John Buck


The Master of Wood

by John Yau


There are a handful of obvious and important points about John Buck’s art that I would like to make at the outset. The first and perhaps foremost is that he can carve a piece of wood into anything he wants, and I mean anything. The array of things that he makes and doesn’t always use in his sculptures is mind-boggling. On a recent visit to his studio, I saw a large, antique camera, all kinds of accurately evoked birds, many and different figures, all made of wood, which for some reason or another he hadn’t incorporated into his sculpture. They, and much else, were resting on shelves lining his studio. Buck’s mastery of his materials has enabled him to work with wood as a three-dimensional form that can be carved, and as a two-dimensional surface that can be incised. More recently, he has incorporated motors and pulleys into his work and has completed a number of kinetic sculptures that have many parts moving simultaneously. Wood is as central to Buck’s project as steel was to David Smith’s.

The second point is that Buck’s woodcuts don’t look like anyone else’s. This isn’t only because of the large scale he has been able to achieve with a medium that was used primarily in books during the Middle Ages. It is also because the artist has also expanded upon techniques found in traditional European and Japanese woodcuts, as well as made his own unique contributions to the medium. His woodblocks tend to be made up of interlocking and modular pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle. By dividing the block into modular units, Buck can incise each one differently, as well as work on a larger scale.  He can also a control over the color that is unique. In The Eternal Flame, 1995, he articulates a pale blue aura around the candle flame, while in Deep End, 2000, he conveys both the jar’s interior and the light reflecting off its rounded, transparent surface.  For all his technical mastery, Buck never shows off. Everything he does is at the service of the work, its subject matter.

In addition, the artist can use the same incised blocks to make large colorful prints and black-and-white rubbings. The idea for making rubbings came from a trip Buck made to China, where, in a forest, he saw “craftsmen taking rubbings” from “gigantic stone tablets.” Although they may share the same subject matter, the woodcuts and rubbings strike different emotional cords in the viewer. Also, the rubbing can precede the print, which in some cases have yet to be editioned. In terms of his imagery, which is both direct and bold, Buck draws on a wide range of inspiration, including the Calaveras or animated skeletons of the great Mexican artist, Jose Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913), Native American symbols, and the highly precise bird studies of John James Audubon (1785-1851), to name just a few.

The third point, which follows from the first two, is that Buck has thoroughly reinvented the medium so that one of his woodcuts, Language of the Times, 1990, is nearly eight feet high and more than four feet wide, and chock full of arresting images, all of which issued from the artist’s hand. For this and other reasons, his woodcuts and, in a different way, his rubbings constitute an unrivaled achievement in American art. The scale of the woodcuts and rubbings is one that we are most likely to associate with large paintings, and certainly that is part of what makes them contemporary. The other reason they feel contemporary is because of their subject matter, as well as their prescience. He titled a lithograph from 1984 Jihad, long before the word entered our everyday vocabulary.

Since 1980, when Buck made his first, aptly titled woodcut, My First Print, he has not only seamlessly joined technique to subject matter, but he has also deepened his engagement with both. This joining further distinguishes his work from those artists who claim to have a lot to say, but whose technical weaknesses ends up diminishing their work. No such waning takes place in Buck’s woodcuts. In fact, the techniques he has developed and mastered, which can be said to consist of incising the wood, or drawing with a sharp instrument, are matchless. From the smallest linear form to the largest, often multi-colored, iconic image, the palpable images in Buck’s prints speak to each other, as well as concentrate, jolt, and shift our attention.

In Great Falls, 1991, he bends and morphs an abstract form so that it go from being a symbol of a human to being a waterfall and winding river, with the latter conveying a great distance and vanishing point. He has articulated a three-dimensional, transparent form, such as a jar; and gone on to delineate the different things inside it. His ability to layer the images, so as to convey volume and depth, is incomparable. In The Reflecting Pool, 2003, he depicts five frogs poking their heads above the water, their darker green bodies bobbing below the surface, and the things lying on the pool’s bottom, including the Tower of Babel.  Everything is defined by the thickness of the line, which Buck always seems to get perfectly right. The things closer to the surface, the ripping water, for example, are made up of thicker lines, while the things at the bottom of the pond are further away and made of thinner lines. While his mastery of line is more immediately evident in the rubbings, it is also essential to the woodcuts. No matter where we turn our attention, there is something there to engage us.

