JOHN BUCK'S powerful wooden sculpture and woodblock prints draw their strength from the artist's network of metaphors and symbols. The environment and the complex relationship between the individual and the socio-political landscape feed his imagery - and all in exquisite balance.
In ``Great Falls,'' a 1991 woodblock print, for example, an androgynous figure is repeated throughout the background in various forms. The space where the head should be is occupied by the figure of a woman, a spiral, or other symbols reminiscent of ancient native American petroglyphs, or by contemporary forms - a simplified missile, a globe, or a tree. But the central figure begins as a flowing river of color and turns into a kind of ``waterfall,'' which then becomes the androgynous figure.
There are several possible readings of this piece. ``Great Falls'' may simply depict man as a fact of nature - his head full of ideas, flowing like a river through time, or engaged with the Infinite, or absorbed in making things. What I am drawn to in this piece, and in Buck's sculpture, are the endless possibilities of meaning inherent in them, the personal and specific located in the universal. There is so much intelligence, and yet such vigorous feeling, in Buck's work. Even the choice of his materials underscores the human in relation to nature.
``I gravitated toward wood because it was a simple and familiar material,'' Buck said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Montana. ``I think there is something about working with wood - the natural material; the surface of the wood has a quality unlike a manufactured surface. It is hard and soft. The grain moves in different directions. And when you draw and carve into it, it yields in different directions. There is an automatic and direct relationship between the nature of the wood and how I am able to work with it.... [In the carving of wood], there is a physical activity that is more about nature in the making - not just the concept of the image, but the actual making, is connected to nature.''
Having children has made Buck acutely aware of the environment as he teaches them daily to see what is around them, to notice even the form of a snowflake. Then, too, he says that anyone living out West for a period of time identifies with the mountains and the streams. When a gas station suddenly goes up down by the creek, everyone knows what that means, he says.
Living in the West has had an important impact on his work. Many symbols resonate with the tribal myths of the Plains Indians. His symbols, he says, are like an alphabet: You have to put them in the right combination to add up to anything.
``I have no favorite contemporary artists - my art is more inspired by folk art, native American art, and primitive art - art produced by a culture rather than an individual. Those symbols you see in my work that are akin to things you've seen somewhere else -
come from my interest in those forms. I'm not necessarily trying to translate them into my own symbolism. The same thing can be said of politics.... The underlying patterns of design are part of that matrix that the politics reside in,'' Buck says.
``I like to bury the meaning of these things somewhere further back [in the piece] than what you're initially looking at in the prints. You can't necessarily read them like a book.''
Buck's metaphors make his work both accessible and ambiguous. In the tension between possible interpretations lies the power and urgency of his vision.