Bucky Miller: The Singing Frog
Katie Robinson Edwards
Curator, UMLAUF Sculpture Garden and Museum
Spending time with Bucky Miller while he prepared for his UMLAUF Prize exhibition meant surrendering to a surreal, disorienting universe. His art has long incorporated animals, both real and fictionalized, including dogs, raccoons, swans, geese, pigeons, frogs, plus a host of less recognizable quasi-critters. Bucky's art encourages an attunement to human and animal presence, even with seemingly inanimate objects. Ultimately many of his objects (a table leg, a chair, a column) are imbued with personality, and the situations he creates feel uncanny. The subject of a photo or sculpture can seem comfortably familiar, but at the same time unsettling. Bucky also has a heightened sensitivity to similarity. Even his name is similar to another: his father named him after the polymath American architect and inventor, Buckminster Fuller. Bucky Miller, Bucky Fuller.
Early in his research, Bucky was drawn to the UMLAUF's brown garden shed. It happened to have the identical brown paneling as his Austin apartment. Because of the similarity, the shed exerted a power force on the artist, moving him to revisit the shed repeatedly, like a homing pigeon. In another instance this summer, while pet sitting for friends, Bucky noticed that someone else in the same apartment complex owned two dogs nearly identical to his friends' dogs. Similar animals, same place but not the same creatures. His sensitivity to doppelgänger situations is infectious. One day he texted me, thinking he had forgotten his blue cap at the Museum. I pulled a blue New York ball cap from the Lost & Found (Bucky had recently returned from New York). I replied to his text, triumphant. He responded with a photo of his blue cap, on a chair at his apartment. "It was here all along," he wrote. Bucky's universe is filled with such parallel instances.
In one of Bucky's photos, the head of a white dog is blurred in motion, although it is otherwise sitting still. Another photograph showed an animal-like mass of white foam in a dingy room, making it hard to "un-see" the dog from the other photo. In Kitchen Scene, a wax squirrel faces the viewer from atop a chrome bread box. A large reptile head, perhaps a turtle or lizard, seems to be reflected in the chrome. Noticeably absent in the photo is the animal who made the reflection, as if it could only be captured through its mirrored reflection. In other cases, Bucky's photographic manipulations make it hard to believe that the subject (a cat, a goose) is a living creature.
As part of his exhibition research, he hoped to photograph the UMLAUF Garden at night. Bucky didn't know what to expect, but wanted to see the Garden when no one else was present. I was pleased to accompany him and excited at the possibility of showing Bucky our nocturnal creatures. I listed off every animal the Staff had ever seen. In my enthusiasm, I practically guaranteed Bucky an animal sighting. It seemed like a fair bet, but I worried that I'd promised him a singing frog.*
But our first evening trip to the Garden began with an unexpected jolt. At dusk, we locked ourselves inside the gated Garden. "Is anyone else supposed to be here tonight?" asked Bucky as he stared into the Garden. "No," I said nervously, following his gaze to see a man sitting on a bench with his back to us. "Please walk with me to ask him to leave," I asked Bucky as I grabbed my pepper spray. As we grew closer, the man did not respond to us or our calls. Then I realized the man was Julius, the UMLAUF's mascot: a scarecrow made of straw. (Julius is named for Charles Julius Umlauf.) One of the Staff had placed him in the Garden that afternoon to promote Zilker Park and our upcoming Last Straw Fest.
After my heart settled down, Bucky told me that a specific scarecrow had a profound impact on him in childhood. He even wrote about it in his 2017 MFA thesis. Mr. Thingy was a headless scarecrow made of his father's clothes and stuffed with newspaper. Mr. Thingy was nice if you were good, and mean if you were bad. But, as Bucky points out, "the issue wasn't nice or mean, good or bad. Those dichotomies are too simple." That observation lends insights to Bucky's art: the dichotomies between truth/fiction, animate/inanimate, are too simple. The Buckyverse can hold all options. Ambiguity is the norm.
We did end up seeing animals at the UMLAUF. Loads of them. But they proved to have less of an impact on Bucky's exhibition than the unexpected experiences, such as how stumbling on Julius transported Bucky back to a childhood memory. Or the presence of a pale orange modernist chair in the Umlauf home that still seems to hold Charles Umlauf's presence.
While testing out his installation, Bucky repurposed a found object and placed it in the UMLAUF's stream. It was a 1970s stainless steel chair with a green molded seat that he modified by bending the legs out. He put the chair in the water, with its distended legs straddling the stream. "It works," he said. "I call it a Frog." Of course he did.