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Cowboy Carver 

by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & rtist John Buck appeals like the cowboy poet who embodies the romantic freedom of the American West with gritty yet eloquent wisdom. Working mostly with wood, Buck tells his story -- of the land, times past, current events, his day-to-day life -- using images both timely and timeless. His stories are our stories; we recognize in the rhythm of his imagery a voice that is unique and yet familiar. Spanning more than 20 years, "John Buck: Iconography," opening May 15 at the MAC, is a powerful show that will further establish the importance of one of America's most versatile artists.





Buck's poetry is expressed in three major formats -- printmaking, relief sculpture and freestanding pieces -- with painting, drawing and color work also factoring into his triangulated approach. The stylized Everyman figure that shows up in 1999's "Ladder, Ring, Leaf" sculpture also appears in the woodcut "Fact and Fiction." The print "Lamp," with fireflies in a mason jar, relates to Buck's glass jar series, including his sculpture-in-a-bottle, "Remember the Maine." The use of primary or monochromatic color schemes connects his 1980s series of sculpture-and-painting tableaux to his '90s prints and sculptures.





"By shifting from printmaking to sculpture to painting," writes Buck, "I am able to see with a fresh eye." The triangle of art-making techniques is not flat, then, but a three-dimensional prism, with elements reflecting off each other ad infinitum.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & uck's multi-disciplinary approach began with arts education received in the 1960s at the Kansas City Institute and School of Design, where he was first introduced to printmaking. As he describes in a 1993 catalog from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Buck was intrigued by people like H. C. Westermann, whose early prints combined cartoon-like drawing, flattened shapes, a limited color palette and seemingly arbitrary use of space.





Although Buck worked primarily as a sculptor then, he would eventually apply his woodcarving techniques to printing. "My First Print" (1980) is a rustic-looking 2-foot-by-3-foot woodcut that reflects Buck's method of assembling sculptural relief panels from sections of wood enclosed in a border. Its central image is an abstracted white globe, cut in half with a small, rounded doorway, like an igloo. (Buck created the print while at the Alaska Center for the Visual Arts.) The background is black and energetically incised with pictographs: stars, globes, animals, a mountain. A red block-pattern border encloses the print.





This first print signaled a shift in Buck's work, which was dominated by sculpture after his graduation from the University of California, Davis. While there, Buck was influenced by his instructors, including painter and sculptor Manuel Neri and ceramicist and "Funk" artist Robert Arneson, whose reverence for the figure and surface texture may be seen in such works as Buck's "Nine Quarter Circle."





Buck looked to art history, such as Pieter Breugel, a Dutch artist who painted everyday life in 16th-century villages, stacking space in an almost folksy way. Like Breugel, Buck used images from everyday life. "In essence," he explained, "I build the surface of artwork out of images of a personal nature -- my experiences -- and work toward an idea that reaches for something outside my own personal dimension."





Thus works like "Cherry Blossom Tree" (1988) articulate the American experience: Old Glory seemingly in flames, scientific elements and a rocket ship, buildings from the Capitol, a burning cross, a horse and rider. As the foreground image of the blossom branch contrasts with the red, blue and white-outlined background of conflicting symbols, we wonder: Who is America?





Social commentary permeates much of Buck's printmaking, ranging from domestic issues -- "Trails Plowed Under," "The Coal Mine," "American Eagle -- The Great Divide" -- to global political commentaries like "Jihad" and "Beirut."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & Longtime resident of Montana, where Buck owns a ranch with his wife Deborah Butterfield -- best known for her equine sculptures -- Buck also has strong ties to the land. Since he was born into an Iowa farming family, many of his works speak to environmental issues. While works like "Botanica" pay tribute to the diversity of nature's plant species, all his works celebrate a humble yet versatile medium, wood -- particularly his recent use of jelutong, a Malaysian softwood.





In Buck's hands, wood becomes a printmaking surface with intricately carved lines, an assemblage of panels carved in relief with compartments that hold exquisitely carved forms, some sinuous and abstract, others familiar -- butterfly, pocketknife, seahorse. Freestanding sculptures like "Taj Mahal" are typical of his often headless figures who balance a complex arrangement of icons where their heads should be: a leaf, the Tower of Babel (again, perhaps from one of Breugel's paintings), a globe, a bird in flight.





That shifting and balance is central to Buck's work. It shows up in his freestanding sculptures, in the contrast between foreground and background in his prints and reliefs, and in his use of recurring themes that straddle the line between familiar and unfamiliar. Like a storyteller, Buck recreates a world for his audience by narrating elements of his life in a complex but cohesive web of works that compel us to reflect on what he's saying.





"John Buck: Iconography" runs May 17-Nov. 16 at the MAC, 2316 W. First Ave. Museum hours: Tuesdays-Sundays from 11 am-5 pm; open until 8 pm on first Fridays. Tickets: $7; $5, seniors and students. Visit www.northwestmuseum.org or call 456-3931.

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