Museum-quality art can often be found at LoDo's Robischon Gallery. Rarely, though, are the gallery's three display spaces all devoted to the work of a single artist, as they are in the current exhibit John Buck--New Work.

The special treatment is warranted, given Buck's formidable artistic output of the last few years--in particular, those works the artist has created in the last few months. Buck is too modest when he lays credit for the beautiful show substantially at the feet of gallery director Jim Robischon, who supervised the intelligent installation. But it is a point well taken. The gallery has never looked better.

Buck, who is perhaps as well-known in New York or Los Angeles as he is in his hometown of Bozeman, Montana, is also familiar to many here in Denver. This is the third time in the last decade that Robischon has focused on Buck, and his expertly carved wooden sculptures and prints have also been seen at the Arvada Center and the Denver Art Museum (where his work is included in the permanent collection). The current Robischon show includes magnificent recent sculptures and sculptural reliefs, as well as one exquisite wood-block print.

Buck's sculptures always reflect an idiosyncratic iconography. Typically, a headless torso carries on its shoulders an airy assemblage of symbols, the meanings of which are often obscure. It appears that these assemblages correspond with human thought and are thus a physical expression of ideas. Often, though not always, the work has a political aspect to it; Buck has in the past addressed a wide variety of issues, including racism and environmental destruction.

The standout among the sculptures in this show is "Nagasaki," made of Jelutong wood painted with acrylics. As the title implies, "Nagasaki" also carries a political message, this one concerning nuclear disarmament. Painted almost entirely black with only a couple of red details and standing thirteen feet high (those fifteen-foot ceilings at Robischon sure come in handy), the piece is decidedly monumental. And its sheer size seems to be enhanced by the simplicity of its formal elements.

In what would be the left hand of Buck's characteristic headless torso is a red painted shape that looks like a flame (a match?). On the opposite side, literally balancing the figure, is a construction that may be a conventionalized potted plant but which also evokes the world of science. The top strikes a balance, too, with a twig acting as the leveling arm of a scale. Below the twig is a carving that looks like an article of clothing hanging on a line--or a collapsing building. Mounted above is an enclosed continuous loop with only four elements, evocative of the graphic depiction of atomic energy, and a carved disc, painted red, that suggests the flag of the Japanese empire and surely is meant to stand for the fireball of the atomic explosion.

If Buck's elements are simple, though, his stylistic influences are surprisingly complex. As with the other sculptures in the show, "Nagasaki" freely mixes a wide range of sources. Most obvious is the influence of tribal and folk art, seen in the clearly articulated chisel marks Buck leaves in the carved wood, which are visible in spite of the painted finish (and are even seen on the single bronze in the show, "Holualoa Series, #1"). That rough-hewn approach was also a characteristic of early twentieth-century modernism, which makes sense considering the significant impact African and Oceanic art had on the most experimental artists of the time. The elongated figure and the conception of the sculpture as a vignette, meanwhile, are both akin to the work of modern-art pioneer Alberto Giacometti. And the zigzags in the wood suggest the influence of another early modern master, Constantin Brancusi. By combining primitive and modern currents into a single vision, Buck achieves a uniquely personal kind of postmodernism.

Only one of Buck's wood-block prints, "The Sound of the Sea," is formally included in the Robischon show. However, all of the artist's prints are available for the asking at the gallery. Like his sculptures, Buck's prints are partly about the nature of the materials--just how wood is carvable. But whereas the sculptures employ obtuse and abstract visual components, the prints more often encompass readily recognizable subjects.

In "The Sound of the Sea," it's a conch shell that seems to bob in the water. A delicate pattern is discernible in the sea and sky of the background: a skeleton using the shell as a horn, in the manner of the ancient Polynesians. It's impossible to look at this print and not think of a 1930s beach towel. And Buck himself has made the connection to textiles--he's currently having some of the prints translated into hand-woven silk rugs in Hong Kong.

Interestingly, it's the wood-block process by which the prints are made that provides the conceptual link between Buck's sculptures and his exciting new sculptural wall panels. Those panels are essentially bas-reliefs, and it must have been a partly inked wood-block that suggested this form to Buck. Even the penciled-in details are not unlike the preliminary step in preparing a block for carving.

The first of the bas-reliefs is "Body Clock," made of joined and planed cottonwood boards adorned with carvings, pencil drawings and geometric color fields in acrylic paint. A sense of passing time is conveyed in a number of ways. On the left side of the three-part panel (which Buck chooses not to handle as a triptych) is a carved, wooden-line drawing of an hourglass, rendered in high relief and completely free from the chiseled background. On the opposite panel, which has been notched to accommodate a blue painted square, the natural appearance of the wood provides a perfect ground for graphite versions of more headless torsos. Those torsos, twelve of them, have been arranged in an oval around a low-relief carving of a twig, suggesting a clock.

The color fields on "Body Clock" and a few of the other wall panels are reminiscent of minimalist painting. But Buck's later reliefs move away from that influence and toward a hybrid of drawing and sculpture. Elaborate graphite drawings are the dominant outstanding feature of "The Shape of Content," and Buck even creates a rough illustration by gouging the painted area to reveal the color of the wood underneath. Dominating the wall panel are several sets of carved wooden eyes, all in their own shadow boxes, that evoke reliquaries.

In other wall panels such as "Ohia" and "Ulu," those shadow boxes become fully blown niches decorated with carved objects. In both of these similar pieces, a drawing evocative of European surrealism has been carved out and detailed with graphite. In "Ohia," it's a black bird in a cage in the shape of a bust; in "Ulu," the same bird is restrained in a torso-shaped cage. The object-filled niches and the caged birds are set off by a conventionalized, painted flora element that resembles a detail from an antique coverlet or quilt.

There's no way to oversell the strengths of this latest Buck exhibit. Even those who might not care for his narrative approach will be unable to deny the power of his meticulous craftsmanship and thoroughly developed conceptual scheme. As a result, the show, the first of several small blockbusters scheduled around town this fall, is a must-see for anyone interested in contemporary art.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia