Walking into the big front room of Greg Kucera’s gallery — where two of John Buck’s large-scale kinetic sculptures are currently on view — is like entering an odd toymaker’s workshop or stepping inside one of those grand European clockworks. Buck’s sculptures are beautifully carved, laden with symbols and … they move.
Press a button and the sculptures launch into motion. “Cat’s Cradle” is a panoramic display of conquest, destruction and discovery. I visited the gallery with my stepmom and two daughters, and we were almost giddy as we identified references and speculated about meaning. There are references to Greek mythology, Eastern religion, Catholicism, Spanish exploration, Manifest Destiny.
But giddy is perhaps not the right word. There’s a dark gravity to Buck’s work. The Virgin Mary cries a cycle of fat wooden tears. Dancing Shiva endlessly destroys the world.
My least favorite elements feel too overt (as when the United States rests in a cradle filled with bones) because Buck’s work is most magical when it encourages an open-ended process of revelation. His layering and juxtaposition of symbols — even the way he balances masterful carving with obviously crude chisel marks — can evoke the tantalizing sensation that you’re constructing meaning but never quite arriving at a final interpretation. His sculptures are more like complex, shifting world views than single statements.
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In this way, they are like sculptural, folkloric, kinetic versions of Dutch vanitas still-life paintings, with their implications of ephemerality. Everything in this life shall pass away, including our egocentric belief that we have a handle on knowledge or ethics or culture.
The artist’s large-scale prints and intricately carved wood panels are also on display and they reveal some similar themes: civilization and decay; life and death; intersecting cultures; ersatz realities.
In “High Water,” one of his 5-foot-high color prints, Buck combines ideas about the American West with images from Las Vegas with all its pseudo-European allure and its counterfeit promises of wealth and glamour. (A longtime resident of Bozeman, Mont., Buck often explores the mythologies of the American West and its cowboy culture.)
Floating across the intersecting linear images is the memento mori of a cow’s skull, a clear reminder of death and the inevitability of things being stripped away. Buck then encases the whole confabulation in a jar, another recurring motif in his work, as if growing a terrarium or collecting specimens.
I love the way the three forms — prints, carved wood panels and free-standing wood sculptures — play off each other. The prints are created from carved wood blocks. The carved panels evoke lithographs or manuscript drawings. The sculptures leap into three-dimensional life, but still contain a flatness to them, as if meant to be read from one position, like a diorama or unfolding scroll.
In fact, interplay and interconnectedness seem to be important parts of Buck’s work. The forms are interrelated, the images are layered and associative, the parts of his kinetic sculptures move in harmony with each other.
Even his choice of medium — wood — suggests a harmony with nature. But it’s a manipulated, tense harmony, once again suggesting ideas about creation and destruction and man’s multifaceted, never-ending negotiations with civilization and nature.