Portland, Oregon, U.S.A – In every piece of artist Joe Bun Keo’s work, there’s a detail that adds deep meaning. Seemingly meaningless objects are used as physical metaphors for current issues.
“I mine and extract objects from my family’s possession, history, you know, traumatic experiences, dreams…” said Keo. “What I do is, I believe that objects inherently are loaded with stories. They have narratives.”
Objects, according to Keo, are more than they appear on their face.
Keo is a Connecticut-based artist who isn’t afraid to speak the truth.
As a high school student in Bristol, Connecticut, Keo started as a cartoonist and reporter for Youth Journalism International, drawing humorous and serious cartoons about local, national and global issues and writing local stories.
Keo’s work evolved from his early political cartoons that gave him the confidence to “go with his gut” to the art he does today: striking sculptures made of found objects.
As he finds sublime details that communicate a narrative of pain management, healing, and creating a “bridge” between the younger and older generations, Keo seeks to make his audience interact with his work.
Keo earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon this summer. As part of his MFA thesis, he created an exhibit, can’t drown my demons, they know how to swim, that was on display at the college.
In his piece “debris field,” Keo installed rainbow sprinkles, msg, and uncooked rice onto the floor.
In an interview with Youth Journalism International inside the Portland exhibit, Keo explained that each material used represented a concept regarding Asian-American identity.
“You come to an art space expecting things on the wall, on the pedestal,” Keo said. “So the way I work is, I want to subvert that. Install the work in a way that you don’t expect. So that you have to wonder why and be inquisitive.”
So Keo doesn’t want visitors to a gallery where his sculptures are on exhibit to simply look at the art.
“It requires that work,” he said. “I want you to work on understanding. If you’re intrigued and curious enough, you will initiate that investigation.”
Hung across the walls is his piece named “on the line, online, inline, between the lines, and offline.”
Each black hoodie, made by other Cambodian-American artists, is bleached and hung onto the laundry line hanging on the walls.
The bleaching, Keo said, represents whitewashing. He adds that the term Asian-American is “vague” because it doesn’t distinguish between different Asian ethnicities.
On his Instagram page, @joebunkeo, a short description below the artwork reads, “MATERIALS: clothesline, various bleached shirts from Cambodian American brands (Khmer Ninjas, Middle Child Workshop, Kat Eng, Yeak, Inc., Red Scarf Revolution), wooden clothespins, hooks.”
“This work is just also using that idea of airing out your dirty laundry,” Keo explained, looking towards the laundry line. “This investigative, research-based, process requires putting yourself out there, wearing these shirts as a way of pride by also realizing that not everyone will understand what it is.”
Another piece in the Portland show named “aspartame (as part of me)” explores his relationship with pain as he uses a wrapping from a can of Diet Coke to spell his own name.
At first glance, it appears innocent, but there’s a conflict hidden inside the work. The wrapping spells DIEKEONO.
Keo said that although he’s “putting something in his body that will eventually kill me,” he’s still “fueled by it at the same time.”
The statement sounds like a reflection of trauma in an act of managing one’s pain. Taking something that will hurt you – and yet still feeling energized by it. And it could only be found in the smallest of details.
“I think the best communication is visually, because often when you look at language and text, they’re visual,” Keo said. “You know, beyond the alphanumeric symbolism of language, when you look at an object, it speaks its images, its aesthetic — it’s made, it’s composed, it’s the colors, the shape, the form… and that’s so powerful.
“And it’s all around us. When I stop at a stop sign, it’s not just a stop sign, you look at it like, huh? How high does that stop sign have to be? And what kind of metal is it made of? And why is it a reflective surface? And who decided to put the white border on it? And who decided the font?
“It’s so many aesthetic decisions that you can’t deny that everything has a composition, everything has an aesthetic, so I believe everything around is art.”
Above left: The piece is named “impostor syndrome.” It represents the struggles Joe faces as a Cambodian-American trying to connect with his culture. Keo described the meaning of the piece as “trying my best to adhere and appease an older generation, but I know my limits and have no other options”. Above right: The piece ‘She Lo Go Mein’ by Joe Bun Keo. It represents how products that are marketed towards the Asian community don’t understand the diaspora. (Dana Kim/YJI)
As a viewer looks closer and tries to interact with each piece of Keo’s artwork, another piece of the narrative he is trying to tell appears. The materials tell the story, and the story is told through the materials.
It’s not telling you to look simply at the exterior of the object. It’s asking you to find a story in how it’s made.
When asked about what advice he has for young artists, Keo said it’s important to be dedicated to the artwork, and to find supportive people who will help along the way.
“It’s about taking risks and that’s not always easy,” he said, “you have to consider your family and your finances, but at the end of the day, you have to find a way to make the work that you’re compelled to make.”
The artist, according to Keo, will find the people who believe in them and who will be of help.
“You know, it’s not easy, but there are people out there that will provide advice, community, and support,” said Keo. “It’s a matter of finding your community.”
Some of Keo’s work is now on display in a group show in Brescia, Italy. That exhibit, Dog, No Leash, runs until Nov. 1.
Dana Kim is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.