Artist of the Week

Morgan Buck

January 24, 2024

Morgan Buck (b. 1985) is an artist living and working in Portland, Oregon. His airbrush paintings are often mysterious, funny, and ominous. Buck’s work uses the vast weirdness of the internet, captions from television shows, photography from everyday life, and AI tools to generate his content. Manipulating and creating digital collage with these random juxtaposed sources, Buck creates intentional narratives and formal compositions. These images become the source material for his paintings. He uses a photorealistic airbrush technique and the context of painting as a way to counteract the often dismissed ephemeral nature of digital media and give the work the credibility that only skilled painting seem to earn. Buck earned his BFA at Pacific Northwest College of Art in 2010 and his MFA at Oregon College of Art and Craft in 2015. He was a recent recipient of Portland Institute of Arts Golden Spot Award and was featured at Portland Gallery ILY2’s booth at NADA Miami 2023.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

I’m an airbrush painter living and working in Portland, Oregon. I use digital imagery found on the internet, my photography, AI-generated images, to make digital collages with closed-captions pulled from television and movies that I watch. I blur the collage to unify the image into a single picture, often with a strange or funny narrative. These images are then translated into paintings to give them the credibility that only skillful painting is given.

What catalyzed your interest in art?

My interest in art stems from a lifelong desire for total independence. I never really wanted a job and I’ve never been outgoing enough to really want to do art for the sake of being a part of a community like some people are. I’m super introverted and enjoy the trance of losing time in the flow of making work.

It Was An Absolute Dog And Pony Show, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 34 x 20 inches

How do you describe your practice?

My practice always begins with gathering images and captions. I do this because I never want to imagine, because I understand how I render images and I’m very good at doing that from scratch. However, I never want my work to be boxed in my mind. My mind is where I’m stuck for life. Going through filters of appropriation, digital manipulation, and artificial intelligence tools keeps things outside fresh for it to remain interesting for me. Also, making everything from scratch is time consuming and inefficient. Efficiency is key because art takes stamina, momentum, and conviction. Having a clear idea of what you are painting is the difference between a painting taking a few hours and it taking a month. Spending a month or two on a painting that sucks is horrible and it kills your creativity. Speed and ease of one’s practice can never be overestimated: its value is absolute.

As for my painting technique, I am trying to stay true to the machine’s interpretation of the image as if it were a contract that I signed before taking on the project. Image is everything. I’m not interested in the brushstroke. Flatness in painting is supreme to infinity! Every ridge or pit in the canvas adds micro shadows that add grey to the image and degrade how the color is reflected. Plus, brushstrokes and drips and all that painterly crap just looks so dated and boring. “I want to make paint look like paint,” – could the bar be any lower? I do want to say that great painterly painters that even I like definitely exist, and I’m partially exaggerating my extremeness on this topic for giggles, however I actually do think what I’m saying about the brushstroke is mostly true. Needless to say, I always sand my gesso as flat as I can and use airbrush, so the paint atomizes and makes a matte photo print-like surface automatically and effortlessly. I don’t even try. The airbrush naturally behaves like an ink jet. The round peg fits into the round hole just like so. I never use masking tape, because it always just looks like masking tape on the surface. It’s some what of a redundant troupe in airbrush painting that I don’t really appreciate as much as the variations on softness. I do no tracing, drawing, or projecting of the image on the canvas. Other than the stenciled text, it’s all 100% freehand.


Cats in the Bag, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 inches

What/who influences your current work?

There’s a few artists who I would say are genuine influences. They are all artists who I know and have interacted with personally: Dan Attoe, Taj Bourgeois, and Dimitri Santaella.

Dan Attoe was on my grad school committee, but I knew of his work long before then. He was also the first painter that I really liked who used captions with narrative images. I enjoyed the way he would combine pictures and words that would have a juxtaposed or a dissonant relationship to how the picture was read. His use of text is more like, “here’s an idea to think about with this image,” rather than directly referencing the image. When I first started adding captions, I did it freehanded. It looked way too much like Dan’s work though because he does it freehanded, which is one of the things that pushed me to go with stencil. His process was always influential on me too. Dan compiles huge amounts of images and words and sort of matches them together, which is similar to how I work. With him though, it’s all graphite drawings and from imagination, rather than digital appropriation; it’s really the process that makes the work.

Taj Bourgeois is another influence. Taj is a Portland art legend nobody has ever heard of. He had a big following on Instagram and was written about twice in Art in America but has since dropped off the face of the earth. Very few people in the Portland scene knew of him. Portland is really cliquey unfortunately. Taj is kind of a tragic figure for me; I was subletting a room to him in 2020, but due to drug use and lack of funds I had to kick him out. It seems like that was the last anyone ever heard from him. Don’t really know if he’s even alive anymore.

