Erik Prince is hot.
Yes, I mean that Erik Prince, Blackwater founder, guru of mercenary contractors committing war crimes during the War on Terror largely outside the bounds of human rights laws, and more recently, Trump buddy who allowed Project Veritas goons to scamper all over his Wyoming ranch. The Erik Prince who never met a weapon he didn’t want to deal or a state security contract he didn’t want to sign. The only—and youngest—son in the Prince dynasty, whose big daddy Edgar founded the Michigan-based manufacturing Prince Corporation, as well as co-founded the fundamentalist pearl-clutchers Family Research Council, and whose older sister is former Secretary of Education whacko and mother of ArtPrize founder, Betsy DeVos.
I can promise that Erik Prince’s status as an American sex symbol is not a thought that ever crossed my mind before visiting Buck Ellison’s current exhibition Little Brother at Chelsea’s Luhring Augustine. All it took was one glimpse of Erik—or at least the model, Noah Grant, playing him—languishing on a Persian rug, wearing a denim shirt branded SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation), a company whose website offers, among other tech “solutions,” “military intelligence solutions,” with his fingers set in Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War. And now I have a thing for Erik Prince. The shots of Erik lathering himself up in an outdoor shower in Ellison’s nearby film didn’t hurt either. Mmm…international arms dealing and civilian massacres in Iraq mean nothing to me, baby. Let’s sign some billion-dollar defense contracts and escape prosecution!
I know what you’re thinking: Emily, that’s grotesque, immoral, and depraved. Surely, it is not Ellison’s intent to make the audience lust after Erik-fucking-Prince. Well, I’m not so sure of that. Ellison’s Little Brother, through photography and film, depicts Prince as a romanticized and even, erotic figure, wandering around his and his family’s Wyoming ranch in 2003, the year he would land the contracts for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In some photos, like the previously referenced Rain in Rifle Season, Distributions from Split-Interest Trusts, Price Includes Uniform, Never Hit Soft, 2003, he lounges like a pin-up, a classical odalisque, or one of the more modest pics from a BUTT Magazine shoot; his direct gaze sultry and daring. In others, such as Oak Moon, Net gain or (loss) from sale of assets not on line 10, Aircraft hours are “wet lease”, Powerbars, 2003, Ellison portrays Prince as a mysterious cowboy figure of sorts, skulking around his ranch by moonlight with a herd of cattle in the background. I say of sorts here because this wealthy heir paradoxically cloaks himself in home-on-the-range signifiers. He may be donning camo and peering through a rifle’s scope, but as another photograph, Monday Morning, 990-PF Nonexempt Charitable Trust Treated as a Private Foundation, Phoenix-Seneca Growth Fund, Gray Sweatpants, 2003, reveals, Prince is more apt to schlep around in sweatpants peering at paperwork than haul bales of hay with the farmhand tools hung as décor on the exterior of his freshly painted home.
If this sounds like a whole lot to take in, it is. I wrestled with exactly how I felt about Little Brother for a few weeks. I was familiar with Ellison’s Prince series from the 2022 Whitney Biennial, yet the trio of photographs on view in that survey exhibition (all three of which are also in Luhring Augustine) was completely overshadowed by the museum’s scattered and overcrowded hang that gave me immediate anxiety. Yet, in Luhring Augustine, it was impossible to escape the flood of contradictory reactions to Ellison’s methodically organized photographs, all joined together by a decadent wallpaper silkscreen, Five Windows, featuring two male flâneur-types marching arm-in-arm among Chinese blue and white porcelain, opium pipes, and lanterns. These items represent the dominating colonial fist of the British East India Company, a Blackwater predecessor, with a dash of same-sex desire or at least companionship between the two men (Prince apparently frequently referenced the British East India Company as an inspiration for his plan for Afghanistan. Obviously opium also looms large in our Afghanistan debacle). At first, my kneejerk response to the show was anger: Why the fuck do we need a whole show about Erik Prince? Do we really need to, as a reader published in conjunction with the exhibition explains, “earnestly try to understand someone whose actions make my stomach turn”? Yet, I couldn’t—and haven’t—stopped thinking about the show since, which has led me to conclude that Ellison’s Little Brother just might be one of the most subversive projects I’ve witnessed in a long time.
