Saturday 18 July 2015

Shadow Boxes - Celia Rees

I've always been fascinated by Wunderkammer, Cabinets of Curiosities, things in boxes, the stranger the better, so I was delighted to hear about Joseph Cornell's Wanderlust Exhibition at the Royal Academy .

A Parrot for Juan Gris 
Winter 1953-54

Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York, Christmas Eve, 1903. He rarely stirred out of his native state but his art took him to far distant places. He didn't set out to be an artist, yet his work can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Guggenheim, the Smithsonian and museums all over the world. He began as an obsessive collector. He wandered the streets of New York in his lunch hour, haunting the second hand shops, dime stores and flea markets collecting old books, prints, photographs, keepsakes and odd bits and pieces from clay pipes to watch springs. On day, in 1931, he went into a gallery looking for a particular photograph and stumbled into an exhibition of surrealism. He was instantly attracted to the collages of Max Ernst and began making his own assemblages of images at his kitchen table. Gradually, he developed the glass fronted 'shadow box', boxed assemblages of found objects, which became his art form. 

Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945

His collections of found objects and ephemera allowed him to travel and explore realms of the imagination and creativity without ever leaving his basement in Queens. He became an 'armchair voyager', creating little worlds and stories captured in boxes, caught behind glass. He used maps and postage stamps, timetables and hotel advertisements, postcards and photographs, Baedeker guides and compasses. The viewer is drawn into an evocative world of distant exotic places, but they are places that never existed, realms of the imagination, something akin to fairyland. I think this is why I find his creations so fascinating. 

Pharmacy, 1943

Cornell was admired by many of his contemporaries - from the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp to Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. His influence can be seen in the work of later artists, like Peter Blake and Damien Hirst. 

Naples, 1942

Cornell's shadow boxes speak to me in a particular way. I find them inspirational and exciting, a visual expression of something familiar yet oddly disturbing. When we write anything, particularly when we write of the past, of places that can no longer be seen or visited, it is as though we are doing the same thing as Joseph Cornell but in words. The found objects, the printed ephemera of a particular time, pictures, postcards, paintings and photographs are the kinds of things we collect when we are writing. An exhibition like this makes me want to create my own shadow boxes made from the visual reference I've used to create a particular book. Perhaps I will one day. 

Untitled (Tilly Losch),  c. 1935. 


Penny Dolan said...

Fascinating is indeed the word for these boxes, and the idea of constructing one of these boxes. I did not know this was on in London right now. Thanks.

Celia Rees said...

I'm going to make a box and blog about it, Penny. Maybe we all should.

E15 kids said...

Really enjoyed the Cornell exhibition today. When my kids were smaller we bought them a book called 'Joseph Cornell: Secrets in a Box' and so I thought I knew something about him. But I had no idea about his links to other artists, for example. Some of the work - particularly his creation of Berenice - reminded me of the textile work of the quilt maker Natasha Kerr who also creates visual fictional pasts

Best wishes,

Joan Keating

adele said...

Thanks, Celia for this! Joan K is a friend of mine and between the two of you, you've made me very keen to see this! And longing to see your boxes!

Celia Rees said...

You'll love it, Adele. Do go next time you are in London and let me know what you think. I really like the idea of 'visual fictions' and would love to make some myself.

Janie Hampton said...

When I was a child we used to make scenes in shoe boxes. The viewer peered through a small hole at one end, into a life-size world. Maybe my older sister who was studying theatre design introduced the idea to her younger siblings? I loved making them, but never realised it was Art.