Exhibition essay for
Bo Joseph—Attempts at a Unified Theory
September 7 - November 10, 2010
the first exhibition of the three part series History as Medium
Thompson Gallery
Garthwaite Center for Science and Art
Cambridge School of Weston, MA
by Todd Bartel, Curator
Gallery Director

History without gardens would be a wasteland. A garden severed from history would be superfluous…The gardens that have graced this mortal Eden of ours are the best evidence of humanity’s reason for being on earth. Where history unleashes its destructive and annihilating forces, we must, if we are to preserve our sanity, to say nothing of our humanity, work against and in spite of them. We must seek out healing or redemptive forces and allow them to grow in us. That is what it means to tend our garden.

Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, Preface, p. x

All round Gilgamesh stood bushes bearing gems…there was fruit of carnelian with the vine hanging from it, beautiful to look at; lapis lazuli leaves hung thick with fruit, sweet to see. For thorns and thistles there were haematite and rare stones, agate, and pearls from out of the sea.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, p. 100

Disturbances in the Field

Bo Joseph—Attempts at a Unified Theory is the first exhibition in the three-part series, History As Medium. Our series, designed to juxtapose three vastly different artists whose interests overlap, examines collage’s inclusiveness and three specific methods for co-opting history’s relics. Each artist in the series combs history to parse out fragmentary remains, which are combined through widely differing processes and which ultimately prompts viewer reassessment, revision and reckoning. Joseph, whose interests are as diverse as his exhibition title suggests, plants his findings firmly within cultivated abstract fields, wittingly forcing his gardens of history to merge and evolve.

It is fitting that Bo Joseph initiates this year’s exhibition series. His work, in general, could easily have been included in our previous shows that explored Contemporary Painting After a Century of Abstract Art, and thus, it beautifully segues into our present series. Furthermore, as a student of Alfred DeCredico (Deconstructing Chaos, January 8 — March 12, 2010), and a dedicated gestural painter, Joseph’s work beautifully resonates with the subjects explored in our last season as much as it exemplifies the late professor’s attitudes about abstraction: all images ever created are abstract; and, recognizable and namable images in the field of painting become a visual hypertext—a multidimensional network in which every point or node can be potentially connected with any other node. This latter concept is of great interest for our present show.

As a teaching gallery, we linger on the teacher-student relationship to examine how far a student moves away from the initial harvest of work produced during the impressionable student years. Thus, this first exhibition looks at History with a nod to the personal sense of the term. More importantly, it is the strategies and conceptual sense that really drives our present investigation. Regarding the personal history, Attempts at a Unified Theory builds from DeCredico's two primary edicts with great imagination. Joseph, too, creates composite images, filled with cultural connections—which he borrows from printed matter. As he layers and stacks the strata of his paintings, he locates his imagery in gestural, non-objective fields, which heightens the need for tending to the connections between things. Furthermore, like many of DeCredico's pupils, Joseph champions his professor's manifesto on adventure and creative risk-taking, because as pointed out in Deconstructing Chaos, when everything is abstract, there is a need to "find a sense of self in the process of risking real ground," all of which in turn has powerful "implications for our audience and the greater community" as they wade through such visual material.

To this day, Joseph embarks on the invitation to adventure and evidence of that background is visible everywhere in his work. It was DeCredico who challenged Joseph to stratify paint as a means of employing subtractive processes. Indeed, Joseph’s love of history and archeology took root because of DeCredico’s teachings. To be sure, Joseph is deeply indebted to his professor’s groundwork. However, the Brooklyn-based artist cultivates his own hybrid method with great distinction. Long after receiving an assignment to “make a drawing in the shower” Joseph still thoroughly washes his work—not so much a process of cleansing, as much as a process of revealing what lies within the sediment. Joseph refers to this creative risk-taking as a kind of "Duchamp-ian chancy process"—he never knows what the forces of washing will expose. Joseph has honed this process with such clarity it has evolved as the hallmark of his art. After all, how many painters ever hired a plumber to create a 6' x 5' portable washbasin to wheel around their studios in which all works undergo the process of expedited erosion? Joseph may be the first. What is certain is that the incredible surfaces that constitute Joseph's work are a rare sight in the art world; humbled by real phenomena and time, Joseph's paintings delight the eye and mind and they mystify our ability to discern natural from man-made. Joseph's history paintings have an authentic patina that is literally rich with unfolding stories.

The once painter, now historian, James Elkins describes painting as a "heavy mineral deposit…laid down by an artist who…had hypostatic feelings about paint." Thus, as archeology is a branch of history dedicated to the study of human history and prehistory—through the processes of excavation—and archeologist's sites are often found near bodies of water, where history readily reveals itself through the forces of water, wind and other natural agents, we can think of Joseph's paintings as archeological gardens that prompt mineral memory. If all gardens require water for nourishment, then it follows that mineral gardens have the additional need of erosion to expose and or polish its hidden gems.

