Time well-spent

A one-person exhibition of an artist’s work is always welcome: It provides a much better opportunity for insight than does looking at a piece or two in a group show. A rarer and even more wonderful thing is to see examples of an artist’s work over a period of many years. Lewis Buck’s retrospective at the Fine Art Museum at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee provides this opportunity.

Asheville as his canvas: Lewis Buck is credited with helping spur the revitalization of Asheville’s River Arts District. His painting “Montford Rag” gives a nod to his connection to the rest of the city.

In this era when so many artists spend much of their time and energy competing for attention and sales, it’s interesting to see paintings by an artist who made his work without fanfare. Over his long career as a serious painter, Lewis Buck spent no time on self-promotion. When many artists of his generation and his caliber were hanging out at the Cedar Bar, Buck was working a regular job and raising two sons.

This is not to say that he received no recognition for his work. He has been included in exhibitions in museums and galleries on a regular basis throughout his career, and in 1956, his work was reproduced in a book called American Painting Today, along with artists including Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky.

When the Bucks moved to Asheville in 1983, the art scene here was almost nonexistent. There were no galleries. Downtown was mostly empty, boarded-up buildings. The annual October Show, a juried exhibition at the Asheville Art Museum in the basement of the Civic Center, provided the only exhibition opportunity.

There were watercolorists painting traditional landscapes and still lifes. And Tucker Cooke was creating large canvases with images of Ingres’ women surrounded with lush flowers and tropical birds.

Buck’s work looked very different: Large scale works marked by assemblage, textures and a rich hues. He just kept painting.

Buck’s first degree, from Duke University, is in English literature. He loves words and he loves history. Titles of his paintings and collages, things like Little Known Bird of the Inner Aisle (glued and screwed), Phantom Ampersand deep in cornflower blue, and Zekiel Saw give a picture of an artist with intense intellectual curiosity, a wry sense of humor and wide-ranging interests.

The earliest works in the exhibition are from the late 1940s and the early ‘50s. His Iotrio, painted in 1951, could hang comfortably in any museum in any company. The 1970s brought lyrical collages, many featuring pieces of fabric found stuffed in the wall of a turn-of-the-century structure in Maine. The paint dances across the surfaces of these works; the fabric is alternately exposed and hidden. Collectively titled Pearl Street Rag or, depending on the location of their creation, Montford Rag, these lighthearted pieces were created with great care and intelligence.

Green Tea, painted in 1996, is an abstract comment on golf and golf courses. Like Buck’s other works, it says much with an economy of means. A number of the works from 2000 to the present are made from salvaged roofing tiles; presented as icons, they have an understated elegance that defies description.

Artist/designer Terry Taylor attended Buck’s opening reception and says he was excited by the span of time covered in the exhibit.

“I really enjoyed seeing the older work with the new—1948 through 2008,” Taylor said. “It was amazing how well the works all hung together, the way the various elements changed, but in ways were consistent. I had seen several exhibitions of Buck’s over the last 15 years, but it was a wonderful experience to see 50 of them all together.”

Never the careerist, Buck is an artist who has spent 60 years exploring and perfecting his craft. It has been time well-spent.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer.]

what: Lewis Buck’s Beyond the Surface: Life Works in Painting and Assemblage
where: Fine Art Museum, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee
when: Through Dec. 15. (227-3591)

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