A significant part of my muddled feelings regarding Ellison’s show had to do with its framing both in the gallery’s press release and articles I’ve read on the series. Mostly, the conversation around Ellison’s work centers on both “whiteness and privilege,” as the press release articulates. The New York Times echoed this sentiment in their feature, “Buck Ellison’s Great White Society”: “As conversations about race, racism, and inequality surge into the mainstream, Ellison remains one of the only artists describing the myths of white male power from within its walls.” While some of Ellison’s other more stock photo-inspired country club imagery could certainly be understood as a nearly satirical critique of privileged whiteness, Little Brother is a bigger, more troublesome endeavor. This is not to say the show doesn’t expose a very specific type of overblown rugged privileged white American ideal (let’s not forget American, which I’d argue is the most important part). It does. Yet to stop here in the understanding of the work is a grossly oversimplified reading, one that doesn’t permit viewers to take in the full alarming breadth of Prince’s entanglement in the American military-industrial complex.
This distancing comes courtesy of the identity-driven buzzword-heavy analysis, which the art world takes to like catnip nowadays. It’s no surprise. Identity-driven buzzword-heavy analysis runs parallel to the identity-driven buzzword-heavy partisan politics in creating categories, labels, and sides that obscure the more pervasive systemic issues that implicate exactly how our society is run in the service of pointing fingers at a certain segment of it as a distraction. For instance, we can’t exactly dismiss Prince’s reign as king of the mercenaries as solely due to white male power when he landed those War on Terror contracts at the same time as Secretary of State Colin Powell was fibbing to the UN about (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction that propelled us into a democracy-by-force quagmire. And then, there’s the little inconvenient matter of the Obama administration’s refusal to quit using Blackwater for years after the 2007 Nisour Square massacre in which Blackwater employees murdered Iraqi civilians (the Blackwater employees were since pardoned by Trump). Whoopies! Turns out civilian military contractors are a bipartisan pastime. That’s left out of all of the coverage of Little Brother that I’ve read. Wonder why?
Because it’s easier. And it’s certainly more of a crowd-pleaser amongst the polite liberal subset of the art world. When a work is contextualized in terms of privilege—or whiteness from a white artist (post-2020, it seems like a lot of white artists, suddenly faced with grant-giving committees and curatorial staff seeking to make up for decades of ignoring artists of color, instantaneously decided their work was about whiteness), there’s a kind of presumption that the viewers are, at the very least, aware of and questioning their privilege, just like the artist and institution is. It placates the audience, patting them on the back and assuring them that they are on the side of the angels and the right side of history. They’re one of the good ones, no matter their net worth or ties to weapons manufacturing. Ellison seems to dutifully play this role himself. “I am part of this problem and benefitting from these systems,” he says in The New York Times. Well, great! This kind of self-flagellating hand-wringing, as well as the assertion that Prince is “a deserving target of public ire” in the exhibition’s publication (We know), seems to belie a discomfort and self-consciousness about how an audience might take these works. That they may not, in fact, have the “right” politics, which frankly I don’t think they do. And thank god for that.
While Little Brother may, in part, deal with privilege and whiteness, I don’t see a whole lot of critique of either of the two when faced with the work itself. What is actually there is wholly different. Little Brother is about obsession and desire. Beginning with obsession, our preeminent filth elder John Waters once famously said, “Life is nothing if you’re not obsessed.” And Buck Ellison is nothing if not obsessed with Erik Prince (and I would not be surprised if John collects this work). The reader released alongside the exhibition lays out a multitude of Prince-related minutia that Ellison poured over for this body of work, much of which finds its way within the symbol-laden photographs. Tax forms. Congressional testimonies. Pages copied from Prince’s own memoir (on my reading list), entitled, comically, Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror. Conversations about an antique Gatling gun from 1901 that went around the world with Teddy Roosevelt, which Prince received as a Christmas or birthday gift. As you do.
