Jul 16 – Aug 29, 2015
Robischon Gallery is pleased to present the highly-compelling work of distinguished American artist John Buck. Buck’s intricate and commanding kinetic wood sculptures are prominently featured in an extensive summer showing along with the artist’s additional series of medium and large-scale figurative sculptures, carved wood panels, rubbings and woodblock prints. Exhibiting in parallel to Colorado’s Biennial of the Americas 2015, John Buck’s provocative artworks reflect and explore a wide range of cultural ideas and global topics. The mesmerizing and symbolic works reveal an expansive and committed inquiry by the artist into many complex societal issues, while providing the viewer the opportunity to experience the sheer wonder and inventiveness of the artist-as-seeker. The several new and recent works engage visually on a folkloric level through their materials of jelutong wood and peg construction, while their sophisticated and masterfully carved elements make visible the direct and truthful mark of the artist’s chisel. Balance is a driving force in all of John Buck’s works, from their measured, hand-hewn elements, to the functionality and marvel of the artist’s kinetics. Each sculptural artwork is built with a kind of weighted scale in mind and is exquisitely assembled with intent to balance not only from one side to the other, but also with regard to content.
John Buck’s twenty four-foot kinetic sculpture entitled Cat’s Cradle offers a narrative of the discovery of the America. With the intent to highlight the centuries old once-perceived nature of the world, Buck takes the viewer back in time to the explorers who ultimately bridged the continent to Europe and linked both treasure and travail upon their arrival. The spinning geometric cube, a reminder that the world was once thought to be flat, rests upon a Catholic mission church, its gearing mechanisms extending from the building to a perpetually rocking cradle with a model of the contiguous United States and an assemblage of larger-than-life bones held in its bed. While open to alternate meaning, Buck offers that the cradle alludes to the fact that the birth of the nation came at the expense of indigenous lives. On the right, an orrery of sorts with prominent explorers, Columbus, Vespucci, de Leon and Magellan, present their respective ships as well as the land masses they discovered – sometimes inadvertently – revolving around a globe marked with a map of Renaissance notions of constellations. The celestial globe weighs heavily on a pock-marked oarsman whose companion figure at the other end of the boat rows endlessly like the Greek figure Charon who ferried bodies of the dead across the river Styx. A wheel including figures such as the Cyclops, centaur and “sciopod” – seen resting in the shade of his gigantic foot – rotates above the boatman’s bat-winged topped shoulders. With an elaborate headdress, the Aztec god of the dead, Mictlantecuhtli, is also along for this ride as is the triumphant figure of Columbia replete with an urgent exclamation point thought-bubble propelling her forward as the symbol of relentless Manifest Destiny. Further illuminated alongside discovery, this westward push is marked as having brought death through religious persecution, disease, and development of the land. All the while, a kneeling priest with a keyhole thought-bubble above his head flails his arms in a constant flagellation with crucifixes which bear incongruously grinning and potentially offensive caricatured Native Americans. The figure is the embattled Cleveland Indian baseball team mascot Chief Wahoo. The ship’s figurehead of the grief-bound Madonna weeps perpetual tears with her hands in the Orans position of prayer as they grasp the strings of a child’s game of cat’s cradle, the title of the sculpture. The writer Kurt Vonnegut titled one of his best-known novels with the same name; a story steeped in criticism of science, technology, religion and in particular, the arms race. Like the character in the book that is playing cat’s cradle when the bomb is dropped, Buck’s Madonna is also witness to a type of Armageddon where the weapon of destruction, disease, like nuclear obliteration, came with an unexpected, yet unfathomable level of annihilation.
The next of five exhibited kinetic sculptures entitled The Muse, is of a formidable, columnar female figure that extends her arms as a puppeteer to manipulate marionette strings connected to figures who the artist posits possessed two of the greatest minds of the twentieth century: Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. Each famous figure boasts above his head a recognizable emblem of his respective genius with science-shattering, spinning atoms for the violin-playing scientist and the bicycle-seat bull sculpture for the creative innovation of the self-promoting artist, paint palette at the ready. Rockets of inspiration and desire regularly propel high into space while two dice weave through an outline of a human head suggesting an element of randomness and chance associated with great human discovery. At the same time, a spinning disc with the phases of the moon harkens to the essential, allegorical use of the female as all-important metaphoric muse-as-inspiration and indicates the inexorable persistence of Nature with Woman as the symbol of all human creation.
