Whimsy meets motion in Hilliard University Art Museum exhibit

John Buck show includes some of the sculptor’s mechanical works

Photos provided by the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art MuseumJohn Buck's sculptures, wood panels and woodblock prints fill the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum's main gallery in the exhibit John Buck: C'est Magnifique. The show runs through Saturday, May 11.
Photos provided by the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art MuseumJohn Buck's sculptures, wood panels and woodblock prints fill the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum's main gallery in the exhibit John Buck: C'est Magnifique. The show runs through Saturday, May 11.

Don’t be shy, ladies and gentlemen, step right up and board the merry-go-round of your choice.

Intellectually speaking.

There are plenty from which to choose in the main gallery of Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette, brought to you by the whimsy of John Buck’s imagination.

All you have to do is step on the little floor switch, and away you go, your journey limited only by the boundaries of your imagination.

But just how far are you willing to push those boundaries? Do you stay on the surface, where everything is lighthearted as it twirls and twists and turns in different directions?

Or do you move to the point where you begin to recognize objects and faces?

Or do you push past those boundaries to learn why these objects and faces have been grouped together, why they are rotating on shoulders of a human form?

Any choice lands you into Buck’s merry-go-round world, where your mind takes a ride into a story yet to be discovered. Buck has provided the outline for that story, but its content is up to you.

And it remains yours to sort out through Saturday, May 11, in the Hilliard museum’s exhibit, John Buck: C’est Magnifique. An Iowa-born sculptor with an elusive biography, Buck’s large scale works in wood and bronze and his block prints have earned him international renown.

The show features Buck’s hand-carved sculptures and wall panels, along with his supersized prints.

“I didn’t want to include the prints in the show, but he said one wouldn’t work without the other,” Lee Gray said. “And after hanging them, I realized that he’s right.”

Gray is the museum’s curator. Her introduction to Buck’s work came a few years ago while visiting the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Mont.

The museum was showing a large exhibit of Buck’s sculptures; some are appearing in this Lafayette show. And to Gray’s delight, she realized many of the sculptures were mechanical.

It’s a surprise that makes most visitors laugh at first. The sculptures are static at first sight, many of them with the aforementioned human form as their base.

“The sculpture takes the place of the head,” Gray said.

Makes sense. It’s as if the mind has taken over, its thoughts expanding past the body. But those thoughts can’t sit still.

“Watch this,” Gray said.

She stepped on a small, black switch next to a sculpture titled “Against the Grain.”

Of course, that title could be a play on words in more than one way.

In one sense, it could be a reference to the way Buck uses wood. His primary material is jelutong wood, a soft, white wood culled from Malaysian farming operations.

Jelutong is too soft to have any value as a building material, but it is perfectly suited for a furniture maker. Or a wood sculptor.

Especially a sculptor who carves and chisels each piece by hand, following in the tradition of folk art.

Then again, Buck’s work isn’t folk art. A closer look at the subjects in “Against the Grain” provides a better clue to the title’s origins.

A wheel sits atop the figure’s shoulders, the figure, in this case, being a woman’s form. Attached to the wheel is a series of symbols, and from behind the wheel rises a brace supporting two horizontal wheels supporting tiny busts, each with a tiny figure floating overhead.

On one side, you have famous scientists,” Gray said. “And on the other, you have artists.”

This brought Gray back to the point where she said, “Watch this.”

She stepped on the floor switch, which is attached to the sculpture by a cord, and wheels began rotating. It seemed every part was moving, entertaining the eyes.

And this is the point where the mind can’t resist. The more the eyes take in, the more the mind contemplates, finally hopping aboard this merry-go-round of ideas.

Who knows? If an iPhone somehow had the mind’s capacity to push past boundaries, it could capture a photo of the viewer looking very much like the sculpture as his thoughts begin to expand.

And again, Buck leaves it up to the viewer.

He does the same, it seems, when talking about himself. Let’s face it. His artist’s statement the museum has published in the visitors’ pamphlets accompanying this show is pretty bland.

Buck explains how he combines his interests in primitive, ethnic and historical wood carvings with his explorations of modern and contemporary art to form the basis of his compositions and how he later added movement, which “gives the viewer the opportunity to make various associations based on the changing relationships with the kinetic elements within the sculpture.”

Not much about himself, right?

And you won’t find much on him when visiting his website, http://www.johnbuckart.com, then clicking the link titled “The Artist.”

The only biographical information offered there is a photo of Buck working on yet another sculpture.

Which is enough. Really, it is. Because it’s at this point where you realize that Buck wants his artwork to tell the story. He is his work, and his work is him. Look back, for instance, at his piece, “Against the Grain.” Buck is making a link between art and science.

“These are people who thought outside of the box,” Gray said. “People who went against the grain. It’s fun on one level, but on another, it has deep meaning.”

And though this is a part of Buck’s personality, it appears that he doesn’t want his story to overshadow that of his artwork. But Buck, as is the case with everyone, does have a history. He was born in 1946 in Ames, Iowa. He earned his bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1968 from the Kansas City Art Institute, and in 1971, he studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine.

Buck received his master of fine arts degree from the University of California in Davis in 1972, where he met his wife, the artist Deborah Butterfield. They married in 1974, and they divide their time between Bozeman, Mont., and their studios on an island in Hawaii.

His woodblock prints and bronze sculptures can be found in museums throughout the country, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Gray, in her essay for the exhibit’s pamphlet, describes Buck as “a quiet, calm observer of life, with a piercing intellect which he communicates through his aesthetic language ... .”

In other words, his artwork does the talking, and it certainly says a lot in the Hilliard’s cavernous main gallery, which was designed to highlight large exhibits such as this. But what’s even more amazing is how Buck’s work actually fills the space. Most times, the exhibit and space complement one another, but Buck’s pieces take total command. Especially the 24-foot-long “Cat’s Cradle” installed in the back.

Gray stepped on yet another switch, prompting animation among the characters, all filling a boat, which belongs to Canon, the Greek ferryman who carried dead souls over the River Styx.

Canon fits into this story, which is Buck’s retelling of the discovery of the New World.

Serving as the boat’s figurehead is the Virgin Mary, crying an endless stream of tears. Canon is next in the lineup with a wheel of bestiary marvels resting on his shoulders.

He’s followed by a seated Jesuit priest, whose arms rotate in a windmill motion, each hand holding a crucifix.

“If you look closely at the crucifixes, the Christ figures appear to be Native American,” Gray said.

Next to the Jesuit is a model of a Spanish mission topped by a large, twirling cube symbolizing the ancient belief of a flat world.

Then comes Mictiantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the dead, followed by the angel figure Columbia, inspired by the artist John Gast’s allegorical painting, “American Progress,” personifying the idea of manifest destiny.

“Her thoughts are underscored by her thought bubble of an exclamation mark,” the museum panel states. “The oarsman impedes the boat’s progress by dragging an anchor incised with images of a Renaissance celestial map.”

What’s the old saying? One step forward, two steps back?

That’s always been a pattern in humankind’s history.

America’s great explorers also are represented on this boat, but there’s room for more. Don’t be shy. Just let your imagination hop on board and see where the ride takes you.

John Buck has left this world open for you.

And it’s yours to discover.