Taj made all kinds of performances, paintings, installations, etc. that were pretty amazing in their own way. The stuff that really influenced me from Taj was his digital collages. He would make and post bizarre digital collages prolifically and post them on Facebook and Instagram using lots of stock photos and other internet trash. I remembered seeing those and thinking that if he would just make photorealistic paintings of these, they would be the thing. He was not a very good painter technically though and had a very cute and disarming method of rendering. Taj did the naïve painter thing, I think, so he could get away with more and do less work. He would sometimes make really dark provocative shit that would piss people off. He was skilled at defending the work online in a way that didn’t make him look like an asshole. He really kind of was an asshole though, but smart about dealing with it, at least in writing messages. He had a charisma and charm online that he really, really, really didn’t have in person. He was a shy mumbler in real life, like he didn’t want to get caught or seen. Taj was either a sociopath, a true intellectual nihilist, autistic, or all the above. Whether it was subverting snuff images, plagiarizing other artists, making paintings of Bart Simpson having orgies with other Bart Simpsons in outer space, Taj always went for it, despite people’s feelings and I respect that. Kind of a genius in a weird sick cult leader kind of way.

Dimitri Santaella is another influence. He is more of a commercial artist, art director, and fashion designer. He was a fan of my work and hit me up wanting to collaborate. I liked his young hipster bad boy style and so I said, “sure.” He sent me literally hundreds of images of true crime documentary screenshots all with closed captions that he had been collecting but didn’t know what to do with. As luck would have it, I did know what to do with them. Ultimately the images weren’t very good, but the captions were like a gift from god. I, of course, started to insert the captions into my images, and it added an additional layer to the work that wouldn’t have been there without the collaboration. I started painting them and it became a part of the work. I’m annoying to watch TV with now, because I’m always pausing to photograph a caption that I want to use in a painting.

Food for Thought, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 51 x 31 inches

What do you want a viewer to walk away with after seeing your work?

I want people to enjoy the work and find it interesting and memorable. I want them to think about where the images come from and be curious about the materiality and how it’s made. Maybe get a laugh out of it or some excitement.
Describe your current studio or workspace.
My current studio is in my garage. It’s really dusty from the airbrush. Pretty crowded with stacks of big paintings. It has a decent size wall that I built in there. I usually just work on one painting at a time.
Buck’s studio
What is one of the bigger challenges you struggle with as an artist? How do you cope and how does it inform your practice?
The biggest challenge is finding the time to actually make work with all of life’s other responsibilities. It’s really amazing how much work I have created without actually working on art very much, because I don’t have the time or energy. I work 40 hours a week as a pharmacy technician at Walgreens. It pays the bills but it really zaps my energy. It’s really been a nightmare lately. I’ve been figuring out how to swing trade stock options over the past year and am starting to become consistently profitable. If it continues to go well, I will probably quit Walgreens in a few months to trade full time. It’s a lot of the same things that make me good at painting: pattern recognition, doing things with conviction, patience, independent thinking etc. It’s a mind game. The market closes at 1 PM PST, so I will have the afternoons to paint after that, so its a win-win ultimately so long as I don’t go broke! Hopefully that all works out, but until then I’m mostly a weekends-only artist.

I am Here, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 50 x 42 inches


What excites you about being an artist?
The most exciting thing for me is when I get a painting done and realize that it’s an improvement of the whole body of work. It adds something that wasn’t there before.  I’m all about trying to unlock a new level.
Who are some of your favorite artists?

One of my favorite artists right now is Trey Abdella. He’s one that I both love and think is annoying, which is usually the combo that stays in my head the most. I feel like you can’t really talk about him without the word “gimmick” coming up. He uses lots of texture, assemblage, lights, holograms, etc.  I don’t really care so much for that aspect of his work. As I said earlier, I’m just about the image in art. It probably aids his process and his motivations for what he’s into, given his sculptural background. I really just think he’s a strong image maker and I like his goofball sensibilities. Sayre Gomez is another fav, for obvious reasons. Really fantastic painter, an absolute GOAT of the airbrush. I like how he constructs images with this faded LA urban trash aesthetic. It’s super dope.

What do you collect?
As far as my art collection, I have a few Taj Bourgeois paintings, a Brad Troemel taco, a Jay Gaskill painting, a Hwi Hahm painting, and a Dan Attoe drawing.
No Problem Casting Stones, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 44 inches


Interview conducted and edited by Natalie Toth. All images courtesy of the artist.