Lilly Wei is a New York-based art critic and independent curator.
Deborah Buck confessed that she has always been intrigued by secrets and secret worlds, by the dark side of fairy tales such as Roald Dahl’s unorthodox but beloved stories, by sense and nonsense, by wit with bite. Lewis Carroll’s fanciful 1865 classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of her favorite books. It’s the slide down a rabbit hole into an unknown, destabilized, shape-shifting world that Buck responds to with glee, enraptured by the giddy changes in size of the heroine, the sartorially splendid White Rabbit, the grinning Cheshire Cat and all the other curious creatures and objects who are its denizens, the quick entrances and exits of everyone and everything, the dotty, upside-down logic. It’s a surreal hustle and flow that is disconcerting, even menacing at times, but also exhilarating. secret worlds such as Wonderland have been the point of departure for Buck’s practice since the bold figurative paintings on canvas that she made in the 1980s, with their noir/goth satires (skull-headed beauty queens, mummies), to the current rococo paintings on paper (and their abstract femme entourage). Buck’s cast of images are powdered with painterly maquillage, gussied up in glitter and feathers, shimmering with opalescent to high-voltage colors, including turquoise, a shade she has appropriated as her own and uses with abandon. Some of her other favorite things are the sugar easter eggs that you peer into in order to see the tiny hills, flowers, baby rabbits inside, secret gardens of all kinds, ovoid shapes, vessels, such as the female body and heads — both hold an ultimate mystery. Hands, often exaggerated in size and cartoon-like in appearance, also figure prominently in her lexicon with their associations to touch and tactility, to directness and involvement, as in the expression “hands-on.”
The recent work mostly depicts wrapped objects, conjuring delectable, feminized Christos in miniature, the exterior masked, de-familiarized, the interior concealed, tantalizing, a source of conjecture. Shelf Life (2010) is a wrapped beehive-like shape studded in bright red bits that turn out to be maraschino cherries. She wanted to suggest something that was scrumptious but also saccharine, sickly sweet, on the verge of spoiling, the delicious and the disgusting in balance, with a message that is essentially about decay, about past, present, and future states, a comic-book Pop surreal version of the theme of vanitas.
Buck injects her sense of humor into the work. One is called Duchess (2010), the figure bedecked with pearls, the lips glittered, backed by a beautiful red ground. Another is Black and White (2011), which suggests an abstract ballerina in a white tutu cupped by a large, stylized signature hand — or a flower or even an ostrich. Another is called Birthday (2011), presenting a soft, plummy cake with a single lighted candle. Love Potion (2011) is a green bottle pendant that suggests an elsa Peretti design, emblazoned with a red cross, promising romantic aid — or a warning. Woman Dancing (2010) features a tall, gowned cylindrical form that flares at the top, is fringed at the bottom, and set into motion with a whirl of strings beaded at the ends. They are shards of femininity adorning what might also be seen as a cross-dressing phallus — but Buck revels in mixed signals, mixed signifiers. Magnets also appear regularly in her work as forces of attraction and repulsion, but no matter the image, all are painted with vibrato and panache, with fearless, lively brushwork.
Her work is based on her deeply sensual response to the countless surfaces and textures of the world around her and its panoply of resplendent colors. For Buck, what she chooses as her themes are also an expression of control, of agency, and it’s all woven together with her life. Her work, however, is a willful construct, and she likes to “go against type,” to go her own way.
Clyfford Still initiated her into a life in art, an art career. Impressed by the paintings she showed him, still arranged for Buck to go to skowhegan in the summer of 1975 when she was eighteen years old. He said to her that she didn’t need to be taught to paint; she could do that already. Instead, she should learn everything she could about the world in order to inform her paintings. Buck considered it good advice, enrolling at a liberal arts college instead of art school and has never regretted it.
There is a remarkable continuity in Buck’s output, in her wrapped, ripening, morphing shapes with their inner secrets. The newest work seems even more exuberant, more assured, more fantastical and glamorous than ever; her sense of color, always heady, burns brighter. She starts these paintings by applying charcoal to paper, without a preconceived idea. The composition comes quickly but she wants to add more information, to “earn the image.” She does that almost as a sculptor might, freeing the figure from the material, from the paint and drawing, in her case. Buck layers the painting, then wipes the layer away, drawing on top of it with both delicacy and bravura, wiping that away, repeating the layering, refining, eradicating until it begins to acquire density, to tell her something. Only then is it resolved for her, often with little trace of its beginnings. “It’s the story of a process and what’s left,” she said, which also sounds like the story of most people’s lives.