In his book, What Painting Is, Elkins discusses this curious preoccupation that painters have with imbedding thoughts into their process and their material:

And when it is merely paint, it begins to speak in an uncanny way, telling us things that we cannot quite understand. It seems to be infused with moods, with obscure thoughts, and ultimately—in the language of alchemy and religion—with soul, spirit, and "formal life." From that moment on, it never stops speaking. Like alchemists, painters are bound up in hypostatic contemplation: paint seems irresistibly to mean, as if the littlest dab must signify something. It never speaks clearly because—as any sober scientist or humanist will tell you—every meaning is a projection of the viewer's inarticulate moods. Substances are like mirrors that let us see things about ourselves... (p. 45)

Indeed, even when we do not understand them, paintings, properly tended, can bear gem-like flowers and fruit, which in turn, bear the seeds of future thought. This beckons a few questions: What else does Joseph do to construct his surfaces? How does Joseph layer and reveal imagery?

Joseph's process is informed by a rich knowledge of art, architecture, rugs, tribal artifacts, science, philosophy, books, film and the list goes on. With nearly two decades of experience in the gallery business, as assistant curator, gallery attendant, designer of catalogs and websites, it is not surprising to learn that Joseph has developed a collector's eye. Collecting art books, magazines and primarily auction-house catalogs over the past two decades, the artist has amassed a storehouse of clippings, from which he gleans his imagery in a process that involves the removal of select images by cutting away the shapes of thousands of objects. This collage practice always yields both positive and negative forms and Joseph makes good use of both. As displayed on the gallery floor, Joseph converts these clippings into stencils and transfers. Through chance operations, the clippings are strewn about as he works with the conglomerate openings. With such aggregates in hand, Joseph temporally fastens the grouping together to form a stencil for pigment dispersal and layer building/burying—fusing a succession of cultural artifacts, one atop and adjacent to the next. Then, after making his mineral and memory deposits, in a most un-collage like manner, the stencils are set aside to dry and are eventually disassembled and returned to storage until the next painting session. The parts are saved for reuse—every human artifact ever made can never fully be understood and merits revisiting—because interpretation is dependent wholly on the context of each given situation.

Joseph's uncollage technique—a collage process that completely undoes all residue of the paper used to create the image rendered—yields an imagery that is akin to an archeological site, the likes of the La Brea Tar Pits. With a trained eye, the artist is often able to recognize things and name the individuated objects within his drawings and paintings despite the unconventional way he grows them, and so, too, can his audience, even if less frequently. The artist tells us the point is more about finding relationships and connections between and about the assembly. Thus, Joseph's work does not so rigidly parallel the archeologist's after the washing process concludes. In the end, play, imagination and critical inquiry are important, along with ethical, philosophical or psychological vantages—where awareness is prompted by mirrors, memory, desire, inequity, social justice and much more.

Bo Joseph has been painting in this manner for nearly two decades, amassing a body of work, stockpiled with human artifacts and treasures that intermingle time, space and cultural boundaries. Conceptually speaking, these Attempts at a Unified Theory transport the mind easily in and out of the time-space continuum offering glimpses of some of the most extraordinary handiwork ever made anywhere, without the need for hardware, electronics or complicated math sequences. These cultivated and bejeweled time capsules have a way haunting the mind. But that will always be the case for works of art that look to the spaces between things as opposed to only at the things themselves. It is always important to remember that these works are composed of negative and positive remains of historically/culturally charged things. And here, such polar terminology leads to several levels of thought.

Socrates wanted to hone the powers of memory and therefore he was against the art of writing. Similarly, the artist Marcel Duchamp wanted to return painting to be in service of the mind—against retinal beauty, Duchamp preferred aesthetic indifference to further spark the imagination. In this spirit, Bo Joseph's scattered groupings of human artifacts are truly like standard stoppages—or perhaps, more accurately, hyper-stoppages—that are used time and time again. Joseph keeps his aesthetic eye in check by relegating stencil construction to wild chance, but he keeps his works sharpened by exercising his intellect as he considers and names the outcomes with his titles. Thus, intuition and chance intermingle in Joseph's work as supportive players, along with other potent faculties of the mind. Joseph titles his art with wit, humor and blunt criticism. Think for a moment of any culture's tendency to marginalize, dominate and oppress populations—history has frequently taken on grave proportions. These darker sides of humanity are not at all buried in Joseph's work; on the contrary, they are named and pulled up to the surface. Consider for example the title of one of his bronze statues, Meditations on Tibet: Annihilation, or the four works on paper that are part of a series of drawings which share the initial title, A Lexicon of Persistent Absence. Positives and negatives takes on a different scope when history is considered in a political sense along with the images formed.

At first glance it may have seemed peculiar, when we consider the list of mineral components in Gilgamesh's Garden of the Gods, that among the list of geologically formed gem stones the biologically formed pearl was the last on the list. That curious inclusion is worth thinking about. At that heart of Attempts at a Unified Theory the work of Bo Joseph is an honest, unflinching observation of history. Though at times Joseph's titles are brutally honest, there is also a deep sense of respect and hope in the work precisely because of its inclusive power. Joseph invites, beckons and invokes what is persistently missing to loom large in our minds when he mixes and calls out into existence the memory of events with the things that have been buried. His work begs us to mentally conjure how to remember the things that prompt such formations. Over time, with internal pressures and secreted layers of mineral deposits that surround an irritant, pearls come into existence. Out of that situation, something incredible is made. Joseph's sense of unified theory stretches beyond science and embraces history in compelling ways. His practice, one that necessarily culls from many areas of human preoccupation, as he creates, is one fully aware of the power of its inclusive intentions. Tending to the creation of pearls is an arduous task, both natural and man-made, as they are always a product of sown disturbances.

Todd Bartel, Curator
Gallery Director