”I went through the ringer and I look for material that’s been through the ringer too.”
They are hardcore, beautiful, ancient and modern, sexy and pithy, I came across a welded word piece by David Buckingham by chance at an opening in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. It was a famous line from an American movie, etched in large pieces of worn but brightly coloured painted steel. It looked the kind of sign they might have had swinging in the wind for forty years at a gas station in the desert – and that gave the quote a timeless feel. I felt echoes of Richard Chamberlain and Ed Ruscha in this energetic, cool and counter-cultural work.
Born in 1958 in New Orleans, Buckingham rose to the top of the advertising industry before succumbing to drugs. He had no formal art school education, but was taught welding by the New York collective of street and metal artists the Rivington School. Now based in a studio in LA, Buckingham makes a number different welded series – one of famous lines from movies, another of abstract patterns, often dots, and a third of enlarged reliefs of famous guns.
Anyway I dialled David’s number and spoke to him.
Turns out he’s an ex-junkie who now welds junk – old metal he reclaims in remote parts of the Californian desert.
”I began welding while I was in the Ad business, I was taught by some hguys I met in NYC fro [The Rivington School was a subcultural artists group who sprung up in the East Village in the 80s, mostly comprised of street artists, welders and performance artists, known for its massive junk sculptures]. They were bunch of Anarchist outdoor welders. In the late 80s they would take over lots and build scrap metal towers and have BBQs. They were just guys who hung out together and banged on metal
”Now, after 16 years of practice in several studios in several countries. I make a living out of this thing. It’s fucking great. I feel like I was in a coma for 46 yrs until I had my first solo show. Now I’m in studio 7 days a week. I’m working ten times harder for ten times less and ten times happier, than when I was in the Ad business
”Frank Pierson, the guy who wrote Cool Hand Luke saw my piece with the quote from his mobvie about the failure to communicate and he came down to the studio and said i love what u r doing here.
”I find all the metal in the Californian desert, in its original colours. It comes from trucks, cars, buses, farm equipment, combines. I cut each letter from a car hood or the door of a truck. It’s kinda funny how it worked out. I was in Australia working as the creative director for an ad agency and I welded in my spare time. I made my own weird furniture – tables chairs, a gigantic bed. I came to LA on vacation with bad heroin habit. I tried to score some downtown and I got arrested and was in jail for a week. I said I was going to go back – but I never went back. I left my wife, house, cars. Because I had been convicted of a drugs crime, I was the property of state for 18 months. Ihad to go to drug classes , and in return they dropped the charges. But soon I was back on it. I Had a $500 a day heroin habit. Ended up on the streets of LA. Passed out on Skid Row with paramedics over me. Shot up $700,000 of heroin. Went through 15 rehabs. I’d get out and start shooting up again. Now I’ve been clean for ten year
”I went through the ringer and I look for material thats been through the ringer too. Everything in the desert has been discarded, wrecked and abandoned. It has a beautiful patina. That’s how I feel about myself. It’s been worked on by nature for 30-40 years. Its cold in the desert and it rains and hails and in summer its 120 degrees. I got a lot of scars on me and I look for materaal that’s been scarred to. You can’t fake this material.
”I haven’t lived an innocent life and i don’t do innocent things. I like Gangster underworld stuff, creepy shit, grifters, crime, pulp fiction, real life crime. ”
”I make it all myself. I have no assistants. Iput a lot of effort into every single pjece. I take no short cuts. There’s tons of thought involved and tons of physical labour. I think about whatever pops into my head, likes movie lines… not just any movie line… lines from films with an edge … movie lines that are part of common vernacula, that have leapt into common colloquialisms, like ’Show me the money. l took a line from ’Dog Day Afternoon’. Al Pacino says ’I like to kiss and I’m getting fucked’ , a fanastic line from a fantastic movie. I liked that line from
’Full Metal Jacket’, when the major is training the recruits and they are chanting, ”I dont know but I’ve been told, eeskimo pussy is mighty cold’ I used to hear that as a kid on the playground.” Sometimes it’s a line I have been thinking about it for 20 years and it never left me and then I do it in metal. My pjeces Kapow! and Thwack! and Whap! came from Batman episodes. I grew up on comic books, and American TV in sixties/Now I’ve Just started song lyrics.
”Then sometimes I do more peaceful work – my abstract colour studies. You can’t listen to lunk rock all the time. Sometimes you gotta listen to some jazz. I use the smaller pjeces for these abstract works . I dont throw anything away until it gets down to about a square inch. I started this series 3 yrs ago and now I’m on number 51. It’s an infinite series.
”I make trips into the desert to find my materials. I have an atlas and every time I do a grid and I criss-cross the desert. Its just dirt tracks. You can’t really see anything because it’s all low scrub, and you come round a corner and then there’s a yard with trailer, and goats and junk and trash. Like a truck from the fifties lying on its side.
”I’ll show u some people in the desert you cannot believe exist. They make people in ’Deliverance’ look like they are Rhodes scholars. These people are devil worshippers, isolationists, deathheads – its shocking. These are the guys who got the metal. There’s a retarded wife and deformed baby, a jerry can and water truck in middle of nowhere, and these peopl have some old farm equipment or school bus that I want to buy that hasn’t moved since the Manson family were in it. I buy it for 100 dollars.
””How much do you want for it?” I ask the owner. ”$100” he says. ”Ok.” I say,”I’m gonna strip the metal and leave the rest. ”Okay,” the guy says, ”I’ll sell it twice.”
”I’ll find a 90-year old guy with 50-60 cars, 4 -5 big pieces of farm equipment, that have been there for 40 years. A school bus hasn’t moved since the 60s and he says ’I m not going to sell that, I’m gonna fix it up.” and I say : ”I’ll wait till you die and come back.”
”It’s a constant, constant search. It’s like being a junkie again – when you are a junkie the first thing you think of is ’Where am I gonna get my dope today’ and now I think ’Where am I gonna get my metal today?”
David Buckingham shows with the Cain Shulte Gallery in San Francisco and Berlin