Essay by Gregory Volk

Protean Paintings: Several Thoughts on Deborah Buck’s New Work

Gregory Volk is a New York-based art critic and freelance curator. He writes regularly for Art in America, where he is a contributing editor, and his articles and reviews have also appeared in many other publications, including Parkett and Sculpture.

In his great 1844 essay The Poet, transcendentalist poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson had a really unusual and, for the time, radical thing to say about art and art making. “Art,” he declared, “is the path of the creator to his work,” and while he was referring to poetry he could just as well have been referring to any other medium, for instance painting. This declaration is at first so seemingly casual and understandable that one could easily miss its full complexity and implications. In a compact ten words the visionary Emerson shifted focus from the finished artwork—and in his day just about every reader would have understood art as the finished poem, sculpture, or painting—to the artist, and specifically the artist’s “path”; to her or his quest and discoveries, insights and intuition, development and knowledge (which is often very different from knowledge elsewhere). That’s worth considering when it comes to the explorative, transformative, and deeply inquiring new paintings (all on paper) of Deborah Buck, and in viewing these paintings, as well as through conversing with the artist, I have the distinct impression that she is really living, as opposed to simply making, these works. With Buck in mind, Emerson’s declaration can be updated: art is the path of the creator to her (my emphasis) work and I’d also like to underscore that, for me, by far the most significant and exciting development in contemporary art during my time in the art world, dating to the early 1990s, has been the rise of female artists, which is unprecedented in all of Western art history. 

While Buck has long been an accomplished, albeit often under-recognized, artist—as a young woman she was singled out and championed by Clyfford Still, who personally supported her for a residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture—she has juggled her art with the demands of being a highly successful businesswoman, as well as a patron of the arts and art institutions. Over the last several years she has renewed her devotion to painting, and now she has emerged with a striking new body of work that is very fresh and eventful. Her new paintings scramble distinctions between representation and abstraction, freely mix painting with line drawing (for some works Buck uses black sumi ink, a luscious material derived from vegetable oil soot, which has really energized her paintings and taken them in a new direction), and often, in a peculiar way, seem at once antic and very, very thoughtful; they also feel just so “alive,” so crackling with keen thought and spirit. Buck’s combinatory approach to these paintings is wonderfully idiosyncratic. Her touch can be really fine and exquisite, but also willfully unruly—all surging energy. Erasure is important and Buck builds up her paintings in multiple layers. Delicate drawn marks mesh with bold painted forms. Glitter, with all its girlish and joyful connotations, is used sparingly, but with pronounced effect. Both colorful —Buck is an adept and ardent colorist—and more muted abstract parts mix with recognizable images (among them a whimsical elephant, eyes, fruit, and birds) and other forms that just barely hint at representation. What results are protean paintings that seem like eccentric, ever-metamorphosing mini-worlds or vibrant environments. 

Two Tone (2016) shows a curving, bulging, loosely diamond shaped form in the middle; half of this form is rich crimson and the other half is soft pink. While fundamentally abstract, it abounds with possible connotations, from the female body (and implicit female sexuality) to marine life, sacred symbols, various kinds of architectural ornamentation, and even luxurious fabrics. A hallmark of Buck’s new paintings is how her vivid images are so suggestive, and this has to do with the eclectic information and enthusiasms that she brings to each work, born from what she calls a life of, “paying attention.” Curving lines drawn with ink ripple from top to bottom of this central form, while proliferating light gray scallop shapes (a signature shape for Buck, which appears in many paintings) accumulate around it. A welter of gray marks and shapes, including slight lines, smudges, streaks, and others hinting at both architectural structures and land formations surround the form, but also seem half-disappearing, as if you are seeing them through mist, or as if they are barely legible traces of the remote past. From some perspectives this painting is pure matte, but from others it is surprisingly glossy, even bedazzling; for all their immediate dynamism Buck’s paintings can be quite subtle and they reward patient, sensitive viewing. An important thing to know is that Buck did not begin this riveting painting with an end result in mind; this carries through to most of her other new paintings as well. Instead she starts from something basic—like the rhythmic and repetitive scallop shapes in this work—and then launches the painting from there, with acumen, but also with a real sense of openness and adventure. Buck’s process is intuitive and, as I wrote, explorative. She guides her paintings, certainly, but also lets them guide her, even in terms of discovering what the painting is really about, or wants to become. She doesn’t simply compose her paintings, but instead arrives at them, via an Emersonian “path” that includes instinct, concentrated thought, frank emotion, improvisation, and considerable risk. 

