DENVER — Artist John Buck made new work specifically for this year’s American midterm election. “If you show ’em, I’ll finish ’em!” Buck told Jennifer Doran, co-owner and curator at Robischon Gallery a year ago. “We also joked that with this administration he could add a character a week to the new sculpture ‘The March of Folly’ (2018) and never be finished!” Doran told Hyerallergic by email.
The kinetic characters in “The March of Folly” (2018) are presented like a parade, each train car pushed forward by the one behind, a metaphoric tail wagging the dog. The caboose on the procession is a rocket ship blasting off with comically large heads of Kim-Jung un and Dennis Rodman protruding from portals. Korean ancestors watch behind small windows as passengers on the deadly ride. A replica of “Laocoön and His Sons” sits atop a Trojan horse tethered to the rocket. The scene brought to mind the 1984 book The March of Folly by Barbara W. Tuchman, who concludes that a folly is often the result of people’s “wooden-headedness” or an unwillingness to listen to facts. The book traces major acts of folly throughout history, starting with the Trojans’ decision to move the Greek horse within city walls.
A soldier beneath the Trojan Horse prompts the next “car” forward with his spear. Little feet scurry beneath Trump Tower, mimicking the silhouette of an obelisk. Although the busy contributors to this caravan do not follow a linear narrative, Buck encourages us to find a cohesive thread among follies. His composite images offer a comedic danger comparable to Tom and Jerry or Wiley Coyote and Road Runner. The threat is always there but sensationalism offers only distraction, not an informed emotional punch.
“John Buck’s sculptures do not look like anyone else’s,” John Yau writes in his essay “Against the Grain,” meaning Buck does not belong to any stylistic group. Yau notes that Buck can only be categorized as a sculptor, working in a craftsman’s medium and communicating through iconography. But iconic signs do work within established stylistic parameters, as Umberto Eco argues in A Theory of Semiotics — their similitude is “firmly linked to the basic mechanisms of perception.” However, Buck plays with these “mechanisms of perception,” particularly when they apply to images of women, who appear to control major events, both good and bad. In “The March of Folly,” Stormy Daniels’s legs, donning fishnet stockings, dangle from Trump Tower.
In one sculpture, “Mother of All Wars” (2018), a female body balances a scene of soldiers marching and trailing a tank commandeered by Trump; her left leg mimics the brigade’s stride. In “The School of Paris” (2013) the female form flexes her arms, contradicting classical poses, and proposing a different narrative about the history of women in modernism. Not currently on display, Buck’s “The Muse”(2014) shows a female figure manipulating a puppet resembling Picasso, questioning who is really in charge of the creative process. Unlike his other characters that take on a singular reading, women in Buck’s body of work interchangeably seem to affirm and usurp the oppressive acts he depicts. More than a caryatid or gesture to art history, the woman is the protagonist of contemporary political culture.
John Buck: New and Recent Work continues at Robischon Gallery (1740 Wazee Street, Denver) through November 3.