CMA Stories

“Children’s nearly perpetual sense of invention and discovery provides visual nourishment” — 5 Minutes with Auction Artist Bo Joseph

CMA’s online exhibition fundraiser, Now is Not the Time, brings together the work of over 40 world-class contemporary artists responding in ways both subtle and profound to issues of social justice. Artist Bo Joseph often pulls source imagery from printed media, such as books and auction catalogues, seeking out culturally charged images and symbols — such as masks or ceremonial objects — that retain their power even when stripped of details and context. Meet the artist below! 

Bo Joseph by Leonard Joseph

Do you have a favorite memory of making art as a child?

When I was between the ages of six and eight, I remember joining my father in the photo darkroom he had in the basement of the apartment building in which we lived. To keep me engaged while he worked on his own photos, he supervised me creating photograms from things I brought with me, like toys, natural objects from the yard or from nature hikes, etc. Watching the various stages of development and the seemingly magical translation of these silhouetted objects was enthralling. This early experience making art laid the groundwork for many of the concerns in my practice to this day.

What advice would you give to young artists who wish to pursue an art practice?

Ask yourself what you really know, what you have figured out for yourself, versus what you take for granted because you have been told. Even if this is a very small amount of knowledge, it is what is truly yours, unique to you, and provides the building blocks of what will make and keep your work authentic and original. Keep asking this question “what do I know?” as you develop and it will keep you on track.

Can you tell us about the artwork you donated to CMA’s Art Auction? 

The painting I donated to the auction is from a body of work entitled A Lexicon of Persistent Absence which I started in 2009 during a three month stint making art in Berlin. Within Berlin’s famously cyclical layering of destruction and reinvention, the “absences” are persistently and inexorably woven with everything physically “present,” a condition of inversion that mirrors many aspects of the working process in this series. The symbols of people, places and ideas that no longer exist, in which societies invest meaning — whether carved ancestor figures in an extinct African culture, or paving stones set in streets across Berlin where the Wall once stood — provide many of the visual references, which are scavenged from field photos and various printed sources, such as the children’s clip art I described above. This particular painting superimposes the negative shapes of tribal masks over a gesturally painted colorful ground. The subtitle alludes to questions of how identity filters what one sees and what one says about what one sees, and that the “self” is built on a mixture of “truths” one discovers on their own terms and “truths” we are told, leaving us with ethical choices to make as we present our ideas and thoughts to the world.

A Lexicon of Persistent Absence: Which Self Sees, Which Self Speaks?, 2012

Your work utilizes culturally charged source imagery, such as masks and ceremonial objects, culled from printed materials such as books and auction catalogues. What is the most interesting printed material that you have come across, and how did you incorporate it into one of your artworks?

It is hard for me to single out what was the most interesting printed material that I have come across, though some do stand out. In 2009, during that same stay in Berlin, I was browsing through a toy store where I encountered a stencil-like silhouetted image of a mushroom cloud, which seemed like a really strange subject to be in a toy store. I discovered that I was looking at the back of a sheet of turn-of-the-century clip art depicting an angel standing on a cloud, the kind of material children used to collect in scrapbooks. They had numerous examples in which, from the front, the imagery was seemingly innocuous, like a group of gnomes, birds, children playing, or angels, but from the back, the abstracted silhouettes evoked wide ranging and not-so-childish free associations. I acquired several dozen of these clip-art sheets and incorporated the negative shapes of these webbed forms into my work, even making enlarged laser cut acrylic stencils from them that I still use in the studio.

Which artworks from this year’s auction are you most excited about, and why?

I am excited to see a work by Cindy Sherman in the auction because her prominence lends gravitas to the endeavors of the CMA, helping to affirm the importance and imperative that art education and CMA programming in particular has for society. I am also excited to see a piece by Julia Kunin with whom I recently did a Zoom talk on the subject of our concurrent exhibitions at McClain Gallery, during which she and I discovered unexpected commonalities in our work.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Male/Female Artist), 1980 / 2012

Julia Kunin, Iridescent Gorilla Hand, 2014

If you could choose any artist to create a painting of yourself, who would it be and why?

Maybe Giacometti, because the book A Giacometti Portrait had such a big impact on me as a student, and it would be exciting to have the same experience that the author James Lord described.

Why is children’s artwork important within the context of art history?

With their unselfconscious immediacy and authenticity, children make art that provides a valuable point of reference for artists who want to uphold those qualities in their mature work. Children’s artwork also persists as a reminder of how visual thinking is basic to being a human being and therefore warrants as much advocacy and investment as any other primary skills society promotes and celebrates.

How does working with children inspire you?

Children’s nearly perpetual sense of invention and discovery provides visual nourishment and is a great reminder of what keeps art-making engaging.

CMA’s 2021 Art Auction and Fundraiser Exhibition, Now is Not the Time, takes place virtually from February 25 to March 11 in partnership with Artsy. Proceeds from the fundraiser exhibition ensure the continuation of CMA’s mission to provide vital access to the arts for children of all backgrounds and abilities from around the globe.

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