Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust

Throughout the twentieth century, in a New York basement, a man who would have been lost in the crowds of a busy city like the Big Apple, went on the kind of adventures great dreams are made of. His name was Joseph Cornell and today he is celebrated for being one of the most original artists of the twentieth century, a pioneer of assemblage.
He was self-taught, evolving by chance – or fate if you prefer – into the imaginative artist we know him to be through his principal hobby of collecting. He was fascinated by nothing in particular. He just liked things, the story behind them, irrespective of how little monetary value they held.
As Deborah Solomon, art critic of WNYC Public Radio in New York, wrote in May for RA Magazine ahead of a major exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, “he was not collecting what are usually defined as collectibles – objects distinguished by their beauty or rarity or historical importance”.
Instead, Cornell “attached the highest value to objects of little or no intrinsic worth”. She continued: “I emphasise his inexpensive materials because a cursory glance at Cornell’s boxes could lead you to think that he was constructing reliquaries for coveted possessions, when in fact his talent lay in alchemising commonly discarded objects into a visually compelling state of being.”
The new show, thoughtfully titled Wanderlust, allows us to step into his weird and wonderful world and, moreover, journey into and across landscapes that we sometimes wished existed. The world may be full of exotic destinations, full of natural and manmade wonders, but often, it’s the fantastical we’re after (art offers us more than is otherwise).
Which is what Cornell ultimately sought. Wanderlust is defined as being “a strong desire to travel” and indeed, as the Royal Academy seeks to discuss, the artist was, despite his reclusiveness and reticence to see the real world beyond his New York sanctuary, “fascinated by travel”.
However, for him, this wasn’t necessarily to his detriment – although travelling would certainly have opened his eyes – it was just as real to get onboard an imaginary train to somewhere quite extraordinary. It mattered little whether it was imaged or whether he dreamed it. The experience of it, the emotiveness of the memory, that’s what was real.
This exhibition, says the Royal Academy, “is a long overdue celebration of an incomparable artist”, adding, courtesy of a quote from the New York Times, that Cornell was “a poet of light; an architect of memory-fractured rooms and a connoisseur of stars, celestial and otherwise”.
The show is made up of 80 of his memorable shadow boxes, assemblages, collages and films, some of which have never before been seen outside of the US. It is a huge exhibition, the biggest in the UK for close to 35 years, and quite out of this world. In the words of the exhibition’s curator: “[The] boxes [in particular] allowed Cornell a structure to frame many poetic connections between disparate times, subjects and places that he sensed in the world.
“Given the extent of his collection, each of his shadow boxes is a major feat of distillation. Within the imaginary space of the box, objects take on metaphorical meanings.”
Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust at the Royal Academy of Arts in London runs until September 27th, 2015.
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