Artist Joseph Havel Shares Processes, Inspiration for New Bronze Works
Asia Society at Home
HOUSTON, September 21, 2020 — Renowned artist Joseph Havel joined Asia Society Texas Center for a virtual talk and studio tour in celebration of the opening of the new exhibition Joss. The exhibition is in response to Eternal Offerings: Ritual Chinese Bronzes, on special loan from the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Through the hour-long conversation with Nancy C. Allen Curator and Director of Exhibitions Bridget Bray, Havel shared the technical processes and concepts behind his work as well as how his bronzes compare to the ancient material on view in Asia Society's second-floor Sarofim Gallery.
When considering his response to the early bronzes, the inherent contrasts in the ancient Chinese vessels intrigued the artist — the delicacy present on the surface versus the thickness of the material in the body. He noted in particular that one of the differences between the Chinese bronzes and his work was due in large part to the development of new techniques that allow him to work with metal heated up to a higher temperature.
To create his bronzes, Havel works in partnership with Ken King’s foundry in Houston. Havel initially develops a sculptural piece out of a variety of materials — for example, much of his work for this exhibition centers around joss paper, or spirit money used in Chinese ancestral worship. To translate these materials into bronze, he creates a ceramic shell around the piece, cutting the work into sections and adding channels to allow the bronze to be poured into the mold (burning out the material inside) and for displaced air to flow out. The pieces are then reassembled, joined together often by welding, and Havel applies the patinas to the reconfigured object. Working in tandem with the foundry allows for Havel to plan how the work will appear, but to build room into the process for unpredictability — the material translation can alter the pieces in ways the artist cannot fully control.
Havel juxtaposed this process with what would have been used to create the Chinese vessels. While they would similarly have been made using a ceramic mold (with a center form to preserve their hollow interiors), the pieces would be cast upside down and the bronze poured through openings in the bottom or feet of the vessels. The artist noted that one of the remarkable things about the Chinese bronzes is how tight the molds would have been, as the pieces being exhibited show almost no discernable flanges where the mold’s sections would have come together.
Havel’s research into the joss paper centering this new series of work comes from his time spent in San Francisco, where he lives close to the city’s historic Chinatown. In much of his practice, Havel explores how community affects one’s sense of geography and how cultural information translates imperfectly between individuals. He visits a store called the Exquisite Buddha, which sells joss paper and items made from paper for burning in ceremonial use. He gravitated to the use of this paper as it is meant to be burned as an offering to one’s ancestors — and he would have to burn the paper in the process of creating these works.
Havel’s African grey parrot, Hannah, was patiently perched on his shoulder for the duration of the studio visit. She helped to develop several of the pieces in this exhibition in partnership with Havel, and in the 20-plus years the artist has spent caring for the bird, the two have forged a special bond. Parrots have an instinctual chewing behavior, and over the years, as the artist provided materials for Hannah to chew, he realized she was doing so in part in response to his feedback. Havel developed an empathetic exchange with her, as he provided wood or cardboard materials which she would chew and modify, and which he would then assemble and transform into bronze with the help of the foundry team. He noted he finds this position as a translator between different creative energies has opened up a world of ways for him to think about his work, and though he continues to experiment in many forms, the two have been creating pieces together for about six years now.
Business and Policy programs are endowed by Huffington Foundation. We give special thanks to Bank of America, Muffet Blake, Anne and Albert Chao, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Nancy Pollok Guinee, and United Airlines, Presenting Sponsors of Business and Policy programs; Nancy C. Allen, Chinhui Juhn and Eddie Allen, and Leslie and Brad Bucher, Presenting Sponsors of Exhibitions; Dr. Ellen R. Gritz and Milton D. Rosenau, Presenting Sponsors of Performing Arts and Culture; Wells Fargo, Presenting Sponsor of Education & Outreach; and Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas), Presenting Sponsor of the Japan Series. General support of programs and exhibitions is provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Hearst Foundation, Inc., Houston Endowment, Inc., the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance, McKinsey & Company, Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, Vinson & Elkins LLP, and Mary Lawrence Porter, as well as Friends of Asia Society.
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With 13 locations throughout the world, Asia Society is the leading educational organization promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among the peoples, leaders, and institutions of Asia and West. Asia Society Texas Center executes the global mission with a local focus, enriching and engaging the vast diversity of Houston through innovative, relevant programs in arts and culture, business and policy, education, and community outreach.
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