The Columbus Dispatch: Artist Robert Buck addresses gun violence through beauty

By Nancy Gilson – Sunday June 5, 2016


"At the end of the day... (Columbine High School, Columbine, CO, April 20, 1999), 2014" by Robert Buck
“At the end of the day… (Columbine High School, Columbine, CO, April 20, 1999), 2014” by Robert Buck


In artist Robert Buck’s work, the horrific Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings are revisited with haunting images and a type of kaleidoscopic beauty that beg viewers to consider, talk and reflect on the tragedies.

The two works, each part of Buck’s “At the end of the day …” series, present one of the predominant themes — gun violence — of the new exhibit at the Pizzuti Collection in the Short North neighborhood.

The 30-some works in “Robert Beck/Robert Buck: States of America” address some of the most troublesome and controversial issues of contemporary society. Religion, identity, sexuality and other matters are contemplated through a variety of media in the work of the 54-year-old artist, who is based in New York.

The exhibit is one of the few presented by the Pizzuti Collection focusing on a body of work by a single artist. The founders and namesake of the museum, Ron and Ann Pizzuti, have followed and collected Buck’s work for 20 years. Most of the exhibit pieces — a diverse selection hung thematically rather than chronologically — are from their collection.

About the artist’s name: As he explains in a video conversation with Rebecca Ibel, the Pizzuti Collection’s director and curator, Buck felt that in 2008 he had reached an end of an era in which he had produced mostly autobiographical works. He decided on a simple change — Beck to Buck — to reflect a move away from patriarchy.

“Buck” had the added advantage of layers of meaning ranging from a reference to hunting to a term of resistance.

Many layers of meaning are also found in his art.

“At the End of the Day — Columbine High School” presents a surface pattern of beautiful monarch butterflies. Interspersed with the butterflies are digital screen images of the young shooters. After such stunning violence, Buck seems to be saying, there still can be power to regenerate and move on.

The Sandy Hook work has a similar kaleidoscopic look, with delicate snowflakes imposed over images of the teddy bears, candles and flowers left in memory of the victims.

Gun violence is also the powerful theme in a large-scale gallery presentation, with grainy photographs of 13 young shooters wrapping around the room. None of the boys — or their crimes — is identified. Many of the boys’ faces are disturbingly cherubic.

“In no way is this glorification of the action,” said Greer Pagano, assistant curator. “It poses the question: What do we do about gun violence?”

Another room is devoted to drawings, the artist’s copies of sketches made by children in therapy sessions. They can be playful, troubling, haunting and confusing — sometimes all at once.

“A Part From the Whole (Communion)” addresses religion with images from a First Communion. Eleven photographs, assembled collage-style, show lovely white dresses or jackets, hands, books — but no faces. The artist maintains that the church has moved from prohibition to permissiveness, leaving practitioners with fragments to put together.

Buck often incorporates surprising materials in his work. For “Shot #6,” he fired a bullet into a bucket of pink wound filler (used by morticians), creating a deep and oddly pretty hole in the very material used to mend holes.

The exhibit offers much to absorb.

To their credit, the staff and officials of the Pizzuti Collection believe in educating viewers about the contemporary art displayed there. Tours of the exhibit are available, and a catalog provides commentary on the works and a transcript of much of the video conversation between the artist and Ibel.

A visit to “States of America” is a thought-provoking experience that reinforces what collector Ron Pizzuti says about Robert Beck/Robert Buck: “I am drawn to his intellect and the thoughtful way he approaches topics. … Bob is scary smart.”