David Buckingham really needed to know the make and model of the handgun that Donald DeFreeze — aka of the Symbionese Liberation Army — used to kill himself during a fiery shootout with the LAPD in 1974. What made this request a little less alarming, but no less weird, is that Buckingham needs this bit of gruesome trivia for his art. Buckingham is who pounds out giant replicas of notorious firearms from fact and fiction, and then paints the murder machines in garish primary colors.
“I’ve done shows with three or four guns, and people walk in, and they’re instantly revolted,” Buckingham says after a long day of preparing for his upcoming art opening at thein St. Helena on Feb. 23. “Five minutes later someone else walks in and says, ‘This is the most profound anti-gun statement I’ve ever seen.’”
“Somewhere in the middle lies the truth,” he says. “All readings are valid, frankly.”
Scrolling through the “Guns” section of Buckingham’s website, you see the expensive Perazzi shotgun Dick Cheney used to shoot his hunting partner in the face side-by-side with Travis Bickle’s revolver from Taxi Driver. A little further down, Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum is next to the service pistol Dan White used to assassinate Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, juxtaposing Hollywood’s version of a vigilante cop from San Francisco with the tragic reality.
“All the guns are historically accurate,” Buckingham says. “I don’t just make a gun and call it whatever. I have to find out. The day after Hunter S. Thompson killed himself, I got on the internet. ‘Somebody tell me what he used to shoot himself!’ And I got my answer in minutes. A Colt 911. So, I made that that day.”
Even Buckingham’s less ballistic pieces combine cross pop culture and true crime. Using a plasma cutter, he fashions day-glo signs bearing movie quotes and Elvis lyrics along with the Zodiac Killer’s ciphers, and the SLA’s motto: “Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people.” Some signs are tame enough to be hung in a yuppie coffee shop, while others are the stuff of Dead Kennedys album covers.
“What do you see as the intersection between crime and pop culture?” I ask.
“It all flows into from almost the same source,” Buckingham explains. “When you turn on your TV, you hear about a David Bowie concert or some horrible massacre somewhere. That all comes in that way.”
When I ask why so many of his more transgressive sculptures riff on San Francisco crimes, he tells me he spent some formative years as “an acid eating bike messenger” living out of “a flophouse in Berkeley” in the early 1980s.
“I’m not too crazy about the new San Francisco frankly,” he says, “but I’ve always been crazy about San Francisco and strange things.”
Buckingham, who turned 60 in October, started making “weird furniture” from metal when he lived in New York in the 1990s, but found a real passion for metal work after flaming out from a 20-year career in advertising.
“I went to rehab 15 times in that 20 years, mostly for — well, always for — you know, heroin,” he says, laughing.
After getting arrested in 2000 and living in a court-ordered halfway house in Los Angeles, Buckingham started taking trips out to the Mojave Desert and Antelope Valley, where he found discarded washing machines and the husks of cars just sitting out in the sand for the taking.
“It’s kind of like being a junkie again,” he observes. “You wake up in the morning like, where am I going to get my metal fix today?”
For his upcoming show at Caldwell Snyder Gallery — titled “Nobody Likes a Smartass” — from Feb. 23-March 30, Buckingham promises “a further exploration of all the shit that rattles around in my head, pretty much 24/7.”
“I’ve got a new piece called The Breakup,” he says, noting that he’s going through one himself. “It says lover. The L is red and the O-V-E-R is blue.”
“I do a lot of wordplay stuff,” he continues. “Metal and words are very similar. They can be bent into other shapes to make them something completely different.”
As for Buckingham’s original query, I’ve written about Cinque, but I hardly know what kind of piece he used to off himself. All I could do was send Buckingham a link the FBI’s massive file on the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.
“It reminds me of looking at microfiche when I was a kid in school,” he says after going through the Bureau’s totally unsearchable PDF. “Somebody invent Google, please!”