Shadowed Realms of Wonder
FOR most of his life, the artist Joseph Cornell was an ``enchanted wanderer'' through Manhattan's diverse and stimulating environs. He extracted objects and images from New York's densely layered cultural casserole. His art in turn was nurtured by his continual journeys into this magical island city so near his various homes in the blander areas of Long Island, Nyatt, and Bayside. Like a child who is carried away into a fantasy realm, Cornell was propelled by New York's catalog of artifacts and experiences into a personal visual sphere. Here the collected fragments coalesced and released his interior song.
Having no formal art training, Cornell found a visual education at hand in Manhattan. He discovered in its operas, ballets, films, museums, windows, secondhand bookstores, arcades, automats, and Times Square souvenir shops the stimuli for his art.
In most of these influences perception was framed: focused in a window, set on a stage, or contained on a page, in a box, or on a screen. At the same time, the viewer was released into realms of play and pleasure; embarked on imaginative journeys with no known boundaries; or was embraced in isolated domains of beauty. These ideas became integral components of Cornell's artistic perception.
Sifting through New York's flotsam, Cornell culled everyday objects and cultural curios from it and then transformed them into eloquent visual metaphors. In choosing collage and assemblage as his media he vaulted over his lack of art training and depended on his apt collector's sensibility for selecting and arranging his hoard of artifacts.
He pieced the ordinary - balls, bottles, birds, rings, rods, sprung springs, maps, mirrors, marbles, charts, cutouts, pipes, pages, photos, stamps, stars, glass, and nails - into unique poetic combinations.
Cornell's loved objects are usually encased, enshrined, in small boxes where they suggest participation in performance, a journey, or motion.
The viewer is transported into an intimate enclosure where he mingles momentarily with the mundane before he journeys to a remote, intangible space impalpable to the senses.
His boxes often have moveable parts. A sense of play is always close at hand. His boxes often echo the arcade game boxed as a cultural vending machine. There is often whimsy and humor in his juxtaposition of objects and a joyful recall of toys and childhood's treasured relics secured in a box.
His eventual exploration of film was a natural extension of his fascination with motion and the sense of journey found in his still boxes. This interest finally lead him to making collage films and to collaborations with filmmakers Stan Brakhage, Larry Jordan, and Rudy Burckhardt. However, his films were as silent as his boxes, `` ... free from the empty roar of a soundtrack,'' and centered on the evocative flow of visual images.
It is easy to see the references to film in Cornell's ``Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall.'' Here he has enshrined a photo of the alluring film star.
Bacall peers out evocatively from behind a grid-marked glass in the center of the box. Her inaccessibility is accented again as she recedes behind ultramarine-tinted glass in two smaller squares on either side of a framed mirror below.
The box's midnight blue suggests the intimate environs of a darkened theater with the screen as its focal point. Individual film frames/windows are suggested by the two side panels of blue-black blocks where Bacall's image is oddly juxtaposed with photos of a dog and herself as a child which reinforce her remoteness. Jump cutting is evoked by a series of framed skyscraper postcards at the top. In the midst of stillness, Cornell infers motion.
At the same time, Cornell's sense of play is the backdrop for this game box. The rolls of circular apertures at the top show gears and wire suggesting the box's inner workings. Hidden are the glass ramps on which the red ball can run its course to the mirrored compartment at the bottom of the box.
Many of these same elements are essentials in his series of portrait boxes using photos of Bronzino's Medici portraits. These elegant constructions are some of the most hauntingly beautiful visions in contemporary art.
For the traveler, the hotel room is a secluded and welcoming domain. It becomes a migratory stop where time is evoked as well as suspended. A place of disengagement and of rejuvenation. Cornell's series of hotel boxes calls up these responses. In these boxes a bird often becomes the metaphor for man as voyager or for the artist himself. Like the bird, Cornell's flights from home were eager, expectant forages through Manhattan's streets for nourishing fare.
IN ``Hotel Bon Port (Ann in Memory),'' the perch before a mirror fragment is empty. The missing bird has perhaps taken flight, its motion traced to the sprung spring at the top before it escaped through one of the small blue holes on the opposite yellow wall.
The room's white-washed walls scumbled with traces of color look weathered. In this box, as in others in his ``Hotel'' series, Cornell has used a hotel ad and postage stamps to simulate the urban wall plastered with posters. With a few components he suggests an ambiguous beyond that transcends the commonplace fragments and location used to describe it.
Cornell's boxes are often more game-oriented, as in ``Untitled.'' This work could easily be called ``Homage to the Sphere.'' It suggests a game being played within a box covered with book pages. It's an arcade amusement without a payoff in which Cassiopeia (on the out-of-sight panel) observes, calculates, or supervises the movement of the spheres. Like most of his boxes, the balances between elements is elegant while the box itself has the cruder patina of a knocked-about relic.
Cornell began to feel alienated by the Manhattan that began to evolve after the '40s. Many of his favorite haunts began to disappear. His journeys became less frequent and satisfying. His trips into his loved habitat may have altered, but his sense of the imagination's infinite capacity to experience realms of wonder altered little.