Two fifteen-foot motorized wooden figure sculptures are currently stationed in the front room of the Greg Kucera Gallery in Pioneer Square, part of a comprehensive one-man show of the work of Montana artist, John Buck. The giant sculptures are merely the most spectacular of the many Buck works on view, works which also include shadow boxes, peek-a-boo wall panels, woodblock and woodcut prints, and bronze statues. Somewhere between folk art and surrealism, Buck’s work is intriguing for both its highly refined craft and its elaborate, often humorous imagery. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
The best way to begin a visit to the John Buck exhibit is to walk entirely through the gallery, and up onto the outdoor sculpture deck. There stand five serene nude statues, their graceful presence charmingly at odds with the gritty, industrial surrounding.
Each of these nearly life-sized, bronze women ends abruptly in a flat shelf where the shoulders should be. Balanced on these shelves are large, upright objects, part of the symbolic vocabulary Buck employs with virtually all of his works. One blue-grey woman with hands on her hips sports a thistle plant on one shoulder and a prism shape on the other. Another, arms folded, carries a bizarre vase on her right and a stack of flat rocks on her left.
Perhaps these peculiar forms — referring to both the natural and intellectual worlds - are meant to embody the process of thought, what might be going on inside those missing heads. Here, as elsewhere, Buck likes to leave the exact message murky, the room for interpretation broad. In his most successful works, like these figures, the symbols and their setting seem meant for each other, the one element strengthening the other.
Elsewhere in the exhibit, Buck employs quite different means to related artistic ends. One favorite device is the shadow box, a wall-mounted construction of wood and paint, where carved forms of familiar objects are arranged like parts of a pictogram. In Nikita, for example, a window in the wood frames the many-domed church of St. Basil’s, a Kremlin landmark. Alongside, linked together with helpful blue lines, are low-relief wooden depictions of a marijuana leaf, a skeletal hand, moths around a candle flame, and an abstract, vaguely multi-cellular squiggle. In the center of these disparate objects is an old-fashioned top hat, like that sported, perhaps, by the scary bosses of the late Soviet empire. The message here is clearly political, a warning, perhaps, about seductive ideologies and their assault on the balance of nature.
Less successful are those pieces where the collection of symbols seem more arbitrary, their relationships to their setting more tenuous. In a work called "The In Crowd," for example, a large assortment of carved wooden objects has been placed in a oversized Mason jar. Piled inside, amongst other things, are sculpted balls, heads, vases, a building, an eye, a baby. The piece struck me as more of a storage bin than an effective sculptural statement.
A similar problem plagues some of the motorized works, particularly one entitled The Ascent. Here a life-sized wooden stairway holds a collection of gorgeously crafted softwood models. There is a human head, a strutting horse, a bellows camera, the Parthenon, the Empire State Building, and three hilarious musician frogs. Press the button, and everything revolves on motorized spindles. The movement, alas, adds nothing to the effect, and the twirling around seems to occur for no reason, like a poorly choreographed performance in a plotless play.
More successful are the two 15-foot statues, where the artist’s intent is much clearer, the mechanized rotations more apt. In Against the Grain, the stronger of the two, another headless female figure supports a huge symbolic headpiece, in this case an elaborate contraption with revolving wheels. Mounted on these wheels are eight portrait heads of famous modern artists, each wearing their own imagery as a crown — Dali and his melting watch, Giacometti and his ectomorphic man. Perhaps unwisely, there is also much more — below the wheels there is a another mechanical array, this one a giant pseudo-scientific display in which belt-driven spinning geometric shapes are linked by curved wooden arrows to a symbolic cross-section.
My attention wanders back to those women on the deck, whose spareness and simplicity I suddenly miss. For a prodigiously gifted artist and craftsman like John Buck, the challenge may well lie in knowing when to stop.