Scalia's Salmagundi by Chris Buzelli
As a living justice, Antonin Scalia was a firebrand. A new article in Virginia Quarterly Review, paired with a new painting by Chris Buzelli, opens the story of Scalia’s life and impact with an anecdote about how his propensity for illustrative speech has ultimately injured his own intended legacy. A blustering irony written into his dissent for United States v. Windsor was subsequently picked up as an argument against Scalia’s intentions, resulting in judicial decisions that will arguably have a greater impact than any of Scalia’s other words. That anecdote is a great position from which to begin understanding Scalia, but the story is ever more opaque and complex, which was precisely the challenge presented to Chris with this portrait.
Like much of Chris’ work most of the image is a traditional enough portrait: Scalia in his robes and a tie, caught midsentence (with skin so smooth he looks like he recently took a trip to the spa). We know who this is, but Chris has popped open his skull and revealed a tumbleweed that releases itself out of Scalia’s mouth. The argument in this portrait, both by Chris and by the author of the Review’s piece, Jack Hitt, is that Scalia contained within him the ability to be complex, if messy, and often the resulting quagmire was near impossible to sort through.
Scalia’s legacy is written on paper and echoes through the opinions of judges who have written his words into their own, but to call it focused or clear is a misunderstanding. Chris’ work is to help us understand Scalia and the mess in his head revealed though his own work.
Chris Buzelli Keeps The New York Times Ticking
It’s true that time is a human construct, but we make it look awesome. Yes, the sun arcs across the sky and the seasons change, but hours and minutes and seconds only tick by because we will them to. As we’ve shackled ourselves to this master at least we count it with the greatest grace and technology: watches. The New York Times devoted an entire section of their paper to watches and invited Chris Buzelli to create an original illustration to grace the cover of the section.
Unlike clocks, watches are designed to fit on our persons, distilling the engineering to micro measurement, accurately keeping pace of the vibrations of atoms with spokes, wheels, and springs. It’s almost impossible to fathom how it’s done, and even more difficult to truly recognize the beauty of this kind of work. Chris recognized that difficulty and instead of working around decided to blow it up. In his painting (part of the process you can see in a video below), Chris went in the opposite direction: he made the technology massive and invited an audience to experience the gigantic construct like a massive moving sculpture. All the pieces are there from the second hand, to the sun tracker, to the crystal tipped dials, but made so big that the visitors can walk on top of them.
Because the technology is so difficult to truly recognize and understand, perhaps this is the way we should imagine it: spokes blotting out the sun, the shine of perfect polished metal as a fully encompassing environment. That is the beauty of illustration, isn’t it? To help us see new things by recreating them around us – just like we have codified the movement of heavenly bodies and the winds of fall into ticking watches on our wrists.
Chris Buzelli and Kesha Rise Up for Rolling Stone
Few artists have experienced as long and complex a professional half decade as Kesha. Her attempts to emancipate herself from her record deal in account of the abuse she received from her producer was national news and brought information to the public eye that no one would want made public. But she faced the shame and scrutiny so that she could work unfettered. The court did not side with her, though, and it seemed all of her courage had been in vain as she would either have to fulfill her contract under impossible pain, or she could never work again. But what Kesha taught us is that courage is never in vain. Her new EP, Rainbow, just dropped and Rolling Stone asked Chris Buzelli to create a portrait of Kesha that illuminated the themes of her work and her current life to go along a review of her return to music.
“This is her rising from the ashes,” says Chris, describing his painting that shows rainbows rising from burnt detritus, transforming into Kesha’s hair as her visage floats above it all. Behind her clouds of smoke billow, but even ash they choke out the sun a flock of birds fly proving that even in the most impossible of circumstances it’s still possible to rise above. Kesha’s story is one of hard won resilience and, despite the reputation of Pop Music being more about fun jams that serious introspection, Chris’ image shows us that there’s more to learn than we may expect.
