Buck Ellison Little Brother
Luhring Augustine, New York 17 March – 29 April
The year was 2003, and the private military firm Blackwater had just attained lucrative º» government contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The mercenary organisation, whose employees ignominiously went on to massacre 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007, was founded by former Navy Seal Erik Prince, heir to a manufacturing fortune and brother to Betsy Devos, best known for her disastrous tenure as secretary of education under Donald Trump. Prince, who charged $6,500 per seat for evacuation flights out of Kabul in 2021, is the subject of Little Brother, a show of work by Los Angeles-based photographer Buck Ellison.
Ellison is known for staging photographic tableaux of generic wealthy white Americans surrounded by the sometimes-insular symbols they use to telegraph financial and social power. From 2017 to 2022 he narrowed his scope in a series focused on Blackwater’s loathsome founder. Featuring a handsome Prince lookalike, the highly researched, meticulously constructed scenes are set in 2003, when Prince was thirtyfour years old, on an approximation of the family ranch in Wyoming. Six photographs (all 2021), two of which featured in the 2022 Whitney Biennial, and one video (2022) on view abound with iconography that is simultaneously hyperspecific to Prince’s life and more broadly tied up with wealthy white conservatism, (proto-)trumpism and the new right. The show’s decorative backdrop is likewise grim: patterned with opium pipes, paper lanterns, blue and white porcelain, and East India Company rupees, the silkscreened wallpaper Five Windows (2023) illustrates Prince’s characterisation of his plans for privatised war in Afghanistan as an ‘East India Company approach’.
As explained in an accompanying reader, each photograph’s modular title contains excerpts from Blackwater pricing lists or tax filings as well as references to Prince’s autobiography. The vignettes linger, almost erotically, on the military contractor as he fingers his favourite book, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (1832), or squints into the scope of a Steyr rifle, a classic firearm also beloved by Ernest Hemingway. Blurring the distinctions between rigorous conceptual artist working photographically, zealous detractor and obsessed fan, Ellison labours over verisimilitude and details, down to digitally enlarging the model’s ears and adding Prince’s small scar above his eye.
The degree to which Ellison’s photos are encoded encourages a type of viewer engagement that oscillates between active spectatorship and paranoid reading. Prince, smiling and shirtless, is out of focus in Fog, In His Light We Shall See The Light, Raintree 23 Ltd Ptnr, Excess Distribution Carryover, If Any, 2003 (2021). The viewer’s gaze is redirected to the symbol-laden background, which is populated by a cap from Prince’s conservative alma mater Hillsdale College (the subject of the recent New Yorker article ‘The Christian Liberal-arts School at the Heart of the Culture Wars’), equipment and instructions for equine artificial insemination and Principles of Economics (1871) by Carl Menger, a proponent of viewing economics through the lens of individualism.
Just shy of two minutes long and set to the gospel song Stand on the Word, the video Little Brother (2022) intercuts passages in which Prince spits in the sink or pores over papers with idyllic scenes of the family ranch – which, in addition to broadly evoking the role played by cowboys and ranchers in violent legacies of Manifest Destiny, has served as training grounds for operatives tasked with spying on Trump’s opponents and a critical node for a vile corporation serving nakedly imperialist and capitalist interests. Is there anything more American than that? In light of this question, which lies at the heart of Ellison’s project, some viewers might find their own e©orts to distance themselves from Prince by casting him as aberrant – a blip in the system rather than its product – to be rather unconvincing.