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May 16, 2014
Art Review

John Buck @b.sakata garo

By Julia Couzens, Squarecylinder

"Submuloc," 2010, woodblock print, 60" x 37"
Initially recognized for strong narrative, neo-primitive wood sculpture in the 1970s, John Buck has subsequently made printmaking an integral part of his art. As so often happens, once a material enters the artist’s studio it can find itself morphing from object to vehicle. So it’s no surprise that woodblock printing has since become Buck’s medium of choice. As a graphic agent, woodblock printing is locked in a pitched battle with drypoint etching for supremacy of linear grit. In Buck’s hands, it is also a masterful vehicle for social and political discourse.

In his first show at b.sakata garo, Buck’s seven large-scale (mostly 60 x 37-inch prints made between 2010 and 2014) are something of a reprise from his 2011 show at the Crocker Art Museum. The single-medium presentation of these works enables one to consider Buck’s prints as a powerful body of work equal in importance of his sculpture. The challenges of printmaking require a different relationship to time, space and hand than those required by large-scale sculpture. Buck uses the one-on-one intimacy of the woodblock to create prints that read like 19th century annotated texts commenting on social, historical, political and environmental scenarios.

A cardinal feature of Buck’s practice is his communion with and interest in materials. What nature provides is what he uses as the ingredients to make his art. Wood, paper and inks are the agents for work that is both organic and cerebral. You can’t make a fast woodblock. Gouged and troweled out from wood, each line is hard won, and as with drypoint, the hand cannot slide across the plate or surface in pirouettes of facility. There is heft and conviction to the line, and that alone can be a beautiful thing. Klee spoke of taking a line for a walk — Buck hoists a pack and takes line on a rigorous cross-country hike.

An advantageous and salient feature of printmaking is layering, and Buck draws upon earlier images, embedding them into new narratives with fresh emotional palettes. A consistent motif is the Mason jar, placed front and center, holding objects such as a cow’s skull or a sailing vessel, like specimens framed as botanical classifications. Buck’s work suggests Audubon’s prints gone hyperthyroid in dark, Bosch-ian depictions of Las Vegas addictions rising from the sea of sand or European conquistadores literally ripping the robes off Aztec kings. Buck gives us meditations on hard truths in the guise of beautifully crafted, strong, yet materially delicate works on paper.

Submuloc, broods upon the discovery and conquering of the so-called “New World” with images of Catholic priests cloaking hard-ons for nubile indigenous supplicants; soldiers plundering and looting temples; mass graves for those systematically executed or decimated by European diseases and colonial alcohol. The ugliness of power isn’t new information; we know the story. But in the silence of a gallery on a quiet afternoon, Buck nevertheless skillfully seduces us into wincing accountability.

High Water, in mordant tones of sour greens, gray and black, showcases a steer skull in a red-lidded jar. It’s a visual panoply of Hunter S. Thompson’s Las Vegas: Caesar’s Palace consuming skulking losers; jackalopes, the mutant trophy of barrooms and honky-tonks; gamblers with donkey heads — all appearing like denizens and detritus of Pinnochio’s Pleasure Island. Buck’s is a trenchant commentary on human frailties and excesses, our culture of obsessions and denial. One could say Buck builds a case for desolation chic.

Two prints, however, The Choir Boy, and Tulip for Patti Smith, shift from socio-political concerns to overt odes to nature, poetry and sexuality. These are love songs. With an array of greens, and one resplendent orange, Choir Boy is a gorgeous celebration of the beauty of a cactus in bloom. And the offbeat sophistication of unexpected maroons and reds in Tulip for Patti Smith suggest a heart-on-the-sleeve emotional soundtrack

John Buck

WHERE: b. sakata garo, 923 20th St.

WHEN: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays,through May 31

INFORMATION: (916) 447-4276