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Pandora's Box: Joseph Cornell Unlocks the Museum of Contemporary Art Collection
Gabriel Orozco, Socks 1, 1995. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

CHICAGO. IL.- This summer, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago presents Pandora's Box: Joseph Cornell Unlocks the MCA Collection from June 18 to October 16, 2011. Featuring a selection of rarely seen work by the beloved American master Joseph Cornell placed in direct dialogue with works from the MCA Collection, it aims to illuminate his continuing relevance and influence. The exhibition is grouped into ten distinct themes pulled from Cornell’s work, each given its own gallery: The Box as Altar, Feathered Fantasies, The Voyeur, Repetitions, Celestial Musings, A Reductive Language, Cut and Paste, Architecture and Art, The Lure of the Ocean, and Films.

The exhibition is curated by Michael Darling, MCA James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator, who says, “These connections and comparisons allow the visitor to glean fresh insights into Cornell's place in art history, and to see an artist they thought was familiar in an entirely new way. Cornell’s work today is an amazing precursor of what has come to characterize much of contemporary art. Modern life can be defined by the barrage of imagery and profusion of stuff, both of which Cornell harnessed in endlessly creative ways. Art as thoughtful and varied as Cornell’s is bound to be rediscovered and reinterpreted on the terms of each successive generation, and from our vantage point today it is as fresh and evocative as ever.”

Joseph Cornell (1903-72) was an American artist and sculptor who is one of the most celebrated figures in modern art. His signature works -- boxed assemblages made with precious objects that he found on trips to New York bookshops and thrift stores – combined the formal rigor of Constructivism with the fantasy of Surrealism. Considered an American Surrealist, he came on the scene later than his European counterparts, but admired their work and borrowed from their absurd juxtapositions and evocation of nostalgia. Although he lived almost all of his life in a small house on Utopia Parkway in working-class Queens with his mother and brother, he nevertheless was shown in progressive galleries in New York, made contact with many of the most advanced artists of his day, and entertained curious visitors until late in his life.

The Box as Altar
Cornell’s work has been defined by the rectangular box, which he transformed into small, magical worlds by adding his collected materials. Each box was assembled with great care and devotion, and in its finished state resembled a religious altar. Numerous artists have followed his example, building rectangular containers that create a real visual space, allow for the juxtaposition of objects, and draw viewers into deciphering their interior dramas. Contemporary artists such as Don Baum and Marisol share his spirit for thrift store salvation, assembling narratives from disparate cast-off parts. George Segal and Buzz Spector enlarged Cornell’s small scale to more human dimensions, but retained his contemplative and philosophical tone. Jeff Wall’s signature lightboxes, filled with detailed color photographs, inspire the same kind of looking and thinking that has come to be a hallmark of Cornell.

Feathered Fantasies
Cornell was fascinated with birds for their exoticism and beauty, and their representation of flight, travel, and escape. Cornell rarely ventured far from home, but the freedom that birds possessed fostered dreams of other places. Two categories of bird-related boxes emerged over the years: Habitats, which appear as homes birds would develop in nature, and Aviaries which recall manmade birdhouses. The Habitats were filled with soil, bark, and insects, and often darkened with colored glass fronts, while the Aviaries tended to be bright, with painted perches, food and water dishes. Other Surrealists, such as Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, also turned to birds as avatars of strangeness, with flamboyant plumage, prehistoric movement, and often foreboding significance (as with Edgar Allen Poe and the raven). The erotic idea of caging beauty, especially songbirds, can often be found in Ernst’s works of captive creatures such as in his painting Loplop Introducing a Bird. Chicago-based artist Nick Cave has also been drawn to birds in his resourceful scavenging and collaged sculptures, a new one of which was commissioned for the exhibition. Like Cornell, who switched from taxidermied birds to reproduced images, Marlo Pascual plays with illusion, making a flat photograph appear to come to life with the addition of a sculptural perch.