This astonishing level of monomaniacal research is visible within Ellison’s precisely staged photographs. No detail is too small. No object without significance to either Prince or his family. Take, for instance, Fog, In His Light We Shall See The Light, Raintree 23 Ltd Ptnr, Excess Distribution Carryover, If Any, 2003, in which Erik turns, shirtless and smiling, in front of a chest of drawers and a bulletin board covered with an assortment of books, papers, photographs, and tchotchkes, each imbued with meaning. The royal blue baseball cap is from Prince’s alma mater Hillsdale College, better known as “the hidden gem of the conservative movement.” The wooden clogs represent his birthplace of Holland, Michigan. The photographs of Navy SEALs and Blackwater contractors, his buddies. And of course, a sprinkle of imagery every wealthy family with acres of ranchland has to have: thoroughbred horses. Beyond the startling thoroughness, the photograph reveals a strangely ambiguous scene as Erik stands in front of drawers labeled ominously as anesthesia supplies and gloves. What are you doing in there, Erik?
If these Prince Easter eggs weren’t enough, the barrage of hidden references within the extraordinarily lengthy work titles also presents the viewer with a bombardment of Erik Prince lore. Luckily, the exhibition reader provides a breakdown of each of the titles. For example, Fog, In His Light We Shall See The Light, Raintree 23 Ltd Ptnr, Excess Distribution Carryover, If Any, 2003 at once quotes Psalm 36:9 and alludes to Raintree Partners, “a real estate investment and asset management firm.” As the reader expounds, “Erik’s accountant sold shares from one of their funds – Raintree 23 Ltd Ptnr – at a loss in 2002 for his nonprofit, The Freiheit Foundation (freedom, in German). The foundation makes grants to libertarian and right-wing nonprofits.” Each photograph title contains a similar level of bureaucratic lingo familiar only to accountants and the lucky few who have to worry about things like trusts and tax forms for private foundations. And, of course, it’s also relevant for those who are woefully fixated on Erik Prince. As seen in Fog, In His Light We Shall See The Light, Raintree 23 Ltd Ptnr, Excess Distribution Carryover, If Any, 2003, this level of painstaking detail is as astounding as it is aspirational as it is alarming. Erik Prince is not someone we’re supposed to be obsessed with, at least as people outside of the web of grift-laden international politics done largely in the Seychelles. More specifically, Erik Prince is not someone Buck Ellison, as a gay artist, is supposed to be obsessed with. And the work is all the more transgressive for it.
The unabashed preoccupation with a much-loathed American figure is an undeniably queer fixation (in both meanings of the term). Ellison treats Prince’s body with the same level of care as he does his history. The camera in Fog, In His Light We Shall See The Light, Raintree 23 Ltd Ptnr, Excess Distribution Carryover, If Any, 2003 sensually lingers on Prince’s half-nude body with his face slightly out of focus. In the photo, model Noah Grant’s figure has been bulked up via Photoshop to better resemble Prince’s own physique. And it’s not only his abs. The exhibition’s corresponding reader conveys certain altered details such as enlarging his ears and, even more maniacally single-minded, a small barely visible scar above his eye. It’s this corporeal obsession that leads directly to the combined desire and fascination presented in the photographs, a specifically gay male gaze, one that some of Prince’s conservative cohort would seek to squash (although there’s no shortage of homoeroticism already baked into the worlds Prince inhabits, including the military and civilian contractor mercenaries). On one hand, there is a notable powerplay in being the one who looks at rather than the one looked at, whether tracked by CIA-contracted Blackwater spies or Project Veritas creeps. On the other, it’s almost breathtakingly politically incorrect to portray Prince with such eroticism.