Chris Buzelli Gets Weird with ProPublica and Vanity Fair
After serving two decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit Fred Steese was finally offered freedom but only if he would take responsibility for the crime. He agreed to the certainty of freedom but will always remain a convicted killer thanks to a quagmire of nightmarish ethics and entrenched professional misconduct. Megan Rose brought this twisted story to ProPublica in coordination with Vanity Fair, and they needed an artist who could bring out the surrealism of the situation while matching the emotional power of the story to create imagery that would match the piece. They asked Chris Buzelli. “I wanted to go for a David Lynch kind of a feel for this one, just because after reading it I felt like it was such an incredibly twisted story, and what’s happening to this guy and what’s still happening to this guy just seems unreal,” says Chris. Steese was previously involved with the victim, Gerard Soules, a famous retired trapeze artist and master poodle wrangler. The Las Vegas performer had been stabbed more than 35 times, and even though Steese was almost 700 miles away at the time of the murder, cops and judges all but colluded to bury him. 20 years later he’s trying to rebuild his life.
Chris had to wrap together all the bizarre elements of the story into a single composition and that meant creating a sort of triage of impact, and then filling the rest out with the strange details. “Of course, the immediate visual that was really intriguing was the murder, the murder mystery, and the fact that the guy who was killed was the poodle king in Vegas,” explains Chris. The seemingly fictional nature of the story, plus the Las Vegas element, is why Chris put everything on stage. The “Poodle King”s crown sits atop the skull that dominates the story, with his dogs doing their tricks (including one juggling knifes, like the knife that entered Soules dozens of times), and Steese watching from the wings: a member of the audience thrust on stage against his will. And then trapeze apparatus hang from the rafters. “Soules was actually one of the most famous trapeze performers and I thought having those empty trapeze things would be perfect to insinuate that he’s no longer there,” Chris explains.
At a time when the art world (and most worlds, really) are becoming increasingly digital, Chris has tried to stay as analog as possible, painting all his work on canvas by hand. It’s thanks to publications like ProPublica and Vanity Fair who invest in work like Chris’ that he’s able to keep his medium immediate and flourishing. “They’re doing this really great thing where they design this really great page for the actual article, and they want that image to really to be one of the main parts of the story,” Chris explains. “I’m sort of living in the flux between print and web and it’s just so great to see someone doing this web format magazine and still giving illustration the same sort of emphasis and place in a good way.” The investment was so immediate that the author of the piece, Megan Rose, even bought the original. It’s a credit to his ability to interpret stories in unique ways that so many are drawn to his work. But Chris refuses to take credit in that way, saying, simply: “I’m lucky.”
Chris Buzelli and Playboy Prove Prophetic
With two weeks to go until the election, the season is beginning to wind down (It is! We promise!). The polls have settled and votes are already being counted with Early Voting in full effect, and pundits are already looking back to see how the country fared through the last 18 months, a record for an election. Hot Takes and audacity were on full display for the whole country as we grappled through the issues both savory and not. Back in June, icon of all things indulgent, Hugh Hefner took on the conservative “fanatical fixation” with the private sexual lives of common citizens. Playboy, Hefner’s magazine, obviously ran the editorial and asked Chris Buzelli to bring the issues Hefner discusses to life.
Far be it for us to make judgments either way, but in his letter, Hefner tracks how the conservative movement has become obsessed with the role that sex plays in daily life – often exploding it from a piece of a person’s experience to the focus of it. It’s something of a projection magnification, and that’s the theme that Chris dove into for his painting. The classic Republican icon, the elephant, is seen in an ill-fitting suit (similar to the sizing that Ted Cruz prefers) covered in stains with deflated ears and an American flag pin. In his trunk he holds a naked woman who is dwarfed by her captor, and his bulging eyes (whose pupils reflect something of a Christian gaze) are locked to her tiny, exposed frame. His mouth hangs open, drooling, revealing a line of tiny, but very sharp teeth. It's at once dangerous and lewd.
The image that Chris has created is appropriately off-putting and alarming, and even though he created the painting early in the summer, it has become of special significance of as late considering the recent developments in the presidential campaign. As we look back at the discourse we’ve shared over this election it’s often the images that stay with us the longest, and Chris’ is one that is at once prophetic and shamefully distilling.
