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Phong H. Bui: Symphonies and Meditations at Craig F. Starr Gallery

Phong H. Bui, Symphony #1 (for Meyer and Lillian Schapiro), 2022. Portraits: pencil on paper. Meditation Paintings: gouache, watercolor and pencil on paper. Installed: 50.5 by 105.5 inches overall. Photo: Dan Bradica. Courtesy of the artist and Craig F. Starr Gallery.

Phong H. Bui: Symphonies and Meditations

Craig F. Starr Gallery, New York

November 3, 2022 through February 28, 2023 

By RAPHY SARKISSIAN, February 2023

Since 2008 Phong H. Bui has been engaged in a seminal practice of portraiture by translating photographic images into arresting likenesses delineated by pencil on paper. Earlier drawings of such notables of the art world as Dore Ashton, Cai Guo-Qiang, Harmony Korine, Barbara Novak, David Novros, Robert Rauschenberg, Pipilotti Rist, Jerry Saltz, Richard Shiff, Nancy Spero, Ena Swansea and Terry Winters were executed on par with those of luminaries within the domains of music, dance, literature, film and beyond. Bui’s 2008 portrayals of Malian percussionist Baye Kouyaté, author and memoirist Sean Wilsey, documentary photographer Susan Meiselas and former US president Barack Obama unwaveringly attest to a praxis that extends across the arts, culture, humanities and politics. Printed upon the pages of The Brooklyn Rail journal in tandem with interviews, as well as published online, the mechanically and digitally reproduced graphic portraits of Bui have come to commendably illuminate texts.  

Phong H. Bui: Symphonies and Meditations, on view at Craig F. Starr Gallery, presents a selection of such drawings of Bui, executed since 2009, though now they have been framed and mounted on gallery walls within matrices and coordinated with suites of recently rendered abstract folios of seismographic lines, collectively referred to as “meditation paintings.” Symphony #1 (for Meyer and Lillian Schapiro) exhibits a riveting juxtaposition of the polarities of resemblance and abstraction, whereby a set of eighteen captivating depictions of dignitaries in the arts operates as a means of framing a row of six nonmimetic traces of pencil, watercolor and gouache on paper. Embodying the resemblance and corporeality of a given sitter through exquisite draftsmanship, visages here frame gestural abstractions, whereby partly systematic compositions of line segments in shades of orange and white on dark grounds at once conform to the grid’s structure and contravene it.  

Phong H. Bui, Julie Mehretu, 2019 (detail). In of Symphony #1 (for Meyer and Lillian Schapiro). Photo: Dan Bradica. Courtesy of the artist and Craig F. Starr Gallery.

In the above matrix of Bui, we encounter striking depictions of Nayland Blake, Jason Moran, Julie Mehretu, Mel Chin (allegorized through the imagery of a bison and hare in a tête-à-tête), Roxy Paine, Yoko Ono, Sean Scully, Jenny Saville, Hito Steyerl, Charles Stein, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Gregg Bordowitz, Mickalene Thomas, Jasper Johns, Teresita Fernandez, Olivier Berggruen, Mariko Mori and Robert Gober. Linear likenesses of these disciples of the art world surround six instances of painterly abstraction. Though each one of the intricate portrayals of these practitioners may transport our perception toward a given aesthetic pathway demarcated by an individual praxis, it is the apposition of semblance and nonrepresentation through which this formalist duality of Bui unfolds a set of discursive possibilities between such parameters as: photography and drawing, mimesis and abstraction, linearity and painterliness, culture and society. 

One imperative question that a given portrait of Bui raises is the extent to which Roland Barthes’s concepts of the studium (cultural interpretation) and punctum (personally touching, poignant detail) of the photograph may endure within a drawing based on that primary image. “Nothing surprising, then, if sometimes, despite its clarity, the punctum should be revealed only after the fact, when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it,” claims Barthes.1 

Through its title, Symphony #1 (for Meyer and Lillian Schapiro) comes forth as an emblematic self-portrait, an allegory of the artist’s gratefulness to Meyer Schapiro, one of the most prominent art historians of the twentieth century, and his wife Dr. Lillian Milgram Schapiro, about whom Bui has said, “If it wasn’t for my relationship with Meyer and Lillian Schapiro, who had adopted me as their surrogate Jewish grandson, I wouldn’t have had the vision and the stamina to work to shape and sustain the Rail since its founding in October 2000.”2 

Phong H. Bui, Symphony #2 (for Agnes Gund), 2022. Portraits: pencil on paper. Meditation Paintings: gouache, watercolor and pencil on paper. Installed: 50.5 by 105.5 inches overall. Photo: Dan Bradica. Courtesy of the artist and Craig F. Starr Gallery.

Dedicated to renowned philanthropist and arts patron Agnes Gund, Symphony #2 (for Agnes Gund) unfolds a matrix within which six “meditation paintings” are framed by credible likenesses of Maurizio Cattelan, Jeffrey Gibson, Penny Arcade, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Hans Haacke (face shielded by a camera), Petah Coyne, Philip Taaffe, Tamara Gonzales, Tauba Auerbach, Sanford Biggers, Henry Threadgill, Nancy Princenthal, Ali Banisadr, Agnes Gund, John Elderfield, Louis Osmosis, Tiona Nekkia McClodden and Bill Jensen. Though linearity prevails Bui’s portrayals of the sitters within this grid, the drawings of Sanford Biggers and John Elderfield stand out through half-lit, tenebristic treatment of the faces. 

