John Buck


John Buck
Sep 22 – Dec 17, 2016

As an encore to one of its standout 2015 solo exhibitions, Robischon Gallery is again pleased to present the highly-compelling work of distinguished American artist John Buck.  Like the artist’s previous expansive exhibition, Buck exuberantly fills each of the gallery’s main spaces with his signature carved jelutong wood, large-scale, mechanical kinetics and figurative sculpture, alongside wall relief panels and woodblock prints with an addition of bronze works in varying scale.  This tour de force showing of the artist’s intricate and provocative artworks is not only a reflection of Buck’s masterful studio practice and extraordinary creative drive, but as well, his knowledge of and commitment to addressing a wide range of cultural ideas and global topics. Buck’s artistic voice continues its relevant call as it symbolically broadens the discourse on American culture, politics, science and the history of art and renews the complex dialogue through his wit-filled and mesmerizing visual vocabulary.

For a significant aspect of the exhibition, John Buck, true to form, takes his conceptual cues from the timeless realm of American politics, past and present, in perfect parallel to the heated spectacle of the controversial 2016 presidential election and its unprecedented political polarization. The topics surrounding the dissatisfaction with the perceived status quo in Washington D.C., along with the current controversial candidates, confers an opportunity upon each viewer to engage with Buck’s personal brand of pointed social commentary while finding their own role in the civic dialogue. The artist encourages such personal interpretation along with a sense of discovery upon seeing his work, as the idea of “a back and forth” in search of equilibrium is an essential quest.  Buck states, “The nature of my sculpture is that the compositions are all about balance, with an image on one side that’s balanced against another.  For me, it has to be equal in weight as well as equal in terms of its subject in order to be successful.”  Such considered oppositions in the artist’s process are welcomed as they allow for open narratives, a sense of wonder and propose questions of society’s shared social contracts.

The Immigration, Buck’s newest kinetic sculpture, speaks to humankind’s aspirational quests as much as it suggests the sometimes colossal and difficult realities that unfold due to human folly and frailty. The ever-moving, often squeaking and clacking carved wooden work is a structurally complex and politically-charged sculpture of impressive dimensions. Choosing the cultural touchstone of George Washington’s iconic Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River and referencing the 1851 painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Buck displays a very altered scene with new figures rowing Washington’s boat (with an outboard motor) as they use oars to move along a crown, (a symbol of British rule), amidst a collection of other refuse and detritus floating in the suggested river beneath the boat. Nearby, Gandhi spins his wheel while being towed along on a lifesaver by a nondescript naked swimmer.  The puzzle continues in The Immigration with the famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, also being towed in the opposite direction while she embraces an infant-sized Diego Rivera with his curious, but clearly visible third eye. Enclosing the scene is Buck’s massive sculptural bridge element – an object or symbol that universally connotes transition or connection. The bridge supports banner excerpts from the famed poem by Emma Lazarus which was composed for the Statue of Liberty and intended to nobly address the millions of immigrants who came to the United States.  Buck further plays the past against the present as he unites a powerful and unexpected group of recognizable figures who take their place as they symbolically pass over the span of time while alluding to each individual’s lasting influence. The artist’s surprising, comical and unflinching revelations about the human condition are at first confounding, then clear, and become curious once more as the figures progress over the bridge with the persistent clickity-clack of the mechanized inner workings of the piece.  Notorious and malevolent figures such as Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler, Satan and Mao perpetually intersect with other famous  faces – Martin Luther King, Jesus, Queen Elizabeth, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein and Donald Trump, who holds the widest span with his fistfuls of currency. From the poignant to the pedestrian to the absolute, the parade of characters continue their turn across the bridge; the infamous and graphic 1968 Vietnamese execution image of a suspected Viet Cong officer by a South Vietnamese general, the once all-pervasive MTV astronaut logo and Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. Mona Lisa, follow along as the skeletal face of Death is an ever-present companion. Circling round again and again, the entire spectacle is bookended by a caged Lady Liberty and an imprisoned Lady Justice whose individual cell doors open and close repeatedly.

Inarguably, the assorted figures each ignite passionate or even inflammatory responses. Yet, Buck calls upon the viewer to consider his figures contextually, not solely as symbolic embodiments of pure good or evil but rather, the artist offers a mirror to examine the continual shaping of the American experience and its effect around the world. Delving insight and thoughtful consideration of historical consequence with a sense of history-in-the-making are investigations encouraged by the artist as he challenges the same of himself. Buck offers a polemic to humanely parse what is within humankind’s power to either accept or avert in the places where the cultural zeitgeist seems to have curdled with bitterness and dissent.  With the presence of both Lady Justice and the Statue of Liberty, potent allegorical symbols of America’s finest ideals, hung upside down in their individual cages, Buck makes clear his views on corruption, demagoguery and the duplicitous squandering of long-standing American values in the name of personal gain.

Just as President Obama’s image is featured traveling over the bridge in The Immigration kinetic sculpture, several additional American presidents inhabit the larger exhibition in myriad overt and covert ways.  In the carved wall relief work entitled Predictions and Projections, a presidential signifier can be found in Abraham Lincoln’s disembodied beard. In the voluminous revolving kinetic work entitled The Potomac Waltz, the recognizable presidential visages can be seen in the dark segmented rooms beneath the Capitol dome - their heads affixed to spinning, puppet-like bodies with emblematic symbols of their identities in a perpetual graceless waltz-as-metaphor for governance.  The Capitol turns to reveal its history of change from one oppositional point of view to the next as the dancers from noble Abraham Lincoln in a pas de deux with devious Richard Nixon to New Deal Franklin Delano Roosevelt pirouetting with a Cold War Dwight Eisenhower-as-marionette to two other meaningful pairings of past presidents who endlessly spin as the political juke box perpetually plays on. 

