I LOVE BOXES. I vaguely remember constructing dioramas in shoeboxes in elementary school: You positioned tiny cut-out figures inside, closed the top, and peeked through one end at the scene you had created. I also have a fondness for paper dolls, even though the kind I played with—featuring nearly forgotten movie stars of the 1950s like Ann Blyth, Rhonda Fleming, and Piper Laurie, their wardrobes attached with little tabs—were sadly prefabricated. Joseph Cornell reminds me of both these childhood occupations, but shaken and stirred by his characteristically surreal, romantic dreams.
Looking at three of Cornell’s enigmatic boxes in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection the other day, I was struck by how these amalgams of the weird, intricate, eccentric, and beautiful might be seen as miniaturized forebears of today’s art installations. They draw you into small, many-layered kingdoms, and they repay a good few minutes of absorbed viewing.
One, called Setting for a Fairy Tale, is simply the façade of a palace, faintly pink, backed by bare winter trees, and populated by a few silhouetted figures. It’s theatrical, like something you’d see in The Nutcracker before the curtain turns translucent and you are able to glimpse the Christmas party going on inside. It is poised for the story to begin; it is about what hasn’t happened yet. The second, Swiss Shoot the Chutes, offers a map (probably Switzerland) punctuated with holes of different sizes filled with images of Alps, cows, mountaineers, skiers,Little Red Riding Hood, dancers of the romantic era (Cornell loved ballet, which endears him to me even more). These mingle unsystematically but somehow convincingly. The third, Untitled (Pharmacy), is an example of Cornell’s cupboards of old-fashioned glass medicine bottles, filled with shells, stones, feathers, architectural drawings, and mysterious colored or gold substances. Behind them (if you look closely) you can see half-hidden bells, another of the artist’s themes. (You can view these images online—which flattens them, but gives you the general idea—at www.guggenheim-venice.it; search for the boxes by name.)
I find Cornell’s vision not only seductive, but inspiring—by which I mean that it appears that almost any hobbyist schnook like me could cut out paper and collect random findings and create a collage or construct of this sort. Not true, of course; there is something about the sincerity and insularity of Cornell’s perspective (he was practically a hermit; Utopia Parkway, an excellent biography by Deborah Solomon, tells his strange story) that makes it uniquely satisfying.
And yet, stubbornly, I was determined. I got some decorative paper around the corner (this is Venice), picked up my scissors, and set to work. I also used whatever scraps—brochures, museum tickets—I had lying around; Cornell-type craft has the additional appeal of turning potential trash into something beautiful.
So far, what I’ve done is merely pretty: a pear, a princess. I would like to add some texture and edge by bringing in things like odd buttons, broken jewelry, ribbon, pressed flowers and leaves, written words, faded photographs–stuff that I have at home but not in this rented apartment. So now I’m on the hunt for throw-outs and giveaways, the outdated and the unmatched. You just have to collect, and see what happens. “Everything can be used but of course one doesn’t know it at the time,” Cornell once said. “How does one know what a certain object will tell another?”
This “conversation” among objects entrances me. I want to join in.