Buckingham, David: Clean, Sober and Politically Incorrect

Through May 3, 2008; David Buckingham “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People”
MM Galleries, 101 Townsend St. @ 2nd Street, Suite 207, San Francisco
Hours: Tuesday - Friday: 11am - 5pm, Saturday, 12pm- 4pm, phone: 415.543.1550
email: info@mmgalleries.com, http://www.mmgalleries.com/

Click here to see images from the show: http://www.mmgalleries.com/artists/buckingham.html

It’s hard to tell you’re in San Francisco when you arrive at “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People” and are welcomed from across the room by David Buckingham’s assemblage sculpture made of welded found metal, ”English, Motherf*cker!” No, this is not angry commentary against illegal immigration; this is an homage to the movie Pulp Fiction.

Kit Schulte, co-director of MM Galleries, thought that she’d found an out-of-town buyer for “English,” the most expensive piece in the exhibition. But, on the day that Buckingham’s show opened, she received a call from the potential British buyer who sheepishly backed out of the deal. According to Schulte, “his wife wouldn’t let him buy it.” Chicken.

Blam!” transcends the adolescent humor of mere recitation of movie lines and is a great example of Buckingham perfecting his metalworking craft. “Blam!” (lettered the Marvel Comics way) is framed by two layers of spiky explosion behind it, a triple layer cake of joyful kidstuff. (Someone please tell Berkeley comics-loving writer Michael Chabon that this piece is calling his name.)

"(Star)f*cker", a 10-foot vertical lamppost of a piece, and "Lisp", letters spelling out the sound gag "homothexual," were crafted with an L.A. audience in mind. Not all of Buckingham's work relies on incendiary wordplay. There are some more restful G-rated pieces, such as polka-dotted color studies of candy colored metal laced with rust streaks that look like futuristic board games.

‘How to Talk Dirty and Influence People” is the perfect name for the exhibition of the work of this jaded former ad man. It’s a direct lift from obscene, 50s satirist Lenny Bruce’s autobiography, which itself is a riff on the 1937 best-seller self-help book by sales guru Dale Carnegie, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

Surprisingly, Buckingham is not a native of Los Angeles, although his life sounds like a Hollywood story.

Buckingham’s art is made more compelling by his personal history, which is marked by cycles of nadir and rebirth. Originally from New Orleans, for years he was a peripatetic advertising creative director hooked on heroin before planting roots in L.A. He learned the craft of welding from Ray Kelly, founder of New York City’s Rivington School, a loose association of free spirits who hung out in the early 90s and believed that anyone could be an artist and anything could be art.

Buckingham hit rock bottom in ’99 doing time in a California jail. He’s been clean ever since. He speaks with a jittery, jumpy cadence that comes from too much coffee and too many cigarettes. He doesn’t disagree that his art saved his life.

The artist’s studio in downtown Los Angeles is a corrugated steel shack that is stiflingly hot and smells of stale cigarette smoke. A rotating standing fan offers no relief but instead stirs up metal shavings every few seconds. Sheared, colored metal dusts the floor, the aftermath of his blowtorch.

When he requires new raw materials for his art, he jumps into his rusty pickup truck and sputters off into the L.A. desert, collecting old car doors and road signs that litter the desert floor, and a few that are still tacked up. In describing this process, Buckingham hints at Deliverance-style danger as he risks his personal safety poaching metal in the lawless desert. "What I look for are old, battered, colorful metal things that have had a previous life and have the scars to prove it. I want to make art from things that have a story to tell," says Buckingham.

Buckingham was featured last year in a group show at the Riverside Art Museum called “Greetings From the American Dream,” a show examining the de-mystification of American consumerism. His piece “Holy Triptych”, three near-identical two-dimensional dollar signs fashioned from No-Trespassing signs from the California Aqueduct, was labeled as “neo-Warholian pop art.”

The word art sculpture grew up late last year when he was tapped to do the illustration for William Safire’s annual mea culpa-themed “On Language” column in the New York Times on December 23, 2007. A piece that normally would take a week or two to make was rushed to completion in three days for photographing:

Buckingham will have additional dealer representation in L.A. this summer when he joins the ranks of Peter Mendenhall’s new gallery on Wilshire Boulevard (and hangs side by side with Oakland’s Squeak Carnwath). The artist accepts commissions if you want to see your favorite movie quote in repurposed road signs. This is his first solo show with MM Galleries.