Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ceramist Joe Bova: Fully Formed Figures in Tacit Stories

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
Joe Bova's work captivated me immediately, however. His ceramic sculptures that depict animal and human forms are life-like and refined, seemingly composed from clay only in the metaphorical sense that we all are. The textures he achieves are uncannily true. The skin of babies calls out for caresses. Frogs gleam with moisture. Ravens' wings have a low, waxy shine, but not so much to reveal them in the moonlight if they fly by night.

The infant dream of slumbering Dierdre
In general, I'm not a fan of art that painstakingly imitates reality, but Bova's captivates me because he so minutely describes protagonists of dramas that he otherwise hasn't written. Each piece implies a story that we will understand only by making it up. A baby sleeps with no apparent anxiety on the back of a raven. Is the raven outsized, or is the baby a tiny Thumbelina? Where are they going? Where have they landed? Has the baby been abducted? Is the baby being saved, or delivered?

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.

I find that when each sculpture lands us in whatever imaginary world we create from personal associations—fairy tales, folklore, myths, Bible stories, animal fables—the literalness of the sculpture lends substance to the otherwise fabulous story. The story emerges from the fog of enchantment. In my favorite, "Infant Voyager," for instance, I connect the image to the tale of baby Moses in the basket woven of bulrushes. In the story, Moses is discovered by a queen and comes into good fortune. But the suggestion of risk to a vulnerable, unwitting life disturbs me, and this clay image pulls that out. It also makes me think of infant exposure, and of the Viking practice of floating the elderly onto the ocean to die. None of these associations hang together in narrative, but all come together seamlessly in the reality of this work that embodies vulnerability, innocence, risk, birth and death in one experience.
Infant voyager
In a gallery talk at the show's opening, Bova explained that the work in the show at Sherrie Gallerie was all  made during his 2011 Fulbright Scholar year at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Ireland. Used to around-the-clock studio access at home, he was flummoxed to find the College's studios closed on weekends and late nights. He spent time delving into Irish mythology, pre-Christian, and early Christian stories. The raven and baby refer to the tragic story of Deirdre; another work refers to the banishment of snakes from Ireland by St. Patrick. Knowledge of these stories will enhance works in a particular way for viewers familiar with them. Still, I felt nothing lost by my ignorance of them. That specificity of figure in the wide-open context produces fertile breeding ground for stories.

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

"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.

No comments:

Post a Comment