Conceptual art has a century-long history, dating back to Marcel Duchamp’s radical “Readymades” in the early 1900s. By appropriating a snow shovel and then calling it a sculpture, for instance, Duchamp proved that artists had the sole authority to define what art was. From there, conceptual art grew to become the defining style of the early 21st century, with three great shows in town right now emphasizing that point.
“Over the top” doesn’t get even halfway to describing the main exhibit at Robischon, John Buck. It’s a followup to one the artist mounted at the gallery that coincided with 2015’s Biennial of the Americas, and, like that show, it’s populated by prints, sculptures (including some bronzes this time) and a set of incredible — and monumental — kinetics.
Buck, who maintains studios in Montana and Hawaii, started his illustrious career in the 1970s, when he received his MFA from the University of California at Davis, then a hotbed for vanguard art. It’s also where he met his wife, Deborah Butterfield, today a world-famous sculptor. Like Butterfield, Buck has long been interested in giving representational work a new twist — in his case, by developing a rendering style that’s simultaneously naive and sophisticated: folk art informed by art history.
The first of the Buck kinetics you encounter at Robischon is the mammoth “The Immigration,” made of jelutong wood, leather, acrylic paint and motors (as the others are). In front of an elaborately carved screen and spreading out on the floor is a life-sized parody of Washington crossing the Delaware; the rowboat, complete with outboard motor, is traversing polluted waters, and one of the oars has caught a crown. The screen is adorned with caricatures of Gandhi on the right and Frida Kahlo on the left. On top, a series of cartoon renditions of historic figures — both malevolent ones like Adolf Hitler and inspirational ones like Martin Luther King Jr. — are set on two conveyor-belt-like mechanisms, one moving to the left, the other to the right, so that the figures pass one another, setting up different comparisons. Acting like enormous bookends on either side of the screen are jail cells, their doors opening and closing constantly, imprisoning Lady Justice and Lady Liberty. As the incredibly complex piece moves, it creaks and groans — the perfect soundtrack for the dispiriting situations Buck has conjured up.
With its critique of U.S. history, “The Immigration” is definitely politically charged — but the next of the large kinetics, “The Potomac Waltz,” packs an even bigger punch. Essentially occupying its own gallery, this piece takes the form of a carousel, with a model of the Capitol as its finial. The turntable piece is divided into fourths; in each, two figures — such as FDR in a tutu and an Eisenhower with limbs like that of a marionette — move like the dancers on top of a little girl’s jewelry box, though Buck’s figures are life-sized and less sweetly rendered.
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Around the gallery are other spectacular machines made of carved wood, including “The Magnificent Gadget,” in which a male nude holds a broom with various elements mounted on his shoulders (there’s also a musical component); “Island,” which includes a radiating sun at the top and moving waves at the bottom; and “Against the Grain,” a survey of modern art pioneers with renditions of their signature styles on top of their heads. Buck’s spectacular woodblock prints, his enigmatic bas-reliefs and his elegant sculptures are not only fabulous, but they provide the perfect counterpoints to these kinetic installations.
The other solo at Robischon, Ana Maria Hernando, comprises a painting and an associated installation that’s part of a series included in the artist’s stunning We Have Flowers solo at the CU Art Museum (read my review here). Some of the pieces in that show are meant to convey the appearance of flowers at night; at Robischon, that sense of light-in-darkness is taken to the next level — from the metaphorical to the literal — as the space has been curtained off and the lights turned low. On the main wall of the gallery’s viewing room is a black-on-black painting of an abstracted flower, “Flor Presagiada por el Agua,” and on the floor in front of it, a pile of translucent disks of various types; the whole thing is dimly lit by pin lights and a video projection. This solo is breathtaking, and though clearly much more modest than the Buck show, represents a noble extension of Hernando’s Boulder exhibit, which closes this weekend.
Over on Santa Fe Drive, Rule Gallery partners Valerie Santerli and Rachel Beitz are inaugurating their new location with Scott Young: Wish You Were Here. I can’t imagine a better way to announce the new spot than with this show, which starts off with a giant neon sign on the roof that you can see from a block away. The aesthetic of the piece is closely aligned with that of commercial signage, especially vintage signs, and it could actually pass for one. The sign reads “Wish You Were Here,” but the final “e” in “Here” flashes on and off so that it periodically reads “Wish You Were Her,” changing a typical postcard salutation into a line from someone’s diary. According to creator Scott Young, when the light blinks off, the piece is meant to convey a sense of longing for lost love — and that is the theme of the smaller neon works inside Rule, as well.
Denverite Young has been interested in neon since he was a teenager. He worked for a while in a neon shop and more recently designed neon effects for Hollywood films, but he has now given himself over full-time to the pursuit of his fine-art career; this Rule show is his very first solo. The works are all of a piece, with varied words and phrases expressed in neon but presented in different ways. In “Love Me Harder,” a neon light box is shrouded in plastic and metal straps; in “Punching Bag,” one is covered in Tibetan curly lamb and suspended from the ceiling, with the words “love me” in neon on the bottom reflected in a mirror on the floor; in “Someday,” the title word is partially submerged in concrete. One piece, “Intermittent Positive Reinforcement,” does not include text; instead, it has a smiley face that flips to a frowny one from time to time, carried out in intense red-on-red neon.
A lot of people have put checking out the new Rule on their list; Young’s Wish You Were Here makes it a must-visit for everyone.
John Buck and Ana Maria Hernando, through December 17, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788, robischongallery.com.
Scott Young: Wish You Were Here, through November 5, Rule Gallery, 530 Santa Fe Drive, 303-800-6776, rulegallery.com.