By any measure, Buck is a contemporary master of the woodcut and of sculpture made of carved wood; and, in the case of his prints and rubbings, this means that he is a virtuoso draughtsman who has learned to draw with different kinds of sharp tools.  And central to all of his devotion to craft, and in fact what makes his work so important, are his ongoing preoccupations. In his sculptures, woodcuts, and rubbings, Buck investigates both local and global issues, always in a way that eschews didacticism. His work is simultaneously a celebration and a lamentation, a song of praise and a mournful dirge. There is no simple message to his work, but there is always a deep and compassionate understanding of the difficulties of contemporary life, and the many conflicts that impact our existence.

As an artist who lives and works in rural Montana and Hawaii, and who grew up in a family that was serious about fishing and hunting, Buck is highly conscious of the deleterious impact modern society has often had on our natural resources. At the same time, he is neither nostalgic for a supposedly simpler time nor is he an outsider commenting on how another group lives. Rather, he is the quintessential insider who examines a way of life with which he is deeply familiar. His is an art of self-reflection and rumination, of looking and looking again at the world in which we live. His highly detailed woodcuts and rubbings make plain that, in both life and art, looking should never lead to idyll, that there is more to beauty than the picturesque. If anything, the very act of looking should make us more conscious of the fragile world we inhabit, and how we interact with our material circumstances, how we use what we do. In this regard, Buck differs from many other artists with a strong social consciousness because he doesn’t assume the mantle of witness or judge, but is someone who is always willing to implicate himself.

There is a diaristic impulse to Buck’s woodcuts and rubbings, a need to make immediate observations and clarifications as well as explore his changing states of feeling. However, in contrast to most diary-like work, his works on paper never feel personal, narcissistic, or closed-off. The artist depicts a complex visual world that invites long scrutiny; he wants the viewer’s attention to wander through the layered reality he suggests, as well as to connect one thing to another in the mind’s eye.  And concurrent with this impulse is the increasing intricacy, both in color and line, which has taken place in the artist’s work since 1980, when he made his first woodcut. In the two dozen woodcuts that Buck made between 1980 and 1988, the artist generally used two or three colors, with the two exceptions being Omaha, 1984, which had fifteen very closely related colors, and Pacifica, 1985, which had four.  These early woodcuts are largely graphic, and the colors are uniform throughout.  In 1989, in Green Fruit, he makes a woodcut that consists of twenty-three colors. Since then, many of his woodcuts consist of between six and ten colors.

At the same time, and very near the beginning of his exploration of printmaking, Buck found a way to implicate himself, as well as dissolve the barriers between subjective expression and objective observation. In Beruit, 1983, and Big Stick, 1984, the artist’s use of a red tree in the former, and a thick branch in the latter, introduces a self-reflective element into the work. In depicting a tree or branch as the largest, central, galvanizing element in a woodcut, a medium in which wood is essential, Buck connects his artistic materials to something common and essential to life, suggesting that the boundaries between the two are both porous and changing.  The iconic image that Buck places in the center of many of his woodcuts is often a surrogate self-portrait, as well as a vision of a living being surrounded by the nearly chaotic and often overwhelming maelstrom of information that defines each of our days.  Is it possible to process all this information and keep our attention focused on the things we have to do, ranging from the simplest chores to paying attention to the events and issues roiling our life?  It is this very basic contemporary dilemma that Buck addresses in print after print. Can we keep paying attention? Can we keep looking, no matter how disturbing and unsettled the world keeps becoming before our very eyes?  

In The Language of the Times, the artist defines a grid of light and dark yellow squares in order to openly explore a question all artists face. In a world where there is no common language, how does an artist develop a visual language that is not solipsistic, literal, or burdened by its symbolism? In the print, the artist has drawn a wide range of red linear symbols, signs, and silhouettes into the squares, with some overlapping and others contained by the squares. Superimposed on this checkerboard of images is a circular black tower outlined in white.  The tower alludes to the well-known biblical story of the Tower of Babel. In the story, the builders want to erect a tower that would reach to heaven. Offended by their arrogance, God caused the tower to fall by having everyone working on the construction begin to speak a different language, making communication of the simplest kind virtually impossible. It is this inability for us to communicate with each other, and the resulting rancor, that resides at the heart of much of Buck’s work. He recognizes not only that universal communication is an impossible ideal, but he also explores his own role as an artist.

