If nothing else, Prince was remarkably foresighted to explain, all the way back in 1997, that his aim was “to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did for the Postal Service.” Except of course we would have to say the juggernaut of Amazon. Or maybe the quiet, all-seeing eyes of VC-darling Palantir, which watches our battlefields and our borders far from public scrutiny. Or maybe the names of dozens of other firms, we in the public might learn about next year, next scandal or never.
That, in this reviewer’s opinion, is the punctum of Little Brother. It’s not just that the older sibling is Watching Us, as the title intimates. It’s that the shrieking logic of technology-driven outsourcing has given Big Brother a chance to IPO while he does it. WM
Michael Maizels, PhD is an historian and theorist whose work brings the visual arts into productive collision with a broad range of disciplinary histories and potential futures. He is the author of four books, the most recent of which analyzes the history of postwar American art through the lens of business model evolution. He has also published widely on topics ranging from musicology and tax law to the philosophy of mathematics.view all articles from this author