Buck commits to his carved expressions whole-heartedly with the long view in mind, both in concept and in studio time, as some of the massive kinetic works take over a year each to produce.  Reflective of the artist’s own oftentimes searing political observations or his universal and readily humorous expressions on the arts and sciences, Buck’s astonishing and beautifully constructed kinetics prove to be irresistibly engaging. In Against the Grain, a large female figure with a cross-cut tree trunk alludes to the artist’s chief material while the workings of abstracted gears brings attention to the whirling heads of historically famous artists and their signature famed works – artists who themselves have boldly rejected the art conventions of their time to create new art forms that reshaped the canon. From Duchamp and a portion of The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even to Picasso’s Bull’s Head bicycle seat sculpture to the non-representational Neoplasticism of Mondrian, each artist, like Buck, reacted to convention with bold ingenuity regardless of the reaction and promulgated the binary opposition that so often fuels advancement in the arts.

Prior to the advent of his kinetic work, Buck’s career-long commitment to creating free-standing carved subjects in wood and the technical mastery required for carving jelutong in particular, the artist has been distinguished for decades with his exceptional ,carved emblematic sculptures of female and male figures joined with symbolic or abstracted elements. Examples of this work are positioned accordingly throughout the gallery and in some cases are an important part of the artist’s exhibited political offerings.  At the front entrance, the free-standing form entitled The Talk of the Town presents a towering, red-painted nude female figure - intended to both attract and overwhelm, as she shoulders her controversial symbolic messages of American entanglements over oil, the Middle East and 9/11, as perhaps a kind of questioning of the loss of civilization or at least one that may rest in the balance.  In other nude figures throughout the exhibition, universality is explored.  They stand with poise or stride with unseen purpose and even pose in relaxed yogic configurations, all the while shouldering symbolic forms in the location of the head/mind. The figures each convey an expression of a timeless or cross-cultural nature as abstract curvilinear or geometric motifs recall global and historical design, as well as the architectural or archetypal. Whether in carved jelutong or cast in bronze, Buck’s guised sentinels appear to hold a higher thought and deep allegorical wisdom - their postures carry the weight of interpretation as they relay a constant counterbalance of calm and ease.  The symmetry and elegance of the infinity knot atop the balancing figure of Kenya projects clear and sustained harmony. Equally, Medicine Wheel’s blue figure steps firmly, yet gracefully, as her upturned arms are poised to keep the timeless wheel-like disc calibrated; recalling a kind of universal balancing act required to maintain existence in the world and perhaps to maintain the world itself.  Each of the signature female forms in this exhibition radiate a dedication to centeredness; their human form as an expression of all life and their abstracted symbols provide a balanced anchor in contrast to the sometimes noise-making, intentionally chaotic visual whirl of Buck’s other controversially charged works.   

The artist’s exploration and mastery of a variety of mediums thematically expands his cultural critique further via his colorful, graphic, narrative woodblock prints.  Densely layered in form and meaning, Buck relates tales of America’s history and present day politics.   In a few of the prints on view, Native Americans fall as genocidal prey to the salacious or ignorant religious missionaries in Submuloc (Columbus spelled backwards); Uncle Sam is strangled by his addiction to oil company profits in Ravens, and a bound hostage is beheaded beneath Middle Eastern men frolicking down an amusement park slide in the print of War Eagle. Each initial line carved in the artist’s woodblock imagery calls out to the courage within both the artist and the viewer to speak freely and to chance disturbing the status quo in the search for truthful understanding.  Buck is well known in his risk-taking in order to present his unvarnished perspective, and in doing so, he does the real work of the artist, reflecting and sounding back to society a way to see itself and engage somehow differently than perhaps it had before.

From the political to the personal, Buck considers the human condition from its highest ideals to its lowest forms of perfidy, while always providing a balance with his equally enthralling thematic works on subjects of science, art and nature.  From portraits of famous and infamous figures, cross-cultural motifs and various cultural identities, the artist submits his chosen themes with steadfast determination, mastery of his materials and sheer invention.  Amid the sounds of whirring motors, turning gears and creaking wood, a sense of the full breadth of Buck’s labyrinthine vision dawns on each viewer as it sparks a personal process of investigation and discovery.  In unexpected ways, John Buck’s art uniquely provides the mechanism to simultaneously unlock both wonder and meaning, while in resonant dialogue with the world that surrounds.

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. Buck’s work has been exhibited across the US and is in the permanent collections of note including: Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Denver Art Museum,  Boise Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, Contemporary Art Center, Honolulu, HI, Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA,  de Cordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Fort Wayne, IN, Holter Museum of Art, Helena, MT, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C., Milwaukee Museum of Art, Milwaukee, WI, Missoula Art Museum, Missoula, MT, Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL, Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA,   Joslyn Art Museum, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Seattle Art Museum, Yellowstone Art Museum, Billings, Montana, San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D. C., Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, IN, Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA, University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, AZ, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT,  and additional museums, art centers along with additional private and corporate collections.