Hard Work

The NASE at Foothills is a disaster, but Buck and Neri at Robischon look good.

Sculpture is also the main attraction at LoDo's Robischon Gallery, where John Buck: New Sculpture is paired with the tasty little confection Manuel Neri: Sculpture/Drawings. This marks the fourth time that Buck has been the subject of a single-artist presentation at Robischon, and it's the third time for Neri. Buck, who mostly lives in Montana, and Neri, who's from California, are among the most significant contemporary artists working out West.

The large, wonderful solo John Buck occupies the set of spaces up front, and it represents a clear continuation of the kind of work Buck's been doing for a long time. His signature sculptures are torsos with elaborate abstract carvings in place of the figure's head. Because of where he places these abstractions, it's easy to interpret that Buck is trying to convey the image of thinking.

"Arch," by Jonathan W. Hils, welded and 
powder-coated steel.
"Arch," by Jonathan W. Hils, welded and powder-coated steel.
"King Street (black)," by John Buck, wood and acrylic.
"King Street (black)," by John Buck, wood and acrylic.


North American Sculpture Exhibition 2004
Through June 6
Foothills Art Center 809 15th Street, Golden 303-279-3922

John Buck: New Sculpture and Manuel Neri: Sculpture/Drawings
Through June 19
Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street 303-298-7788

The exhibit includes not only these iconic freestanding figures, but also related relief panels and prints; all three types are installed together in a delightful rhythm throughout this fairly large group of spaces. The exhibit starts off with one of the prints, a woodblock rubbing titled "Tulip" that depicts the flower standing out from sea of other images. The rubbing process Buck uses creates lines that are lighter than the ground, with the print winding up richly dark. Buck is just as famous for his prints as he is for his three-dimensional pieces, and, happily, the Robischon presentation includes a good sampling of his works on paper.

Just beyond, hanging across from one another on the joined walls of the entry space, are two of Buck's elegant relief sculptures. To the right is "King Street (black)," and to the left is "The Weed." Both are made of carved jelutong wood. These wall pieces have two principal planes -- a base plane that's been painted, and an overlying carved plane left in the wood's natural color. Each sculpture includes renditions of mundane objects -- or, more to the point, ubiquitous ones. In "King Street (black)," there's a mustache and goatee, among other things, and in "The Weed," there's the expected appearance of a seedpod, as well as the unexpected sight of a padlock and key.

The relief panels bracket one of Buck's characteristic torsos, "Adobe Walls," in jelutong wood with acrylic, depicting a female nude with a variety of shapes -- two disks, an elaborate geometric configuration and a twig with leaves -- balanced precariously on her head.

There are a few things that set these newest Buck sculptures apart from his earlier pieces. The most important is that his figures, which were conventionalized before, have become increasingly naturalistic. And they used to be androgynous, but now they're clearly either male or female, carved with unmistakable anatomical details. Also new are the integral bases with rectangular shapes that have been softened by all-over chip carving and go perfectly with the figures.

After walking through the large Buck show, I was surprised at how impressive the small Manuel Neri exhibit is. Crammed into the fairly tight Viewing Room, the show, despite its modest size, has the mood of a museum offering and includes abstract figural sculpture -- Neri's acknowledged forte -- along with paintings on paper. The subject of these sculptures and paintings is invariably the same: the nude body of Neri's model, Mary Julia Klemenko. Neri has worked almost exclusively with Klemenko for more than thirty years.

Neri emerged as an important California artist in the late 1950s, when he was associated with the Bay Area figural school that was flourishing at that time. By the 1970s, he was garnering national and even international attention for his highly original work.

A typical Neri sculpture combines a classically beautiful rendition of the female form that has a whiff of Greece or Rome along with a decidedly funky attitude. This juxtaposition of classic and funk is resolved by Neri's expert handling of the forms and surfaces, and by his unusual use of paint on bronze, marble and plaster, his favorite material.

The Neri show at Robischon includes a life-sized bronze, "Untitled Kneeling Figure," which has been painted white, and two plasters, "M.J. Torso II" and "M.J. Torso III," that have had earth-toned dry pigments rubbed over them, one in gray and the other mostly white. These plasters are striking and are both formal and informal. One of the informal features is the use of a sheet of plaster-stained plywood as a base.

As with the Bucks up front, all the Neris are completely engaging and very well done. I found the show at Robischon an especially good way to cleanse my visual palate, so to speak, after seeing the Foothills fiasco -- though I'm afraid nothing can erase the bad memory of it.

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