Art In America
May 17 2012
by jane harris
In this exhibition, titled “Kahpenakwu,” which means “west” in Comanche, Robert Buck (the artist formerly known as Robert Beck) explored the myth of the American frontier using various “artifacts” found in his native Southwest, including yucca leaves, barbed wire, fence poles and driftwood. The resulting sculptures, which made up the majority of the work on view, portray a place both actual and allegorical. Running throughout are references to the grid as a structural device, whether in art or in geography, and survivalist notions of living off the grid.
Fatherland (2011) features 43 concrete pavers arranged on the ground like flooring with some of the tiles gone missing. Littered on top are red shotgun shells and silver Indian Head nickels that suggest remnants of a cowboys-and-Indians-type game. The commemoration of American Indians, as Buck presents it, is inextricably bound to their destruction. The Minotaur (Lajitas), 2011-a totemic structure (approximately 9 feet high) topped with a steer skull, evoking the titular mythological creature-also combines a romantic view of the past with less savory qualities: in this case, xenophobia and the violence associated with illegal border crossings, as conveyed by a lattice of barbed wire hanging down the back of the sculpture. More intimate in scale, but just as cautionary, is a series of drawings made after those by Silver Horn, a prolific Plains Indian artist who chronicled the tumultuous transition of his nomadic people to reservation life between 1870 and 1920.
While all the works seem to conflate past and present, self and other, reminding us of the old adage that history repeats itself, some are less overt in their sociopolitical message than others. Take the 8-by-4-foot assemblage El Camino Real (2011). Here, a photograph of a Navajo man in ceremonial dress floating horizontally is barely visible behind smoked Plexiglas; affixed below him are four tire fragments and an edge-to-edge strip of red-and-white reflective tape that acts as a low horizon line. The piece references high-tech communication, conjuring as it does dimmed computer and iPhone screens just before they shut off. More obliquely, it also evokes contemporary means of surveillance, while capturing a mystical sense of landscape. In the end, though, any experience of transcendence in this show was fleeting. “Kahpenakwu” ultimately stood as testament to the eternal contradiction of a country caught between fantasies of freedom for all and the realities of borders dictating who belongs and who doesn’t.
Photo Robert Buck: The Minotaur (Lajitas), 2011, concrete, metal, steer skull and mixed mediums, 110½ by 24 by 36 inches; at CRG.