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Interview With Our Cover Artist, Bo Joseph
Matthew Weinstein: How did you come to be connected with NYU Langone and ultimately BLR?
Bo Joseph: I became connected to NYU Langone when my wife Simone was diagnosed with breast cancer and had the great fortune to find Dr. Guth and Dr. Oratz there, who she chose to manage her treatment. We forged very strong personal bonds with everyone at NYU Langone who cared for her, especially Dr. Oratz, who introduced me to BLR and invited me to include my work in this issue.
MW: I wrote this about your work.
'I see Joseph as expressing a Vintage Optimism. Here is what I mean by this: History is within us, not outside us. We think that we own traces of it. We don't. All traces are as ephemeral as the traces we leave just by moving about in our daily lives. But is it so terrible that we can't control our own histories? Is it so terrible that they are always dissolving into the present? ... The optimism that I am describing is not the opposite of pessimism. ... I am describing the optimism that optimism may be possible. After all, isn't all art, no matter how nihilistic, an act of optimism by its very nature? Joseph’s traces of process suggest that maybe, just maybe, all of this may matter.’
If you agree that this is a quality of your work, did it serve you during Simone’s illness not just as a coping mechanism for being strong while someone you love is suffering, but also within your work? Can this very fragile sense of purpose sustain one’s daily practice in times like these, or is it purely habitual?
BJ: I certainly agree this is a quality in my work, and the fact that it is apparent in my work is gratifying. I have always thought that to make art one must maintain a certain amount of optimism, if only because the outcome of art making involves so many unknowns, how the final piece will be resolved, the behavior of materials, if the intent will carry through in the final work, etc. But in my work, that element of optimism is central to my thinking, mingled into the content and intent: I mine and mirror the frenetic discord throughout history, specifically seeking commonalities among disparate, often extinct ideologies, looking for evidence of interdependence and mutuality.
During Simone’s illness, this optimism played a large role in getting into the studio at all, in finding the motivation to lift out of despondency and go make marks, despite how trivial it seemed in light of her condition. There were days when she was resting that I could do little to help, and though I felt conflicted doing so, she and I agreed that getting into the studio at those times would be good for me, and good for her. It was good for me to use the time in the studio to both process and take breaks from the confrontation of her illness, and good for her in that it made her feel a little better emotionally knowing that her illness was only debilitating her and not both of us.
MW: Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor was very meaningful to people during the AIDS crisis because it explained how illness becomes associated with character, and how this association is used to shame the sick from without, and gets internalized as well. Like AIDS, breast cancer is a disease that is highly stigmatized. Of course, this makes the connection between art and disease very tricky. How does your recent work reflect Simone’s struggle, bearing this in mind?
BJ: While I do not deal directly with questions of social justice in my work, I have always felt that my intuitive methodology incorporates my values and beliefs to a large degree, and my many concerns about our troubled world. Many of the references in my work are sourced in part because of their status, marginal or celebrated because of often nefarious factors from colonial expansion and enslavement, to commodification and trends among connoisseurs and experts. Mingled in this are questions of ethics, both social and my own. My experience of her illness did trickle into the work, intuitively at first. It became clearer to me that our day-to-day experience coping with her illness, and my deep empathy for Simone’s struggle, were coming into the work in unexpected ways. How could it not when I often found my self suddenly well up with tears in the midst of drawing or painting, with no clear trigger at the moment, but from a build up of stress and sorrow? The connection to that state of mind became very vivid at one moment while I was working on a large drawing that includes a silhouette of Simone standing under an umbrella on a plaza in Prague, surrounded by layers of superimposed architecture and bird forms. I recalled a term her therapist used psychic noise to describe the psychological effects of being consumed and distracted by nagging stress and existential pressure, a knot of noise leaving only a small capacity of psychic space within which to function. Ultimately, I titled that work, and the exhibition it was included in in the Fall of 2016, A Season of Psychic Noise, in recognition of the effects of her illness on both of us. It is not as objective or articulate as Sontag, but I think it reflects the tangle of emotions Simone and I both experienced, and continue to experience, around her illness. In some portion, maybe she and I both pushed my studio practice as a kind of personal protest against all the sacrifices that disease can cause.
MW: You both love art and you both love each other. Since the advantages of human love need not be explained in relation to coping with enormous suffering, it is curious that the love of objects can help. What is the power that objects contain? Since your work is very much about this question, and you believe in the talismanic power of objects, how does the love of objects play out when life gets unbearable.
BJ: Love of objects and the energy they exude or transfer can, at its most superficial, provide a healthy distraction, and at its most profound, provide emotional and spiritual nourishment. One obstacle is that confrontation with suffering brings a lot into question, not the least of which is the value of material things. At moments, all the magical things we live with, the art by people we know and respect, the tribal art and functional design, lost all meaning in the face of Simone’s diagnosis. So much we invest in on a day-to-day basis suddenly seemed trivial and insignificant. But then over time, as you get some perspective and begin the painful but proactive effort of treatment and recovery, these touchstones begin to regain meaning as they are woven into our lives and our psyches.
MW: Making art in a serious way brings one very close to finality as we, even if we don’t admit it, are making objects for perpetuity. This is of course driven by the absurd ego of the artist, and not historical altruism. This ambition also turns art making into a fundamentally melancholy process. When faced with the tragedy of illness while preparing for a show, did artistic ambition (both creative and practical) become more absurd or more meaningful?
BJ: It often felt absurd, even offensive, to be making art. But going back to the question of optimism and even activism, we both felt that without it, Simone’s illness would somehow be getting the better of us both, impairing what she and I both consider to be, at its purist level, a sacred endeavor. We also have both invested so much of our lives into my ambitions as an artist, and we did not want to see those ambitions defeated. I think that element of choice helps to cope with the question of finality or mortality, and coping with that question while making art means that question is infused within those works, maybe, hopefully, embedding a sense of imperative accessible to the audience that allows the works to fully register.
MW: We have just entered a very cruel period in this country. Simone has just endured a very cruel period of her life. Can art combat cruelty without trying to be empathic? Can a process such as yours, which involves the near destruction of the object, help heal even though it mimics surgery? What I am asking is, can art help without even trying? Can we partly rely on its status as art, and the communal and personal experiences it affords us, to see it as a generative force? Also, on the topic of cruelty, there is an innate cruelty to art and literature in that they cannibalize any information or experience they need in order to take form. This process exists mostly outside of morality as it is ‘just art.’ But in this interview, we are discussing real physical cruelty in terms of art. For me it has a tinge of amorality. How about you?
BJ: I think artists are innately empathic to the extent that they nurture the capacity to analyze and process their surroundings, even if they are cruel (sometimes famously) in their social behavior. Even while “cannibalizing” information as you put it, an artist is simultaneously relating to that information and resonating with it in order to process it. If that act of circumventing the self, of putting aside filters in order to perceive vividly, is deliberately incorporated into the work, then I do feel that art can help without even trying because that act assimilated into the work is then accessible to the viewer. I would go so far as to say that even if the viewer does not make the effort to circumvent their own filters, that art can still register, however slightly, and make some minute change in them. The choice making of an artist may be amoral, and maybe needs to be so that there is some ebb toward objectivity, but the application of those choices, the execution and implementation of their values in the making of work of art, enters into questions of ethics. Even if it is to intentionally deny, defy or even sabotage codes, that act establishes new codes. Even an artist embracing cruelty in their work still leaves an object that invites questions and reflection, the contemplation of which is a kind of antidote in itself.