Billy Buck‘s studio is an attic room on the second story of a third-floor apartment in Logan Square. It’s small and the ceiling slants down in one corner because of the roof, but it is warmly lit and feels comfortable rather than claustrophobic. He doesn’t live there, but shares the studio space with the residents and a black and white little dog named Chase who joins us for the studio visit. The studio is by far the cleanest we’ve been to so far. I can’t tell if Billy has cleaned up in anticipation of our arrival or if it’s because his photography practice is just more contained on screen and in prints. His silver Mac Book Pro sits in the center of a table free of clutter other than a church-key for the beer he offers upon our arrival, there are stacks of boxes of photo paper or film on a light table in the corner, a shelf with a variety of cameras along the wall above Chase’s dog bed, and a neatly organized book shelf.
The illusion of cleanliness is quickly disrupted when Billy suggests that we begin the studio visit by laying a box of 8″ x 10″ prints on the floor to look at. He describes this as the “dirty underwear” approach to displaying process, putting everything out there to see what’s going on in the photos and make connections. The photos are loosely arranged in groupings of three or four that he sees as related, but there are various themes and patterns that run through the entire collection. The content of the photos ranges from still lives to landscapes to portraits. There are many ways to interpret Billy’s images. Many of them are pictorial representations of strange gestures or narratives. The way that Billy talks about the photos, it is clear that to a certain extent the content in the work is very internal yet at the same time trying to convey an experience of emotion or be evocative of thought for the viewer. He wants the photos to be open to interpretation but not totally ambiguous. He is not trying to force a collective experience on the viewer but allows each person to have their own personal reaction to the photos.
Billy’s approach is honest, it’s important for him to show where his work is coming from, both in the photos and within his process. Some of the photos might be a little setup or transformed but there’s no apology for setting up the content as long as the image is still able to transport the viewer. The same is true of the photos scattered on the floor. These are merely a background given to understand Billy’s current work. The work on the floor is older and if it wasn’t clear that he has moved beyond it in the casual way he chose to talk about it, it becomes apparent once we move to the digital images on his computer. Billy graduated last May and since then has been learning what it means to be an artist and an adult living in Chicago outside the school environment. This comes through in his new work, a lot of which is about trying to make sense of a photograph as an escape.
Many of the newer images are more “from life” – a monotone set of blinds, a beveled mirror with stick-on bats which reflects what can be imagined as a suburban middle-class living room in the background. Yet, these images are not mundane. There is an almost eerily unreal quality about them which places the viewer in a confusing new realm, unsure of what exactly it is that they’re looking at. The images engulf the viewer, overwhelming him or her with an unsteadying sense of anxiety. Billy explains that what he is trying to communicate with his images falls along the line of alchemy, visions, and perceptions of reality that are not necessarily conscious. He is trying to illustrate the passage through a dream sequence or a long nightmare. He sees the photograph existing as its own world, partially of his creation, and partially existing on its own accord. The dual reality between the picture world that exists after the photograph is created and the real world is what creates the sense of uneasiness in his photos.
Outside of his studio practice, Billy’s family structure is influential in his work. He is the youngest of forty-five cousins and grew up mostly interacting with older people. While this accelerated his childhood, at the same time, he also relished being a child amongst people mostly beyond that stage. He says that growing up around his older family has caused him to try to prolong youth, “but in a refined sense.” This comes through in his work which can often be playful and where he is constantly creating with a sense of unreality in a way that a child creates worlds and narratives from the imagination.