I'd never heard of Joe Bova before I received the announcement for his show at the Sherrie Gallerie here in Columbus. Shows at Sherrie Hawk's gallery are always worth seeing because she has a fine eye, lots of information about her specialties—contemporary ceramics and jewelry—but, best of all, she is infinitely curious. Because Sherrie learns from every artist she brings into her space, I'm rewarded with great conversation whenever I drop by. Even when my first impression of a show leaves me cold, fifteen minutes of looking at it with Sherrie always gives me a solid understanding of the artist's motivations and process. I may leave the gallery with no more taste for the work than I came with, but I'm always filled with respect for the artist.
|The crossing, detail|
|The infant dream of slumbering Dierdre|
Likewise, in a piece titled, "Emigration," a crowd/family/army/refugee band of frogs surrounds One set off in a circle of blue. To what end are they sailing on the boat? To deliver their King to a new place where they will found a colony? Are they escaping a war/persecution? Are their motions free or forced? And why are frogs going on a boat instead of in the water? Maybe they are enchanted humans. In such a manner, each of Bova's pieces suggests an unknown history that has delivered the situation we see. To what destination or destiny the characters will travel or drift remains unknown.
What I found more relevant to the work was finding that Bova spent a lot of his East Texas boyhood hunting and fishing; that his knowledge of animals was gained by skinning animals and learning them from the insides out. So, where he sculpted the tiniest figures by hand from solid pieces of clay (at his kitchen table, in lieu of studio tables at night), the larger forms like the dog and the bobcat, are hollow because he creates them by draping flat sheets of clay—by working with skins, as it were. His intimate knowledge of animal anatomy, surfaces, and volumes; his life-long observations of animals he's killed have suffused the clay ones with uncanny life, in action or relaxation.
"Blue Serenity" may emerge from Bova's childhood memories of days hunting with hound dogs and plying swamps on a pirogue. This dog is one of the larger, hollow figures that he created by draping clay; it's a resting, resurrected dog from the viewer's own memory or fantasy. There are colors of gray that breeders will tell you constitute "blue" in dogs, but this life-like dog is a color one will never see in nature. With one paw up, she seems to be relaxing, not dead. Why her color? Is the pirogue docked or floating? Like all of Bova's characters—babies, ravens, skulls, or snakes—dogs strike a deep, primal chord with most people. Our imaginations respond to them. The dog is a faithful and good character: What is her story?
Bova lives now in Santa Fe, New Mexico, retired after an international career of teaching, residencies, and engagements as guest artist around the world (see his website). My visit to his site was prompted less by desire for biographical details than for a look at his earlier work. Everything I found was very clearly from the same careful hand: the great attention to modeling details, the animal protagonists, the careful choices of glazes and finished textures. But his earlier work seems as closed as the current work is open.
In his posted statement, Bova said, "For much of my career I have been making social and political commentary art, often also involving eroticism. In 2003 I began work that was responsive to the misguided policies of my government. As the Republican senator from Missouri, Charles Schurz said in 1861, 'Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right, when wrong, to be put right,' I have been trying through my work to do my part." He continues to say that in 2006-07 he sought "respite from the polemical."
The current work appears to be the opposite of polemic. In polemic, the message is a statement, complete and self-contained. As a story, it has no development. The viewer may sympathize or not, agree or disagree with the program, but the point of such an attentive hand as Bova's—the result of the unarticulated human process beyond the political message—may well remain entirely overlooked.
There's no overlooking any detail of Bova's skilled hand now. There's no ignoring the generosity with which he applies mastery in the service of an extended art form. His new work is an ignition that fires the imaginations of his viewers. The closer we get, the better it works.