Sunday, November 11, 2007

Joseph Cornell: Celestial Navigator

The Navigating the Imagination, the exhibition of Joseph Cornell's work at the SF Museum of Modern Art is a fantastic experience. Cornell had an omnivorous interest in almost everything - Victoriana, French literature, fairy tales and mythology, the sea, ships, astronomy and the constellations, maps and navigation, nature (especially parrots), ballerinas and film stars, childhood, games of chance, clockwork, mathematics, physics, geometry, architecture - pretty much everything except the internal combustion engine. But he combined this breadth of fancy with a monomaniacal artistic expression: collage and three-dimensional assemblages.

Unlike other artists who experimented with collage as one technique among many Cornell never painted, drew or sculpted. Assembling snippets of pictures, text and objets trouves was all he ever did. This lends the exhibition a repetitive quality which might not be to everybody's taste: if you don't like the works in the first room you might as well skip straight to the exit.

The collages are well-executed: witty, sad, poetical even whimsical. Some of his work bears a resemblance to the collages of other artists (especially Max Ernst, because of his extensive use of Victorian engravings ). The difference is that Cornell was not interested in sensationalising or shocking the viewer. He preferred to create imaginary worlds by drawing connections between apparently unrelated things. There is no political or social commentary in any of the works. They are more like a child's dreams (except for some mildly saucy female nudes in a few of his later pictures).

The boxes are a real revelation. Pictorial representations inevitably flatten them; on the printed page they might just as well be collages too. You have to see them in real life to appreciate Cornell's skill in building up layers and using perspective. Some of the boxes have removable parts or working mechanisms (obviously we're not allowed to actually handle any of them). Some of the works are terribly sad in an undefinable way. One box consists of a grid of shelves, each one holding an identical clear glass bottle containing a small blue marble; it's called An Image For Two Emil(y)ies. Other boxes are genuine amusing. Pantry Ballet (for Jacques Offenbach) features a chorus line of bright red lobsters in gauze tutus.

The texts in the works are surrealistic but coherent. One work, Museum consists of a box of small glass bottles filled with an assortment of things. On the lid of the box is a list of its contents:
Watchmaker's sweepings - Juggling act - Souvenir of Monte Carlo - Chimney sweeper's relic - Thousand & One Nights - Mayan Feathers - White landscape - From the golden temple of Dobayba (conquistador) - Sailors' game - Venetian map - Mouse material

A woman next to me commented to her companion that Cornell must have had a lot of fun building these boxes. I don't think that's the case at all. The finished products are playful, because they often refer to games and toys and his themes are the enthusiasms of a child. But they are beautiful because Cornell had an adult's eye for composition. They are resonant because they are filled with an adult's longing for the certainties and comforts of childhood. And the compulsion to produce these boxes, the obsessive collecting and organising of materials to put in them, that's plain scary and sad.

The exhibition as a whole is melancholic. It's the same feeling we get from looking at ancient ruins. The older works with faded colours and acquired patina are more sympathetic than the more recent stuff. Cornell resisted the relevance of biography in the assessment of an artist's work. Perhaps he feared what his work might say about his own life.



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