Just two more weeks until it’s all over!
Chris Buzelli's Key for Success with Rolling Stone
You’d be forgiven if you’re not sure what DJ Khaled does for a living. Everyone knows who he is (unless you’re playing yourself), but there do still seem to be questions about why he’s attached to every major rap and hip hop project from the last decade. Those who still aren’t sure can look to his latest album, Major Key, to get a better idea. To many he’s the perfect networker, bringing together artists from all over the industry to create epic work, making him something like a ringleader. When Rolling Stone brought together their own review of Major Key they needed artwork to pair with it, and who better than Chris Buzelli to bring it to life?
For Rolling Stone the idea was about visualizing Khaled as something like a circus ringleader. Each one of the tracks on his album features at least one other musical artist creating a roster that is blistering as it is sparkling. Based off early reports and quotes from Khaled, Rolling Stone gave Chris a list of other figures they’d like included in the image and he found a trick or talent for each of them based on their distinct personalities and tones. “Kanye should definitely be swinging on the trapeze,” says Chris with a laugh. “Drake is always doing that smooth dance move so I thought he should be on the tightrope. And Jay Z seems like a strongman. Future seemed a little more lighthearted so I put him as a juggler.” Each of these artists are so in control of their own images it’s fun to see them reinterpreted in another world, especially one that ends up making so much figurative sense.
So what's Chris Buzelli's own key to success? Patience.
This isn’t the first time that Chris has created an illustration paired with an album review, but he remembers a day before those calls started. In fact, it took 10 years from the day he swore it would happen for that call to come. “When I was a senior in college my studio mate somehow got a call to do this album review illustration,” Chris recalls. “I remember being astonished, because that was back in 1995, and I was like, ‘how the hell do you get this?’ Back then it was the pinnacle to get that album review illustration. And I remember after that I was like, ‘One day, one day I’m going to get it.’” Since then he gets to bring his own interpretation to the work of other artists consistently, but he always tries to remember the days before that call came. “Every once in a while I still have to pinch myself.”
Chris Buzelli Takes on the Regulators for Inc. Magazine
If you’ve ever had a kitten you know they are the sweetest monsters. These tiny balls of fuzz that meow and gaze on you with eyes of love have claws and teeth like needles that they use without a second thought. The promise of pain right behind a sweet face. To many, commercial regulations are exactly the same. On their face they’re supposed to help out small businesses, but in practice it turns out that many business owners find they’re counter productive. Inc. Magazine recently ran a story about the trouble with regulations and asked Chris Buzelli to bring the issue to life using one of his oil paintings. Before he even got to the creative process he had to experience his own education “I thought regulations were actually okay just because of all the political talk lately,” Chris says. “Man, after you read this you find out that there’s a lot of bureaucracy constraining these small businesses.”
Chris wanted to create a visual language that spoke to that dichotomy so he started with engaging an illustrative spitballing. “I had a bunch of different sketches,” he explains, narrowing them down to three. He sent them into the magazine and the magazine loved all of them and let him choose. He decided on the swan. A lot of animals like snakes, and you name it, they all have this really heavy histories already. And for some reason birds don’t.” Chris was able to use that ambiguous social history of the animal to create a doe-eyed swan with a medusa like serpent feathered tail. As sweet and well meaning as the swan seems, those snake mouths are ready to strike.
Chris brought a second painting to the magazine that imagines these complex regulations tamed in a cage. His image, like reality, doesn’t call to destroy the animals that are these regulations but instead let them live within a set of narrow parameters like Chris’ brass birdcage. These are complex issues and ones that require serious consideration. By creating something totally original, Chris was able to create his own narrative and let us see these politically hot issues with fresh eyes.