The vast and various symbolic representations found within the complex imagery of John Buck’s work derives from a variety of sources including history, art history, mythology, world events, thrift shop ephemera and more. Evolving from the artist’s deep fascination with all manner of information, the imagery is not intended as didactic. Nevertheless, the complicated symbolism hewn of simple materials engages a profound and deep range of intellectual and emotional response. The figures which populate his work often appear as headless, nude forms suggestive of and even working as structural caryatids or as potent allegory. The caryatid-like figures, both male and female, typically have fantastical still or moving objects in lieu of their heads. Emblematic of creative forces, the objects in place of the head symbolize other aspects of cultural or human identity, while Buck’s geometric and natural objects inform his work with a similar thought-provoking significance, intended to ignite and invite investigation through wonder in both the viewer and the artist, as well.
The following kinetic sculpture, Borrowed Time, consists of two-painted panels that scroll book-like behind an upright, centralized female holding forth a pocket watch that swings hesitantly back and forth like a searching pendulum. A disc of multiple drawing hands spins around in place of the figure’s head, their pencil-clasping fingers endlessly imply and elude to the idea of line and time as one – the linear becomes the curvilinear; shapes emerge to then become forms with meaning – much like how an artist’s work begins as a single mark that builds into a realized idea. With the watch signifying the passage of time, it suggests that the appropriated and conflated images belong equally to the past and present. In all of Buck’s work, the viewer is generously left to decipher the significance of the symbolic images of both recognizable and altered icons of art history as they are made into history, which in the artist’s hands, is shown to perpetually move outward and around. A myriad of images of violence and confusion reign in Buck’s Borrowed Time: the figure of Liberty armed with a bow and arrow like Artemis sits astride a gigantic armadillo; corseted Frida Kahlo is being devoured by wild dogs; dying figures from the Irish potato famine suffer and starve as other greedy figures siphon water through a spigot at the other end of the world; an empty-headed, club-bearing king receives a crown of mandate from a blind angel; a distorted woman with the head of a devil springs from a melon Athena-like to release the dove of peace and the bat of something less desirable as the twin towers burn on a stretcher. Even the artist’s self-portrait unfurls again and again, standing with a megaphone-like horn at his mouth broadcasting and an ear trumpet to his ear in an attempt to hear all of the meanings emanating around him. The sculpture offers volumes of information to receive and interpret as the scroll relentlessly revolves; from event into history, history into myth.
As the exhibit culminates, John Buck’s newest kinetic sculpture entitled State of the Union, dominates the third gallery. A massive wagon drawn by bats and further fueled by endlessly whirling twenty and hundred dollar bills, carries four men armed with military-grade weaponry who are determined to chop and saw at a tree with branches topped by symbols of American democracy including the US Capitol, the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Liberty Bell and the scales of justice, among others. The trunk as the foundation of the American form of government with its Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches is being felled by figures blinded by their own destructive self-interests. Blindfolded with either the Confederate Battle flag, the “Don’t Tread on Me” banner, the United States Stars and Stripes or the provocative Texas/Mexico “Come and Take It” cannon-bearing flag, the menacing figures stand amidst more churning money and with no awareness of the magnitude of devastation their vitriolic personal beliefs may be causing even as two of the figures are bound by nooses to the doomed tree. They remain oblivious in their zeal to a burning church filled with frantic, open-mouthed figures; a devil’s tail waggling out the back. And finally, a banner emblazoned with the ideal of America as “FREE FOR ALL” devolves into an emblematic free-for-all where self-serving chaos reigns over the hard-won American principles of democracy.
Often a marriage of both historical and contemporary references, John Buck’s sculptures, carved wall panels and colorful woodblock prints and rubbings are brimming with symbolism and invite the viewer to speculate and interpret their many layered meanings. Engaged and resonant with the world that surrounds, the artist’s wit, intricate compositions and stimulating subject matter further ignite the visual in ways both unexpected and illuminating.
John Buck received a BFA from Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design, Kansas City, MO and an MFA from University of California, Davis and also attended the well-known Skowhegan School of Sculpture and Painting. He has been honored as a recipient of numerous honors including a National Endowment for the Arts, Individual Artist Grant, a National Artists Award, an Outstanding Nationally Recognized Alumnus in Sculpture award from The Kansas City Art Institute, the Governor’s Arts Award from the Montana Arts Council and was the Artist of the Year at the Yellowstone Art Museum, among others. His work has been exhibited across the US and is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Denver Art Museum, Joslyn Art Museum, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Seattle Art Museum, Yellowstone Art Museum, Billings, Montana and many more.