Recently, the artist Carol Bove has been driving around in her royal blue 1993 Ford pickup with a laminated copy of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the mystical Hebrew diagram of God’s creation of the world, on the seat beside her. “I’m trying to memorize it,” Bove says, adding that she has been reading up on the ancient Greek concept of “artificial memory,” a practice that prescribed mapping images and text onto physical space. To that end, Bove has come to think of her studio as Kether, the apex of the tree, and her house as Malkuth, the base of the tree’s trunk. “Actually, it’s the house two doors down from me,” she says, correcting herself. (In one of those random coincidences that the universe occasionally offers up like a gift, it turns out a guy on her block has a record label called Malkuth.) Red Hook, the industrial waterside neighborhood of Brooklyn where Bove has lived and worked for more than a decade, is the Tree.
Bove’s work, which occupies the narrow, and sometimes precarious, space between sculpture and installation, is steeped in spiritualism and the pop mysticism of the ’60s and ’70s. Bove, 41, grew up in Berkeley, California, and many of her culturally dense, sculptural installations have featured the kinds of vintage paperbacks that were no doubt a dime a dozen in the bookshops on Telegraph Avenue. A little familiarity with, say, the writings of occultist Israel Regardie could go a long way in helping you wrap your head around a piece like Bove’s 2007 tableau Easter Everywhere.
But her work is also very much a product of place. When she and her husband, the artist Gordon Terry, bought the creaky white clapboard house at the end of Coffey Street in 2000, Bove had just graduated from New York University with a degree in studio art, and Red Hook was not yet the creative enclave it has become in the past few years. Walking down the potholed cobblestone streets, you were more likely to encounter a pack of wild dogs than an assistant to Urs Fischer, who now has two studios in the neighborhood. Bove was attracted to Red Hook, she says, precisely because it was so inhospitable. “There is something nice about that sense of danger,” she says.
Since then, a lot of artists have moved there, no doubt attracted by its apparent remoteness (Red Hook is cut off from genteel Brooklyn by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, but it’s just a 10-minute drive from downtown Manhattan) and its abundance of large and relatively cheap studio space. Bove’s connection to the area is more complicated: “Something critical in my art relies upon this place,” she says.
Once settled on Coffey Street, Bove began taking daily excursions from her house down to the water’s edge to look for whatever junk had washed up on the shore. It was a familiar impulse, one that she recognized from her teenage years, when she discovered the work of California junk-assemblage artists like Bruce Conner and Ed Kienholz—and also one she tried hard to suppress. “It seemed very immature, something I would do in high school,” she says. “But there was a point when I pulled some kind of driftwood out of the water and thought, Well, maybe I can do that.”