My sculpture is inspired by contemporary issues as well as primitive and folk art of many cultures. Wood carving and assemblage are found in practically all cultures and I find the connection inspiring. My approach to sculpture is a combination of figurative and abstract compositions which represent the imagination as physical forms and that combine the properties of balance and tension.
Following the artist’s compelling solo exhibitions at Robischon Gallery in 2015 and 2016, John Buck returns with massive, never-before-seen, hand-carved, kinetic wood sculptures and additional sculptural works. Entrenched in both world history and the current socio-political landscape – acknowledging the pluralism of American politics, cultural celebrity, and even the threat of nuclear war - Buck’s sculptures manage to span ancient culture to present day. Rich with symbolism and iconography, Buck’s sculptures are not bound by a specific philosophy; rather, the work serves to ask its audience questions about his or her relationship to society, especially as it pertains to civic responsibility. Art historian John Yau writes that Buck “wants to engage our attention rather than tell us what to do. Derived from a wide range of sources, his symbols invite us to assemble them into a narrative, calling upon us to recognize our role as witness and provoking us to ask: What kind of witness are we? And what kind do we want to be?”
Buck pulls from contemporary politics in the monumental kinetic The March of Folly, which portrays Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Stormy Daniels, Kim Jong-un, and Dennis Rodman as symbolic figures within a pointed political commentary. The figures are recognizable, as are some of the other symbols: the Trojan Horse, Trump Tower, a North Korean rocket ship, and the Kremlin atop Putin’s hat. Buck’s carved representation of Laocoön and His Sons, tells the story of a Trojan priest who tried to warn his country about the dangers of the wooden horse, left by the Greeks. In the myth, the priest and his sons are killed by Athena and Poseidon's sea snakes, and the truth does not reach the soldiers in time. Snakes, a recurring symbol within The March of Folly, twist around the struggling figures in the Laocoön, forming the circular shape of a nearby wheel, and echo in manner Stormy Daniel’s whip. By marrying contemporary politics with ancient myth and Roman antiquity, Buck historicizes the contemporary political moment and asks his viewers to see it from a historical distance as well.
In the kinetic sculpture The Mother of All Wars, Donald Trump, with serpentine forked tongue, holds the iconic Gadsden Flag from the American Revolution and leads a marching army, as a gung-ho cowboy-soldier on a rocket follows, poised to strike. Significant here is Buck’s human figure, on which the entire spectacle balances. The headless form exists throughout Buck’s oeuvre and serves as a foundation for the narratives that occupy the allegorical space of the mind. Buck’s figures, like caryatids - draped human statues that act as columns on ancient Greek buildings - are both architectural supports and symbolic elements. The figure in Mother of All Wars is near human scale, and, as such, as art writer Linda Tesner notes, offers the viewer “a near physical empathy” with the sculpture. Buck is asking his audience to relate to the devastating spectacle above in a personal and direct way.
Like in The Mother of All Wars, a headless female figure occupies a principal position in Medicine Wheel. The sphere of thought is quite literally a sphere here, represented by the Native American Medicine Wheel, a spiritual concept for many Native cultures, often made manifest in stones. The wheel would be central to ceremonies, with people moving in a sun-wise direction, following the path of nature, time, life-cycles, seasons, and evoking harmony with the continuum of these natural elements. Buck’s Medicine Wheel allows for a transcendent, contemplative moment within the exhibition, a kind of respite and surrender, as it eludes to the circular nature of the world and human history, of war and peace and time as a whole.
The circular form, and by extension its continuous repetition, is essential to Buck’s work. Wheels attached to leather straps allow for the movement in his kinetic sculptures. The movement itself suggest a metaphorical link to the past - cyclical, repetitious – as does the artist’s process, the repetitive and timeless act of carving. This connection to the past is overt in Buck’s bronze sculpture, Flying Horse; an ancient Chinese Flying Horse of Gansu stands atop an oblong shaped element, located atop a human figure. The horse, prized in China for its perfect mid-stride balance, seems to run on a continuous loop in Buck’s sculpture. The human figure supporting the scene is perfectly balanced as well, while also mid-stride.
Buck’s sculptures hinge on such balance, literal and figurative: the mechanics of movement, the weight of wood, and the political perspective - all require structural equilibrium. This is evident in the relief panel The Afterthought. Siamese fighting fish - an extremely territorial species who cannot live in the same tank without killing each other – hold the center, bracing us for a fight. The panel is divided in equal parts: on one side, there is an active artist, and on the other, a faceless, perfectly coiffed wig that harkens to the old, aristocratic establishment. In between, positioned beneath the fighting fish within the composition, sits a caged rabbit, representing a nature far more innocent and vulnerable.
From his massive political kinetics to his meditative figural works, John Buck encourages a personal interpretation of his imagery. Running themes question the establishment, acknowledge global issues and art history, and offer the viewer the important role of witness. Buck’s work is meant to challenge, but also to delight. The artist’s deftness in carving jelutong wood and his ingenious approach to wood-and-peg mechanics allows him to capture a sense of wonder for his audiences, all while placing them within a challenging visual discourse.
John Buck received a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design and an MFA from University of California, Davis. He has received many prestigious honors and awards including an Individual Artist Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a National Artists Award, and the Governor’s Arts Award from the Montana Arts Council, among others. Buck’s work is included in permanent collections of note including: The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Denver Art Museum, The Brooklyn Museum, The Milwaukee Museum of Art, The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, The Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, The Seattle Art Museum, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery, among others.
The artist would like to acknowledge the invaluable collaboration and contribution of his longtime studio assistant Guy Klaas, for his ongoing commitment to the work.