After he shot his photographs on the beach at Gorée Island in the summer of 2012, Fabrice Monteiro deliberately left dust on his negatives because he wanted to picture the young Senegalese swimmers in their fashionable swimsuits softly, dreamily, timeless as myth. They do ordinary things; they splash, run, surf, cruise, cuddle, dance. But Monteiro captures them in moments of exceptional vitality. He titled the series A Gorean Summer, proposing that any summer on Gorée Island might be like this, young Africans just going about their summer recreation. But A Gorean Summer is also a heightened world, part Fellini and part Caravaggio, halfway between fiction and reality—because it temporarily displaces another, very fixed idea about Gorée Island.
This other idea comes from tourism, but not in a crass way. Tens of thousands of tourists ride the 20-minute ferry each year from Dakar to arrive at Gorée because it is the location most associated with all of African slavery. They come to pay respects at its historic prison, called the House of Slaves, which was preserved and converted into a museum in the 1960s. Presidents and popes are pictured standing in the House's horrible Door of No Return, a void cut out of a wall onto the Atlantic.
Monteiro's universe of swimmers is steps away and a world apart. Do an image search for Gorée Island and a monolithic archive comes up, of color photographs of the House (which is pale pink), the Door, a dank corridor, bars on windows, a bronze liberation statue nearby of a bare-breasted woman embracing a man as he holds aloft broken chains. Compare that stiff couple, locked into their story, to a pair of dancers with their hips glued together at the center of a photograph in A Gorean Summer. At M.I.A Gallery, they're featured in a print that makes them nearly life-size, but they are otherwise out of this world. The way they dance, it's like they're flying. He has his eyes closed. Her back is to us, as strong as any back in art history.
Photographed bodies could not possibly be more inspiring than this, but their anarchic life force, shooting off in all directions, is only the start of what's visible in this image. Much of the pleasure in A Gorean Summer comes from beyond what seem like the central points of action, in the slow reveal of an avalanche of crowd details as you continue to look. Fanned out behind the dancers, a crowd fills the frame. From toddlers to teenagers, they cheer on the dancers, or hide their eyes from the sun of the action, or purse their lips jealously at the death-defying sensuality. They hold up cell phones and video cameras. These are the pictures they take.
Notably, there are no older people in A Gorean Summer. In this in-between world, everyone is on vacation from forebears, and Gorée gets a rare release from its past. Monteiro got that name from an ancestor on his father's side who was sold into slavery from his home country of Benin by the Portuguese, so he personally shares Gorée's past, and the House of Slaves is still visible above the beach in A Gorean Summer. But the photographs offer the proposal that even the most overshadowing past is not all-consuming. Monteiro is half-Belgian, half-Beninese, and he lives and works in Dakar, a rising capital of new art. His Africa holds the dreams of the up-and-coming, so he points his camera forward.
In John Buck's art, the sound of creaking matters. It's creaky art. When you push a remote-control button on the floor, the big wooden bodies of the sculptures heave into rickety, elderly motion. These mechanical sculptures are old-fashioned. The wood is hand-carved, the surfaces left rough and undulating from the regular chisel marks. Each piece has its own individually rigged system of wood pulleys and leather bands hooked up to the antique-sounding motors. It's whimsical folk art, you think, then you begin to notice the piles of human bones, Catholic priests wielding crucified Cleveland Indian mascots, haughty explorers who can't see past their protractors, women whose empty eyes spit out a continuous stream of fat wood tears.
Buck looks at the same colonial history as Monteiro, but from the other side, facing backward in time, replaying the horrors of history in a fragile, nightmarish loop that brings to mind a toy for a dangerously oversized baby.
Buck is a white American born into the world of the Midwestern 1940s. As a teenager, he took apart an old Ford Model A, put it back together again, and only then noticed a bucket full of parts he'd forgotten to use. Seeing as how the car ran just fine, he decided he was qualified to build his own machines. It's only in the last 10 years or so that he's been making sculptures that move, though. He started as a painter, moved into sculpture and printmaking, and now does all three.
The machine sculptures have grown bigger and bigger, fed a steady diet of hypocrisy, murder, sex, art, hellacious current and historical events, and ancient symbols. Two of the big machines are at Greg Kucera Gallery this month, where they've drawn crowds and launched a thousand Instagrams. (This is Buck's fifth solo show since 1995 at the gallery.)
The 24-foot-long contraption called Cat's Cradle took Buck a year to build. It's a ship of lost souls, a canoe rowed by figures whose skins are polka-dotted with smallpox. The figurehead fixed to the front of the boat is the woman who cries unending streams of wooden tears, the pulley at her head ingeniously doubling as a halo. On board are Columbus and Magellan and cutouts of South America, Asia, North America, and Africa, spinning insensibly. The United States has been laid in a cradle of bones. It's all in the lullaby voice of carved-wood nostalgia.
The other mechanical sculpture is called Borrowed Time (2014). It's a woman holding out a clock; her head is a spinning wheel with six carved cutouts rather than spokes, each one a hand poised to write or draw. She stands in front of paintings mounted on two long scrolls, which pass by in the fashion of 19th-century diorama paintings that would rotate while the viewer stood still. They're scenes of pain and art, Frida Kahlo's haloed face rolling by in a stream of horrors, from baby-eating to waterboarding. In borrowed time, death is forestalled, maybe by art. Or maybe art is too enmeshed in the ruined world to provide relief. Buck, a fan of the wildly political art of Peter Saul, has it both ways.
When Buck's working in woodblock prints, he's a master. They're thick with layers and shadows, and they're strange and vivid. His tight and tidy still sculptures can leave me cold. But taken as a whole body of work, Buck cuts his neoclassicism with plenty of the carnivalesque.
On an afternoon that's quieter than the opening, I'm alone in the gallery with a jumpy and disturbed man. The man is tirelessly explaining to me what the art's madness means. It means more madness, if he's right. "This is some dark shit," he keeps intoning, resigned.