And I’m not the only one caught up in Prince perversion. Ellison himself discusses Little Brother in terms of desire. As the exhibition reader states, “I’m interested in what happens when a viewer is forced to get close to a snake in the grass. If a camera allows us to desire, or to be curious, or to feel empathy towards a figure like this.” Now, it’s worth noting that I don’t believe Ellison’s Little Brother encourages the viewers to feel empathy for Prince. It’s not because empathy for horrible American oligarch lineages can’t be done. Just look at the “Connor’s Wedding” episode of Succession, which saw *spoiler alert* Shakespearean king of conservative media Logan Roy’s sudden death. Though I had been anticipating Logan’s death this final season, the actual moment and its aftermath was a visceral descent into his children’s shock and confusion, isolation and grief. This wasn’t a cathartic death of a tyrant resulting in the immediate freedom of his children who spent their lives under his thumb. Instead, showrunner Jesse Armstrong portrayed his progeny as devastatingly crippled and humanized by his death, with heart-wrenchingly emotionally vulnerable and trembling performances that inspired empathy even for this absurd cast of characters.
In contrast, Ellison’s Little Brother doesn’t have much in the way of emotional connection, only a distant longing voyeurism that culminates in the exhibition’s film, which shares the show’s title. Coming in at under two minutes (more than a few seconds of which are the credits), Little Brother features a montage of Prince as he moves through the day, from spitting out his toothpaste in the morning to praying before he goes to bed at night, crossing his fuzzy moccasin slippers. My reference to Succession above wasn’t for nothing—Ellison’s film seems to owe something to the prestige HBO drama-dy, though it may just be the reveling in the interior design and sartorial styles of legacy families, including those vests that douche-bros like Kendall Roy and Prince seem to love so much. Even with the Succession similarities, there’s little emotional depth to Little Brother. Instead, the film is cut like a movie trailer and a particularly engrossing one at that, which adds a bit of camp with the inspired choice in soundtrack: The Joubert Singers’ “Stand on the Word,” with repetitious lyrics, “That’s how the good Lord works!” Though style may dominate over substance in this film, Little Brother slyly juxtaposes Prince with the farmhands working on the ranch who tip their cowboy hats to the boss as he squints into the distance talking on his appropriately 2003 flip phone.
With this contrast, it would be easy to point at the workers as the real cowboys. And yet, Ellison shows his hand slightly within the exhibition’s reader with a quote by a senior U.S. commander serving in Iraq who said, “Many of my peers think Blackwater is oftentimes out of control. They often act like cowboys over here.” Cowboys loom large in the American imaginary for straight, gay, queer Americans alike (I recently bought a ticket to see Orville Peck in June. Hello!). Not all those performing as cowboys wear rhinestone-studded suits like Peck, some, like Prince, wear ballcaps for German firearm manufacturers, etched with their initials. Prince is certainly not the only war-mongering heir donning a Marlboro Man fallacy. Our former President George W. Bush swaggered right into the White House by pretending his blue-blood Bush family tree had deep drawling roots in West Texas (not that Papa H.W. gravitated there after graduating from Yale). And yes, I’m aware of the horror I just struck in the heart of most of this audience by referencing W. in an essay pining away for Erik Prince. Good. It’s exactly this conflation of desire and repulsion that makes Ellison’s work in Little Brother so captivating, complex, and problematic. I don’t use problematic as a pejorative here. There’s something delightfully troubling about Ellison’s meticulous fixation on Prince and what his fascination, in turn, forces the audience to confront about ourselves and about how America’s destructive military might may operate in tandem with desire, both at home and abroad. How this concerning yearning might just be tied up in inflicting pain on countries across the globe, often Brown countries, for money, assets, resources, and power. The latter, for Americans, might be the most desirable of all.