Some of Buck’s paintings are downright voluptuous and revel in an organic sensuality, again with distinctly female connotations but also with many connections to the natural world. There is a vaguely oyster bed look to the looming black, white, and gray form in Sonar (2017)—and more on this painting in a minute—and a quasi sea creature look to the main form in Tiger Tales (2017). While Buck is hardly a painter of nature, her paintings are suffused with biomorphic forms and suggest an openness to, and felt connection with, the natural world—this from an artist who spends a lot of time a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean. In Braid (2017), primarily abstract curving shapes in a cluster also hint at plump figs and mollusk shells. Part is deep red, another part is soft pinkish-beige, while abundant black marks are a vital force. The marvelous Her Lipstick Startled Me (2017) features some of what Buck has humorously called her “Easter colors.” Bright orange-red and magenta lips, drawn in ink and colored by paint, are linked in strands and course horizontally across the painting. References other than to human lips are also apparent: seashells, jewelry, vulvae. An over the top rendition of lipstick, which is a typically female signifier, this celebratory painting also has an air of unbridled fantasy and a look (somewhat) of full color Disney animated films, the kind that enchanted and transported Buck when she was a young girl, and have done the same for millions of others through the years. 

Speaking of which: Passage to India (2017) shows fabulous creatures cavorting in mid-air next to a vertical structure that may be a human figure, or an exotic column, or perhaps a mix of both. The painting’s ground is a scruffy and smudgy, yet captivating, mix of grays, pinks, and blues. One of the creatures is an utterly endearing elephant, and one source for this painting is E.M. Forster’s acclaimed 1924 novel A Passage to India. Another important source is the Disney animated extravaganza Fantasia (1940), in which classical music summons a splendid and fantastical world of fairies, nymphs, sparkling flowers, magical bubbles, winged horses, cartoon people, ballerina hippos and dancing elephants, among others.  It’s not that Buck quotes from or directly refers to this film. Instead, the film, and others of its ilk, inspires her, energizes her work, and connects with her own aspirations to make paintings that are all about transformation as a fundamental principle, all about inventing spectacular alternative worlds, and ultimately all about wonderment and freedom.

Deborah Buck is irrepressibly inventive when it comes to these alternative worlds, in paintings that are at once forceful and playful, forthright and occasionally mysterious. In Sonar, on a green ground, a dense cluster of Buck’s signature scallop shapes (with an oyster bed look) shares the space with what appears to be a red hot air balloon sending sonar beneath the sea and an ebullient, rainbow colored wheel. It’s pointless to try to rationally decipher precisely what is going on. Instead it is best to simply give oneself to this work and to enter Buck’s fanciful, through the looking glass world where oddities are commonplace and where the normal rules and behavior no longer apply. 

This brings me to Buck’s most enduring influence, which is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), in which a bored young girl, already tired of the routines and propriety of this world, falls down a rabbit’s hole to enter an ever-shifting alternative world full of anthropomorphic animals and marked by bafflement, delight, sometimes fear, and constant surprises. Buck doesn’t directly refer to the book. Instead its spirit, and its topsy-turvy, carnivalesque energies are pure nutrition for her paintings, in which familiar things become strange and eccentric, and startling scenes emerge from the mundane and known. The dark, seemingly levitating rabbit in Buck’s Velveteen Rabbit (2016), surrounded by agitated (yet gorgeous) yellow, pink, and gray areas and by a drawn cluster of what may be grapes but which also suggest breasts, bears little resemblance to the cute and cuddly stuffed bunny in the famous children’s book of the same title. Instead, it is an outlandish, even menacing force and you can’t take your eyes off it. The wacky, cartoonish creature (or is it creatures?) in Kiss (2016), in bright orange shorts, with a face that resembles a vertical mouth, or an eye, but that also sure looks like a vulva is also a powerful force emanating both desire and consternation. For all her interest in invented worlds, Buck also sometimes responds to this world, right now. The cartoonish, yet somber and wary, eyes and the frantic, upraised hands in Campaign (2016) are her taut response to the recent presidential election. In the acrylic, pastel, and charcoal on paper Blow Up (2006), a dark gray, bulbous structure, almost like some weird space vessel from science fiction, appears to be igniting for liftoff. The source here is gossip among friends that went terribly awry.

What you see in Deborah Buck’s paintings is of obvious importance: her prominent colors and eccentric imagery, all the evidence of her various and skillful techniques. Her paintings are, as I mentioned, eventful; a single painting can look at once elegant and ungainly, meticulous and rough-hewn. However, what you don’t literally see, but instead sense and feel, is of great importance too, and that’s all the fleet thought, memories, complex emotions, and deep feeling that suffuse these paintings and help make them so meaningful and compelling. What Emerson was really advocating long ago in his groundbreaking essay “The Poet” is a spirited, adventurous, risk-taking art capable of conveying the artist’s driving ideas while also elastically taking the shape of the artist’s own psyche. He was calling for an art revelatory of the artist’s particular consciousness—he memorably termed such an art and its effect “the science of the real”—and this seems like a very good description of what Deborah Buck is up to in her impressive new body of work.

Gregory Volk

Two Tone Two Tone, 2016
mixed media on paper 22" x 29.5"
Sonar Sonar, 2017
Acrylic, pastel and sumi ink on paper 39" x 44.5"
Her Lipstick Startled Me Her Lipstick Startled Me, 2017
Acrylic and Sumi ink on paper 47" x 44.5"
Passage to India Passage to India, 2017
Acrylic and Sumi ink on paper 45" x 42"
Velveteen Rabbit Velveteen Rabbit, 2016
mixed media on paper 41" x 29"
Campaign Campaign, 2016
Mixed media on paper 30" x 41"