For the past four decades John Buck has been creating prodigious woodblock prints and intricately carved wood sculptures that stand apart from any art movement or trend. Buck’s powerful imagery prompts viewers to consider socio-political issues such as greed, war, racism, sexism, and environmental degradation. This exhibition includes five sculptures (panels, free-standing, and glass jar) and twenty-six woodblock prints dating from the 1980 two-color woodcut My First Print to the 2016 nine-color woodcut The Cat.
Buck’s powerful imagery, underscored by his unusual printmaking techniques and mastery of wood carving, prompts viewers to consider socio-political issues such as greed, war, racism, sexism, and environmental degradation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Buck saw the world going up in flames: the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union faced economic collapse, and the Gulf War was raging in the Middle East. The 1991 woodcut “The Times” features a heap of rolled-up newspapers, the source of Buck’s information about world events, ablaze and set against a dark background incised with death heads, leafless trees, severed bodies, religious symbols, and moths.
The misuses of religion take center stage in many of Buck’s works. In the woodcut “Phoenix Rising” the central image is not the phoenix, a symbol of rebirth and regeneration, but rather the extinct dodo bird. Behind the dodo are a range of civic and religious buildings from different cultures: a country church, a mosque, a temple, and a cathedral. Interspersed among these symbols are swarms of people, presumably the religious and secular armies mobilized by the ideologies represented by these various structures. In the context of these background images, the dodo stands as a symbol of the consequences of an ill-considered mingling of politics and religion.
“The Reef” woodcut from 2014 refers to the threat of rising sea levels on our coastal cities due to climate change, and the ongoing pollution of our oceans by humankind, themes that Buck has explored in a number of his prints. The glass jar is a visualization of the Earth’s atmosphere. Greenhouse gases trap heat and warm the planet. All life, in the seas and in the cities, is trapped and dying in the jar as the temperatures and sea levels rise.
Unlike other woodblock artists, Buck prefers a soft wood (Malaysian jelutong), so that he can use a variety of tools, even a ballpoint pen, to incise thin lines. Due to the size of the prints, together with the unique woodblock and incising methods, the printing process for Buck’s woodcuts is very challenging. This has made it necessary for him to collaborate with master printers. Since 1983 Buck has primarily worked with Bud Shark at Shark’s Ink in Lyons, Colo., who has printed and published 50 of his woodcuts. The exhibition includes the woodblock and rubbing for “Phoenix Rising,” and several narrative labels provide information about Buck’s and Shark’s processes.
Buck’s panels and freestanding sculptures are largely formal explorations of compositional elements. In the panel “Taj Mahal,” the three circles in the lower left abstract form are repeated above it in the model of the Guggenheim Museum, and three is the number of wasps on the upper right. The network of potato roots in the glass jar echoes the system of streets in the center map of Manhattan. The v shape of the beard is repeated in the wasp’s nest. The sphere’s on the upper left and lower right draw our eyes across the composition.
John Buck and his wife, artist Deborah Butterfield, reside in Bozeman, Mont. and Kona, Hawaii. Buck’s prints and sculptures can be found in the collections of major museums across the country, among them: the Albright Knox Art Gallery, Denver Art Museum, Museum of Modern Art in New York, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Whitney Museum of American Art. Buck is represented by Zolla/Lieberman Gallery in Chicago, Robischon Gallery in Denver, Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, and Anglim/Trimble in San Francisco.