In the top row of The Language of the Times, from left to right, one sees the symbol of the Yin and Yang, the silhouette of a city, a looping abstract line that suggests a butterfly, a layered abstraction that suggests both a landscape and a body, a tank rolling towards a tent, and an optical conundrum in which a vase (or negative space) is formed by two profiles facing each other.  Each of these symbols exists on its own, so that it is the viewer who connects them, making something out of them. In their separateness, they remind us of what befell the people who tried to erect the Tower of Babel. And yet, even though we speak different languages–I mean this both literally and metaphorically–and we often find it difficult to communicate with each other, the desire to do so never leaves us. Instead of coming up with a solution, which certainly would never satisfy everyone, Buck conveys the need to negotiate the vast differences separating us. We must get beyond our own chauvinism in order to start dealing with the Other.


The Ivory-billed woodpecker is the subject of a woodcut and a rubbing, and dominates a wall sculpture, all of them titled The Singer Tract and dated 2005. Many experts believe that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, one of the largest members of the woodpecker family, is extinct. However, in the first years of this century there have been a number of sightings by trained experts, but none have ever been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.  The controversy over whether the Ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct or not has become one of the recent meanings of Buck’s print.  One reason that the artist might have chosen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker as a subject is because of the bird’s bill, which it uses to pound, cram, and peel the bark off dead trees to find the larvae of the wood-boring beetles that is central to its diet.  The ivory-colored bill is flattened at one end, like a beveled wood chisel, which, for Buck, is an essential tool. This link suggests that the artist might consider the Ivory-billed Woodpecker to be a surrogate portrait, that he and this extinct or, at the very least, rare bird have something in common.

In both the woodcut and the rubbing, the woodpecker is hammering away at a rotted tree trunk rising from a swamp.  Both the bird and rotted trunk are inside a sealed glass jar, which suggests that they are either specimens or that the jar is a kind of diorama.  On one level, Buck seems to be commenting on the ongoing extinction of animals, which is usually caused by civilization’s increasing encroachment upon natural habitats. On another level, however, the image of the woodpecker in a glass jar, hammering away at a tree, can be read as a self-deprecating, self-portrait. As an artist devoted to craft, he too may be feeling like he is on the verge of extinction, particularly in the contemporary art world, where craft, and particularly the one of carving wood, is regarded by many theorists as old-fashioned. On still another level, the image of the woodpecker can be regarded as humorous; even though he has been pronounced extinct, he seems not to have gotten the news and is still hammering away. The artist’s seemingly uncomplicated image isn’t so simple after all.

Buck has populated the background or area around the bird and rotted tree with images, each of which provokes us to reflect upon their meaning. On one side of the woodpecker, the artist has made a linear ghost of the Statue of Liberty holding up its torch, welcoming the “tired” and the “poor,” while on the other side he has made a linear image of a cowboy pushing an alligator through what looks like a sewing machine.  Here again, one sees Buck’s ability to make complex meanings out of accessible and in some cases familiar images.  The image of the cowboy working at his machine is both funny and disturbing. Is it meant to evoke alligator pocketbooks and shoes, and how our preoccupation with fashion can include a strong disregard for the natural world?  What about the Statue of Liberty?  One of Buck’s great strengths is the economical way in which he articulates complex images, and how they provokes us to consider their meanings. His art ranges from the tender to the pointed, and from anger and concern to sympathy and love. The woodcuts and rubbings are both expansive and resolute.  His sculptures, both the still and the kinetic, are full of details.

Whatever the medium, everything that Buck does requires that we slow down and take a long and careful look.  And in that slow looking there are many pleasures, many visual instances where ours eyes can marvel at the details, while our minds can consider the various things Buck is reflecting upon. Few artists are able to get as much into their work as he does, seemingly without effort. It is a major achievement.