Much has been written about Joseph Cornell’s work, but for me it can be summed up by saying that his boxes created worlds that we are invited into. Their small size makes them intimate experiences, and we involuntarily shrink to fit into his universe.
In a gallery handout1 for “Utopia Parkway Revisited: Contemporary Artists in Joseph Cornell’s Shadow” at Thunder-Sky, Inc.,2 Keith Banner, co-founder, explained Cornell’s “overarching obsession (was) to find meaning in what is already in front of you, as if a junk drawer in your kitchen is a primal resource for reinvention and even transcendence, every little doodad and left-behind nothing a reason to daydream, to travel while remaining still.”
The five artists in “Utopia Parkway Revisited” — Jeff Castro, Marc Lambert,
Matthew Waldeck Sr.,
and Matthew Waldeck Jr. — were selected because, as Banner explains, “They all make work that both mimics Cornell’s approach (collage, sculpture, assemblage, and appropriation), as well as the spirit involved in his vision, creating and recreating an aesthetic universe based in nostalgia, obsession, and pop culture.”
Banner sees Jeff Castro’s work as “closest in spirit and materials to Cornell’s boxes, but he also has his own sense of deadpan whimsy and ache, as if he’s taken in Cornell’s need to make something out of nothing and pushed resources and dreaming to their limits.”
In Cataloger, Castro uses what I take to be a wooden drawer for type and filled the individual compartments with perfectly scaled objects, some liberated from a kid’s toy chest, including a plastic baby doll, marbles, a jack, and the bent leg of an action figure. A smiley face, a couple of dogs sitting obediently, a tiny lock, a miniature dreidel, a snail shell next to a hypnotist’s trance-inducing spinning spiral, and more fill the cubby-holes. Castro may have invented a taxonomy of sorts, as the title suggests. It might be an interesting parlor game to try to sort out the categories, but far more satisfying to simply enjoy the juxtaposition of such disparate items.
Requiem for a Song is more straightforward with its taxidermied crow in a wooden box with “No Loitering” and “No Trespassing” stenciled on the sides. The crow shares the space with part of a skull, a three-dimensional block z with a picture of a zipper that could have been used to teach the alphabet to a child, a glass thingumajig that I remember from the crossbars of old electrical lines, a postcard of a lone Indian leaning against a telegraph pole, etc. The melancholy for what has been lost is palpable.
From cardboard and paper, Christian Schmit has meticulously fashioned pieces of furniture and other domestic items that are a bit larger than dollhouse-sized. He’s titled the work Confabulation, which Wikipedia (how did we survive BW – before Wikipedia?) explains is “a memory disturbance defined as the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive.” (I don’t know about you but sometimes I think I misremember more than I remember accurately. I have great sympathy for Brian Williams.)
Schmit’s bunched the individual pieces together, which might suggest they’re being stored in the attic, but it’s clear that they’re in use. For example, books are stacked on the seat of an armchair with a cup of coffee on an ottoman in front of it. Two drawers of a dresser are open to reveal a bundle of envelopes, perhaps someone’s love letters, tied with thread and stationery. This collection is presented on a wall-mounted shelf with a drawer opened to reveal tiny tools – a C-clamp, pegs, nuts, a book labeled “facts” – tools that Lilliputians could have used to construct the objects. Each object can evoke a memory, one that is real, embellished, or conjured entirely.630
Marc Lambert uses ceiling tiles as the support for his acrylic paintings, which are done in a style reminiscent of Henri Rousseau. They impart the effect of craquelure and, thus, age. The series title, “Unstuck in Time,” upends the concept of continuity as his subjects become time travelers in his mash-ups.
Multiple Sasquatches prowl among the pyramids. Dorothy and her pals approach a futuristic metropolis instead of the Emerald City. Two dinosaurs gleefully approach a missile in a lush jungle.
For Banner, Lambert and Matthew Waldeck Jr. share a “sense of longing for Utopian context.” Banner sees Waldeck Jr.’s childlike magic-marker-on paper drawings from the series “Myths, Legends, and Mysteries” as “function(ing) as a sort of illuminated manuscript informed by television, solitude, and a search for more than is there.”759
Matthew Waldeck Sr. began making art after his wife was diagnosed with cancer (she is now in remission). His Jen Blossoms on rebar stems were made for her. He’s presumably glued together glass (a metaphor for the fragility of life) plates, saucers, teacups, etc., which could have been found in junk shops or thrift stores, to create the flowers and set up his artistic modus operandi of repurposing found objects.
Banner describes Waldeck Sr.’s pieces as “funky, frenetic dioramas (and other) contraptions made from machine parts and other junk. They playfully reference space-travel, carnivals, and miniature civilizations, in a Cornellian flourish and flicker.”
In We’ve Got Trouble Now! Waldeck Sr. uses defunct laboratory equipment — a Type 53 Scope-mobile Panel, made by Tektronix, Inc., Portland, OR, with knobs labeled “Variable Volts/cm” and “Polarity Normal Inverted.” Mounted on top is a Healthkit Oscilloscope Model 10-4560. Like Jen Blossoms, Waldeck Sr.’s We’ve Got Trouble Now! may also have been inspired by his wife’s battle with cancer. Peering through a window, we see a barren landscape with a small Christmas tree, like those I remember from tabletop tableaux of my childhood, and several robot-like figures made of metal bits and bobs. What these pieces of equipment did or measured is mysterious and more than faintly disturbing.
The diversity of the work on view reinforces Banner’s observation that begins the gallery handout: “Joseph Cornell is one of those peripheral and yet totally important figures in contemporary art history who haunts and informs a lot of what is made and seen today.” I particularly like Banner’s choice of “haunts” to explain Cornell’s influence.
And I have one word to describe the works in the exhibition: wonder-full.
1 All quotes in this review are from that handout, in which Banner succinctly illuminates Cornell’s influence on these artists who have been “beautifully and incidentally Cornell-inspired work.”
2 Thunder-Sky Inc. is a nonprofit gallery devoted to work by Raymond Thunder-Sky1, the self-taught/outsider/primitif/naïf artist who wandered Cincinnati in his signature overalls and hard hat documenting construction sites.
“Utopia Parkway Revisited: Contemporary Artists in Joseph Cornell’s Shadow,” Thunder-Sky, Inc., 4573 Hamilton Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45223, (513) 426-0477, raymondthundersky.com. Closes April 9, 2016; open 1:00-4:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and by appointment.
–Karen S. Chambers