Chris Buzelli Dreams Up a Cover for 'American Gods'
In Neil Gaiman’s novel ‘American Gods,’ Shadow is released from prison just in time to be inducted into an unsuspecting war between the gods of old and the new gods of technology and greed. That sounds like a hyperbolic, philosophic explanation of what must actually be going on in the book, but that’s quite literally the plot: Odin versus the Internet. It’s a story that has captivated audiences for more than a decade and now it’s on track to captivate millions more. Starz is in preproduction to bring the story to life as a live action drama and before the show premiers, droves of new fans are finding the book for the first time, including Chris Buzelli. Chris was moved enough to create his own version of cover art for the book that will be featured this Spring in a gallery show, ‘Dream Covers,’ that includes the work of visual artists imagining their own cover work for some of their favorite books.
“I have to admit that I hadn't read Neil Gaiman's 'American Gods' before but I'm so happy that I finally read it for this project,” says Chris. “Wonderful novel.” The themes of the novel spring through Chris’ work. A small man, representing the story’s protagonist, stands paled in the presence of a flaming buffalo head, a representation of the American mystic tradition. The ghost of his wife, whose loss inspires his journey, is to one side, while an icon of “The House on the Rock,” a bridge between our world and another, is to the other. Smaller references almost hide themselves, whether it’s a pair of birds that are most certainly Odin’s ravens, and a skillfully hidden spider nodding to Anansi, a trickster god from West Africa. Finally, above it all is the coin imbued with the power to bring Shadow’s wife back to him, in a form that’s perhaps both unexpected and unsavory.
More than direct visual cues from the story, Chris took thematic direction as well. The entire composition is covered with a kind of quasi-filigree that recalls biblical illumination or the gilding of magical books of old. This practice is underscored by Chris’ use of duotone. His work is often almost Technicolor in its breadth of hues, but Chris limited himself in the palate for American Gods adding a timeless gravity, and placing it in a pantheon of spiritual reference. It's a feat of reference juggling that even Neil Gaiman calls, "a gorgeous AMERICAN GODS cover."
Watch for Chris Buzelli’s cover for ‘American Gods’ to appear in the ‘Dream Covers’ exhibition at Krab Jab Studio in Seattle, from April 9 to May 7.
Chris Buzelli Reveals a Young TS Eliot
100 portraits is a lot. Especially when you have very little time to complete them. But this was the task recently brought to painter Chris Buzelli who buckled down and designed his own way through the gauntlet. That project forced Chris to approach this work in a new way, and learn a lot about it. Between efficiency of line and depth color, the vast compendium caught the attention of Designer Rodrigo Corral who asked the painter to help create a book cover for a biography of TS Eliot, “Young Eliot.”
Rodrigo’s request fit directly in line with the massive exploration of portrait Chris had just completed, and he continued his investigation through this portrait. “The painting is fairly small, but I do that so you can really see the brush strokes,” Chris says. “I try to be really frugal and use the least amount of brush strokes as possible; in his jacket and tie and shirt there’s maybe seven or eight brush strokes. It just feels fresh and alive and feels like you can breathe.” By using fewer strokes, a method he perfected in necessity with his previous project, he is able to show a demand over his craft, bringing life to the work.
There are only a couple images of TS Eliot as a kid, so there was a level of creativity that Chris had to employ in order to complete the image. Accuracy came from the two black and white images that he was able to secure, but coloring was entirely invented using whatever resources he could.
Chris' style is already expressive, using proportion and shapes to tell stories about his subjects that wouldn't come through using photorealism. It's the same for Chris' use of color. Even in his portraits you'll find he uses blues and reds in a way that to our eyes doesn't seem to be realistic, but as Chris explains it, he's actually getting closer to life. “When you really have fun and have really lit what’s in front of you well, and you really look at their face you can see all types of color reflected,” explains Chris. “There’s a lot more color in the face than you first notice, especially when you see them live instead of a photo. I try and put in those colors that I see in life and make those portraits come alive.” It's about creating a depth that is deceptively relatable. In a way Chris' use of color tricks us into seeing more in his work because he gives us information we're looking for without even knowing it. Although what he’s created may seem alien on the surface, he’s giving us a version realism we were already searching for.