Side Image: 

John Buck (American, b. 1946), Man with Horses, 2002, relief print, 36 x 28 inches. Gift of the Madison Print Club. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

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About the Artist
John Buck

John Buck was born in Ames, Iowa. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the Kansas City Art Institute and studied at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine. He earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of California, Davis, where he was influenced by artists and teachers Roy De Forest, William T. Wiley, Robert Arneson, and Manual Neri. He is married to artist Deborah Butterfield, a sculptor of horse figures, and they live and raise horses on a ranch in Bozeman, Montana, and also work in studios on the island of Hawaii.

Key Ideas
  • Woodblock printing as a form of sculpting with wood
  • Internal and external experience expressed with geometric and organic forms
  • Combinations of symbols that tell a story whose meaning is mysterious, personal to the artist and universal in its references
Discussion Questions
  • John Buck is known for his sculptures and prints that always have a central figure. What are your ideas about this figure? In what ways has the artist used geometric shapes to convey something about humans and their body parts?
  • What do you notice about how the artist has represented the relationship of humans to nature? What might be a story you could tell about the relationship of the horses in the background with the main figure? How might your story change when you learn that John Buck lives on a ranch with horses and that his wife is a well-known sculptor of horses?
  • What are your ideas about the shapes attached to the man’s shoulder, arms, and leg? What effect do they have on his appearance? If they made musical sounds, what instruments might they sound like? What kinds of music might they play?
  • John Buck doesn’t say very much about the meanings of the symbols in his prints because he thinks everyone brings his and her own experiences and memories to looking at art. What do you think about the little symbols he has strewn among the images of horses? What might they mean in relation to the figure and the horses? What memories or experiences might influence your ideas?
  • What effect does the artist’s choice of the color red have on the impact and the possible meanings of this image? How would the effect be different if it were a different color?
  • If you try making the shapes of the body parts by drawing with your hand in the air, what do you notice about repetition of geometric shapes? 
  • asymmetrical not identical on both sides of a central line; having no balance or symmetry
  • grain  the arrangement or direction of fibers in wood
  • mandala  circle or wholeness, implying the circle of life; in Asian art and religion, geometric mandalas, often in the form of a square enclosing a circle, represent all things living and non-living, seen and unseen, and are aids for meditation and spiritual reflection
  • symmetry correspondence in size, form, and arrangement of parts on opposite sides of a plane, line, or point

A peculiar black and white figure dominates its red environment, appearing both flat and three-dimensional, delicate and also powerful. Its “body parts” exhibit symmetry, but some are asymmetrical in their position. The body is constructed from geometrical patterns that evoke familiar shapes of snowflakes, crystals, shells, fans, feathers, diatoms, lace, or folded paper, but they seem mysterious in their meaning. The figure is abstract and anonymous, like a robot, in contrast to almost two dozen organically-drawn and friendly-seeming horses that populate the red background. Foals and full-grown horses are depicted from various perspectives, some standing in profile, others prancing, kicking, or lying down. Located among the horses are many small symbols, such as a cloud, a keyhole, numerous circular squiggles, and patches of short, parallel, vertical lines that suggest grass. The rest of the red background is accented by parallel horizontal lines revealing a lighter red underlayer.

According to the title of the print, the central shaman-like figure is a man. His head is suggested by an inverted cone, its vertex forming the point at which it meets the shoulders. The top of the head is edged in triangular peaks like a crown and appears hollow and open to the sky. Below the fanlike chest is a round belly, shaped like a mandala, from which hang legs that bring to mind folded crepe paper or folded aluminum. Arms like dangling diamonds meet hands that reprise the mandala and diamond shapes. Attached at the sides of the arms, a shoulder, and a leg are other shapes that embellish and add authority to the figure. The systematic, linear, and geometric beauty of the body contrasts with the organic, natural beauty of the animals.

Man with Horses was created by impression of an incised and inked block of wood onto rag paper. John Buck often uses a pencil, a nail, a dull stylus or his fingernail to draw on soft wood, sketching and doodling to cover the surface with drawings. His prints are often spooned, or worked against the inked block by hand. For Man with Horses, he may have cut into the wood block with a carving tool; he then inked it with three colors of ink—a light red, the deeper red, and black. Evidence of the white paper underneath remains in places where deep lines incised in the wood did not receive any ink. Surrounding the whole is a black line outside a white border that serves as a framing device for the image. Together, the colors call to mind the amusing old riddle, “What’s black and white and red (read) all over?” answered by, “A newspaper!”—inviting the eye to “read” the entire image and discern the stories that might be hiding there.

John Buck primarily thinks of himself as a sculptor, both because he creates sculptures out of wood and because he thinks of the woodblock printing process as a kind of sculpting—a putting together of a puzzle of pieces. Buck’s father and grandfather were wood carvers, and Buck has said, “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.” He has said that he begins working the surface of his woodblocks with personal images from his own experience and works toward an idea that “reaches for something outside my own personal dimension.” A reoccurring image in both his sculptures and prints is an anonymous, robot-like figure that conveys human qualities, and suggests the universality of human spirit.