Tight-lipped and enigmatic, Robert Buck is a rare species in this age of celebrity. Even centre stage, delivering an artist talk at Emily Carr, he remains reserved about the wellspring of personal experience that drives his art practice, focusing instead on the details of each piece’s construction. However, secrecy this far into the game — Beck/Buck has been exhibiting since 1989 — can’t just be out of shyness. As his work shifts and eliminates identity, his audience’s ability to layer in their own experiences becomes a crucial aspect of this diverse but macabre body of work.
Like embarking on a particularly grim treasure hunt, there is a thrill in decoding Buck’s consistently self-referential output. The Rennie Collection’s current docent, Cemre Demiralp, is a deft clue-giver. “What’s in a name?” she asks at the beginning of one of the many tours that the Collection offers to the public. This isn’t any old icebreaker: Robert Buck gained art-world notoriety with a mid-life name change by way of a single vowel. Having risen to prominence under his given name, Robert Beck, Buck assumed his new identity in 2007 in order to do what many of us will do after a time of great trial: bury the past and begin again.
Death becomes present as soon as we enter the exhibition. Gunshots from Buck’s Untitled (Dec. 29, 1993) ring out throughout the gallery, even when the work — a video of a father and son testing out the ballistics of a Daly Over-Under hunting rifle, screened on the sort of A/V cart that would be at home in a high school classroom — is no longer visible. Foil balloons gently bat the first floor windows from outside; The Shrine (from e to u), 2000/2012, with all its flowers, stuffed animals, and other ephemera of public grief, elicits neighbourhood sympathy as passers-by keep wind-snuffed candles alight.
As Cemre directs us our attention to Apart from the Whole (Communion) (2005), a piece that could be an enlarged living-room memento if it weren’t for the headlessness of all the pictured individuals, she makes note of “the profane, the familiar, and the sacred,” three themes which remain heavily present throughout the exhibition.
Ascending the stairs to the large exhibition hall, there are two paths of entry: directly into the vacuous main area, or through the velvet-dark installation of dust (2012), which sees chalkboard paint rolled across what used to be a Chinatown alley, before the Rennie Collection consolidated both buildings into its present form. Excerpts from newspapers are copied, erased, and rewritten upon the wall, providing a ghostly stratum upon which a single framed Polaroid of a child’s headstone floats. It’s mysterious but immediately personal stuff: the news, though anonymous, is all taken from a single day (June 20th, 1965), and the irreproducibility of the washed-out Polaroid speaks of memento, not manufacture.
Emerging from Dust, we see saturated photographs climb to a soaring ceiling like a scheme of stained-glass windows. A closer look reveals that these are press photographs of perpetrators of high school shootings that have been clipped, enlarged, and reproduced with credit intact. Buck’s answer to Warhol’s Thirteen Most Wanted Men (1964), Thirteen Shooters (2001) shows these young men in various states of distraction, reflection, or confrontation by which they were introduced to the international press as mass murderers. Below, rest two tombstones: wood and silicone reproductions of the bath mats upon which one teenaged killer laid his murdered parents. Bullets made from funerary wound-filler lie scattered upon them. The curatorial decision to keep these works in proximity to each other is apt; while the public spectacle of murder rises above us, we stand in memoriam to look at Artwork by Kip Kinkel For His Parents, Bill and Faith (2004) and reflect on the intrusion of violence into the safe, the intimate, and the mundane.
Psychoanalysis plays a large role in Buck’s body of work, from the juxtaposition of children’s art therapy drawings with Thirteen Shooters to the graffitied scrawl insisting on mother-son copulation on a defaced urinal screen (Wall Hung Urinal Screen (“Big Red”) (2003)). This is felt powerfully in the next room, where Buck’s Screen Memory (2004) series surrounds Wall Ceiling (Bless This House) (2004), a dissected and inverted section of a family home on whose single white wall hangs a framed prayer. Both Wall Ceiling and the silver-gelatin photographs of Screen Memory, printed in such thick, high grain that they could be mistaken for charcoal drawings, thrust an ominous weight upon imagery from Buck’s family home, especially taken in context of the Freudian theory that memories of childhood trauma are repressed in exchange for seemingly trivial ones.