New American Paintings

New York, Review
January 25, 2012

By Whitney Kimball, NYC Contributor


A horned cow skull on a nine-foot-tall cement totem looms in the entrance of CRG Gallery. As all of the works in Robert Buck’s show Kahpenakwu (“west” in Comanche), of paintings, drawings, and large sculpture, it serves as a tombstone for Native America, transforming the gallery into an industrial wasteland.

Beyond the totem is a stack of cinder blocks, arranged like the last wall of a dilapidated forge. Otherwise haphazard winter-edition Coca Cola cans have been lightly squeezed and positioned in a ceremonial ascension up the wall’s back; facing the gallery, a few thorny reeds shoot up from the blocks with a similar, seemingly-incidental decorum. 

Robert Buck | Installation view, Kahpenakwu, 2011 (Courtesy CRG Gallery)


Robert Buck | SUNNNNNNNNNNNN, 2011, Store bought fabric, dagger yucca leaves, aluminum straps, razor wire and roofing nails in two parts, 110 X 91 X 9 inches (Courtesy CRG Gallery)

The monumental sculptures which dominate the gallery floor share such ritualistic, sun-starved solemnity. A nine-foot-tall, bleach-pleated denim diptych adorns the left-hand wall.  Spikey dagger yucca leaves resemble violent solar rays, bolted onto the fabric and encircling a ring of shiny barbed wire. On the back wall of the gallery, a wooden loading palette, with long, aluminum rods jutting outward, is mounted over black reflective plexi; it’s impossible to make out the photograph of (what we’re told are) mutilated corpses of Mexican cartel victims beneath the murky pane. The same dark obscurity is achieved in El Camino, an eight-foot-tall, vertically-oriented wall-mounted photo of a “Navajo buck in ceremonial dress.”  This applies, too, in a long, rectangular photo of clouds, which lies face-up on a bed of cinder blocks on the floor, in the crossing over and/or the crossing out. The black, plexi photo bears a sheet of metal, twisted to form a rusty, hollow trough.

Robert Buck | Second Hand (“Dominy”),  2010, oil paint and India ink on found oil painting, 12 X 16 X 3/4 inches (Courtesy CRG Gallery)

A few smaller paintings and drawings are sewn amongst the large tombs. Dime-a-dozen postcard paintings of Western plains and undeveloped mountains evoke white nostalgia for a time before whites. Minor alterations have been made as reminders of an ancestral European artist’s ego and mathematical composition; an enormous, practiced signature fills a mountain range, and a grid structure invades like a transparent Photoshop layer.

Robert Buck | Untitled (“Transforming Images: The Art of Silver Horn and His Successors” by Robert G. Donnelley, The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art),  2012, Graphite, colored pencil and archival tape on singed Canson watercolor paper, 10 X 12 inches(Courtesy CRG Gallery)

Usually, I would dismiss Buck’s half-burned, colored pencil copies of Native American drawings as emotional manipulation. Here, though, the awareness of text, imagery, and the tenderness with which the figures are rendered, are remarkably sensitive. For instance, one drawing depicts a Christ-like Native American figure extending two pipes at arms’ length for two bison-shaped animals.  Each beast extends a front hoof with the daintiness of a Medieval unicorn; diaphanous strokes of orange and gray shoot from their nostrils toward each of the figure’s arms.  Typewritten text below reads:

The artist has written his name above the head of the central figure, suggesting that it may be a self-portrait.  He holds peace pipes out to two animals, and each blows it spirit breath toward him.  With one foot in a plowed field next to a cabin and the other near a miniature buffalo herd and tipi of the Kiowa past, the figure is both metaphorical and trenchantly literal.”

The two voices, both dead, combine a sort of triple hindsight, in which we play an active role: the removal of the typewriter, twinged with a knowing-ness revealed by “trenchantly,” achieve a living clash of consciousness-es.  The Indians are gone, the cowboys are gone, the industrialists are gone, and even the typewriting historian is nearly obsolete.

The work evokes a very particular sentiment: the solemnity you feel when coming across a shot-up, antique car rusting in the woods.  Buck’s ability to conjure that same sense of time-larger-than-oneself in a gallery, and to apply it through a sort of communal necropolis– waking the dead, upon dead, upon dead– bestows his viewer with a profound insignificance.

Kahpenakwu will be on view at the CRG Gallery in New York until February 18th, 2012.