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Shifting gears

Inside John Buck's kinetic sculpture exhibit at MAM

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When John Buck was a child growing up in rural Iowa, his father made a contraption. It was created out of old pieces of farming equipment and other odds and ends and it was set up outside under an old funeral tent. Each year for the Izaac Walton American League Fundraiser, the contraption would creak to life, revealing its function as a homemade carnival game: for a nickel or a dime, kids could take turns with a sling shot, aiming at revolving clay birds perched on a slowly turning wheel. Shoot three birds and get a prize.

Throughout the years, as Buck studied to be an artist and explored everything from woodcut prints to metal sculpture, his father's contraption never left his mind. Finally, about 10 years ago, he decided to act on the image and evolve the idea. He created his own contraption: a kinetic sculpture that creaked and lunged and spun. Then he created another. And another.

A decade later, he says he's never sold a single one. Who would have the desire or space or need for an odd, wooden, enormous moving sculpture all their own? But the work is inspiring to him and he's now made enough machines for a major exhibition. In fact, he has plans for at least 10 more years of building moving sculptures before his work is done. Currently, many of his mechanical works, along with a selection of other sculptures and prints, are on display at the Missoula Art Museum as part of his solo exhibit, Free For All.

"My recollection of my father's machine is very positive," he says. "You interacted with it in an enthusiastic way, and that's how I want people to interact with my art. A lot of art is something that you go and look at—it becomes too passive. You just stare at a rectangle. I think what I'm doing is more than that. You don't only have to see it. You have to watch it. It becomes an experience."

The experience currently fills both the Carnegie and Aresty galleries at MAM. The standard thoughtful silence of the art museum is erased as viewers step on various foot pedals, awaking Buck's sculptures and sending small hidden motors humming. These, however, are no carnival games. They are intricately carved wooden pieces, complete with handmade cogs, and they tell stories, ask questions of history and evoke swirls of conflicting emotions.

John Buck’s “Borrowed Time” is featured in his exhibit of moving sculptures at MAM.
  • John Buck’s “Borrowed Time” is featured in his exhibit of moving sculptures at MAM.

The largest kinetic sculpture, "State of the Union," is also the newest. An echo of his father's machine, the base is the image of an old manure spreader. On top of the spreader, two men saw down a tree that depicts the branches of the United States government as well as the Constitution. On one end of the spreader, dollar bills fly like exhaust. On the other end, bats emerge from a burning church. Inside the church, people bob up and down at the windows as the cogs spin.

While absolutely distinctive, the piece is also a typical example of Buck's moving sculptures. Carved entirely of jelutong, which Buck describes as easy to work with and pleasant to look at, the work combines a number of common symbols and loaded images to create a more complex scene: something that is at once historical, political, mythical and fantastical. The movement doesn't just add interest to the piece, it instructs the viewer on how to experience it, as your eyes travel from one moving mechanism to the next.

Buck is quick to say his sculptures are not planned and blueprinted beforehand. With the help of an assistant who engineers the mechanical aspects of the projects, Buck decides on a story for his piece but allows them to evolve as he creates them—and each one can take a year or more of work and thought.

"They evolve," he says. "It's called trial-and-error engineering. I'm building the prototype, but there's no assembly line. I just go through all of the work. As I go, it reveals itself to me. You never know what it's going to look like until I'm done."

The pieces themselves change as he creates them, but the statements he makes with his sculptures are steadfast. They tell heartbreaking stories about the past and offer stark commentary on current events. They are about how we live and how we treat others.

"My work is the wagon and my opinions and perspective on things is what pulls it," he says. "I don't want the wagon to push me."

While the sculptures don't involve clay birds or sling shots, Buck still offers viewers the chance to step on a pedal, set the piece spinning and experience an interaction.

"I am hoping that the artwork gives them things to think about," he says. "They know that it's not just pretty and flowery—it touches on things they know about and think about—that it will share something."

John Buck's Free For All continues at MAM through March 12, 2016.

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