This past week I stepped into a miniature world: the world of Joseph Cornell, the world of boxed assemblages. Having never heard of him but curious about the small but complete worlds he made, I came out to learn about an artist and style that hadn’t crossed my path before.
The Art of Joseph Cornell was a community event hosted by a group of people at my artsy church, led by Shari-Anne Vis who is also one of the members of a bi-monthly arts group I am part of in Vancouver. We spent the first part of the evening learning about Joseph Cornell, a 20th century American pioneer of assemblage and filmmaking, followed by an hour of making a boxed assemblage of our very own, inspired by his work.
Shari introduced us to the ideas of Constructivism and Surrealism that lie behind Cornell’s projects. The boxes themselves are smaller than the photographs suggest–only a foot or so high and wide. They are filled with found objects—the old, the discarded yet still beautiful that, according to this website, were the result of trips to New York scouring old bookshops and thrift stores looking for souvenirs, old prints and photographs, trinkets, music scores, and French literature.
Shadow boxes become poetic theater or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime. The fragile, shimmering globules become the shimmering but more enduring planets—a connotation of moon and tides—the association of water less subtle, as when driftwood pieces make up a proscenium to set off the dazzling white of sea foam and billowy cloud crystallized in a pipe of fancy. – Joseph Cornell
Many of Cornell’s boxes have moveable parts, making them interactive, childlike, playful. Apparently for his last major exhibit, he installed his boxes at a child’s height and served soda and cake for the opening reception. Sounds like a cool guy. He often organized his boxes around a theme: the Aviary boxes, Pink Palace boxes, Space Object boxes, Pink Palace series, etc.
After the presentation, we discussed Cornell’s appeal and questions like Why work in miniature and 3-D? Some thoughts we came up with:
- feels more real, invites you in—especially if you can play with the pieces
- it’s less intimidating to look at and enter something small
- the juxtaposition of everyday objects in a confined space makes you consider the objects in new ways
- you have to look closely to catch all the details
- the boxes may be small, but they’re complete—whole worlds in themselves. You’re zooming in and zooming out at the same time
- when you’re forced to work in a box (literally), a surprising amount of creativity can flow from all the permutations that can happen. As another friend & artist says in this short documentary, “I think boundaries are really important to having a sense of creativity and freedom otherwise it’s too wide open. . . . If there is no frame and if there is no context, you’re left with nothing, and I think it’s pretty hard for people to create something out of nothing.”
So with those ideas nesting in our minds, we got to work for 60 minutes using the materials provided for us. I was astounded at the variety of assemblages people came up with out of the same materials and in such a short amount of time. Some really, really beautiful pieces I would hang in a house. I don’t classify mine in quite that same category, but the process of making it was tremendously fun, maybe worth more than the product. My shout-out to Cornell was the unglued pieces of the pine cone and almonds sitting in the petri dish that can be taken out, played with, rearranged. As someone at my table suggested, I could replace the almonds with small candies at Christmas time, like presents under a Christmas tree. Who knows? The possibilities are endless.