Phong H. Bui, Agnes Gund, 2009. Pencil on paper, 16.5 by 12.75 inches, framed. In Symphony #2 (for Agnes Gund). Photo: Dan Bradica. Courtesy of the artist and Craig F. Starr Gallery.

To tread upon the formalist realm of this arrangement of Bui brings to mind Heinrich Wölfflin’s all-too-familiar concepts of examining Renaissance and Baroque styles, characterizing the former as “linear” and the latter as “painterly.” Regarding two drawings of female nudes by Dürer and Rembrandt, Wölfflin notes, “The coherent, consistent, continuous contour of the sixteenth century has been replaced by the broken line of the painterly style” of the seventeenth century.3 In Symphony #2 (for Agnes Gund), highly draftsmanly portraits surround nonfigurative, calligraphic traces of lines. In turn, resemblance and abstraction, now paired, evoke the Hegelian dialectic of historical conflict, resolution and supersession, though Bui has retained a sense of distinction in the polarities within the whole.

Phong H. Bui, Symphony #3 (for Sir Isaiah Berlin), 2022. Portraits: pencil on paper. Meditation Paintings: gouache, watercolor and pencil on paper. Installed: 50.5 by 65.75 inches overall. Photo: Dan Bradica. Courtesy of the artist and Craig F. Starr Gallery.

Twelve pencil portraits enfold a trilogy of abstractions in Symphony #3 (for Sir Isaiah Berlin), whereby the viewer encounters Bui’s compelling representations of Alanna Heiss, James Hyde, Theaster Gates, Lucy Raven (with sunglasses), Joe Zucker, Chitra Ganesh, De Wain Valentine, David Lynch, Elisa Sighicelli, Felix Bernstein & Gabe Rubin (pictorially conjoined), Adriana Varejao and Martha Wilson. The energetic brushstrokes of Meditation Painting #1214, Meditation Painting #1215 and Meditation Painting #1216 here counterpoise the meticulously crafted drawings of thirteen visionaries.  

Phong H. Bui, Meditation Painting #1214, 2021. Gouache, watercolor, and pencil on paper, 16.5 by 12.75 inches, framed. In Symphony #3 (for Sir Isaiah Berlin). Photo: Dan Bradica. Courtesy of the artist and Craig F. Starr Gallery. 

Referring to the structural polarities within the practice of Bui, Charles Duncan reflects in his revealing essay “Democratic Visages,” published in the gallery’s handsome, fully-illustrated catalogue: “Harmonization of these polarities is at the heart of the portrait drawings and meditation paintings of Phong Bui—the instantaneous evolves into duration; hyperrealism is balanced by diffusion; attention to the individual coalesces into collective meaning. The result is a fascinating body of work.”4

Phong H. Bui, Meditation Drawing Group #2 (for Elizabeth Baker), 2022. Five pencil-on-paper drawings, 65.75 by 16.5 inches overall. Photo: Dan Bradica. Courtesy of the artist and Craig F. Starr Gallery.

Born in Huê, Vietnam, Bui relocated to Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1980. “I’ve slowly learned how to appreciate the unlikely pictorial unity that mediates between two polar opposites—the impersonal versus the personal—which precisely is my own perpetual feeling of being dislocated,” Bui explains. “I’ll forever be a person with one foot still rooted in the old country, especially as I’m growing older than I was in my twenties or thirties, while the other foot is skating on thin ice of the new country.”5  

Phong H. Bui: Symphonies and Meditations reminds us powerfully of the possibilities—if not inevitable necessities (and pleasures)—of incorporating seemingly incongruent strands into a cohesive whole, of orchestrating reason and intuition, where the rational quintessence of Apollo and the primordial volatility of Dionysus coexist. WM


1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections of Photography (1980), trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), p. 53.
2. Phong H. Bui, “Grateful to all things past. Service for all things present. Embrace of all things future,” The Brooklyn Rail (November 2016), p. 9.
3. Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Early Modern Art (1915), trans. Jonathan Blower (CA: The Getty Research Institute, 2015), p. 116.
4. Charles Duncan, “Democratic Visages: Portrait Drawings and Meditation Paintings of Phong Bui,” in Phong H. Bui: Symphonies and Meditations (New York: Craig F. Starr Gallery, 2022).
5. Phong H. Bui, quoted in Duncan.

Raphy Sarkissian

Raphy Sarkissian received his masters in studio arts from New York University and is currently affiliated with the School of Visual Arts in New York. His recent writings on art include essays for exhibition catalogues, monographs and reviews. He has written on Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Anish Kapoor, KAWS, David Novros, Sean Scully, Liliane Tomasko, Dan Walsh and Jonas Wood. He can be reached through his website www.raphysarkissian.com.

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