The Voyeur
Longing and romantic desire run through Cornell’s work, populated with beautiful maidens, nymphs, and ballerinas -- usually as objects of worship. In one of the works from his Hotel de l’Etoile series, he uses his signature deep blue glass to symbolize night, as he orchestrates a clandestine moonlight escapade with a voluptuous nude from a men’s magazine emerging from the shadows. The artist William Copley, who was a friend and dealer of Cornell’s, was also fascinated with the female form and, like Cornell, placed the viewer in an oddly voyeuristic position as in Blue Mood where the privacy of a bath is interrupted by a policeman. Jeff Koons and Michelangelo Pistoletto also implicate the viewer in not-so-private bath times -- Koons in sculptural form with the emergence of a snorkeler in the tub, while Pistoletto uses mirrored aluminum to reflect an encounter with an Ingres-like beauty in The Turkish Bath. The story gets more complicated in Henry Darger’s complex narratives with the Vivian girls, where sexuality is confused in a bacchanalian fantasy. The ‘female as temptress’ is different for women artists: Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman come at this subject from different angles, although both use themselves as the protagonists of their staged scenarios.

Before Andy Warhol made serial repetition a staple of visual culture, Cornell pioneered the use of repeating copies of the same image. In his Medici Boxes, Cornell would duplicate the same printed illustration in a gridded structure, predating Warhol. Despite myths about Cornell’s hermit-like lifestyle, he entertained many visitors to his home over the years, including Warhol. For Warhol, the repetitive images of celebrity figures, such as the Troy (Donohue), speak to a culture of mass marketing and the tabloid image machine. But in Cornell’s hands, the repetition has a quiet, meditative quality like a prayer chant, especially with his obsession over a handsome young boy from a Caravaggio painting. Other artworks in the MCA collection reveal what a seminal act duplication and replication has become in contemporary art, from the assemblages of Arman, which likewise address consumer culture and waste, to Wallace Berman who mixes spirituality with pop culture. In Rembrandt Head Details, Mike and Doug Starn’s double photo of Rembrandt appears as an archeological relic of a bygone era, and in Christian Boltanski’s epic installation repeated images of children take on a melancholy character.

Celestial Musings
Cornell was fascinated by the sky and the planets, using circular forms (rings, rubber balls, corks, marbles) as metaphors for celestial bodies. In his boxes, star maps paired with looped rings or balls could take on the significance of other realms, transporting the viewer into a world of science and wonder. Contemporary artists have taken up similar concerns, such as in the transformative work of Gabriel Orozco, whose Ball on Water liberates the common object of a ball to suggest the sky and heavens. In Piotr Uklanski’s collages with pencil shavings, trash can even suggest the Big Bang theory, and in Jeff Koons’ sculpture Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank,basketballs suddenly take on galactic overtones. The ambiguous circles in the work of artists Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Liz Larner, and Mariko Mori are likewise transformed by association, while artists Louise Nevelson and Gary Simmons directly reference planetary activity. Using mud to paint a giant circle on the gallery wall of the MCA, Richard Long clearly intended to transport the mysterious power of our planet into the gallery.

A Reductive Language
Cornell found beauty in simplicity before Minimalism, but one of the lesser-known aspects of his work is that he didn’t always fill his boxes with found imagery. A rhythm of rectangular grids, or an array of circular holes in works such as Multiple Cubes show a stripped down expression of space and solids that was a predecessor of Minimalist art in the 1960s. Seen alongside the plywood boxes of Donald Judd, or the mathematical progressions of Sol LeWitt, Cornell’s work is revelatory. H.C. Westermann was also drawn to repetitive and algorithmic formats, which he used in his sculpture Rosebud. Alfred Jensen was fascinated by the mystical qualities of nature, mathematics, and exotic cultures. In his canvas Let There Be Light, he tries to assign meaning to the numeric patterns as if unlocking an ancient secret, a pursuit that Cornell would have found worthwhile.

Cut and Paste
Cornell’s collages borrow from Surrealist visual games known for creating disruptions of meaning and nonsense. Clashing compositions of found imagery have come to characterize much of the defining work of the late 20th century. They took the form of Victorian fever dreams in the work of San Francisco Bay Area artist Jess, and a cool conceptualism in the classic multi-panel works of John Baldessari. Robert Rauschenberg’s silkscreened work Retroactive II and the politically charged hallucinations of Robert Heinecken show how long this method lasted. Collage returned with artists such as David Salle whose dissonant paintings are interrupted by objects attached directly to the canvas, and in the overwhelming detail and horror vacui of Lari Pittman’s paintings. The vitality of recent work by artists Thomas Hirschhorn and John Stezaker prove that cutting and pasting remains a relevant way to reflect and process the modern media-saturated world.

Architecture and Art
Cornell’s boxes often suggest architecture in miniature -- built with wood, decorated with paint, and often including decorative moulding, wire screens, and glass. Some formats were literally derived from small-scale buildings like birdhouses or dovecotes, such as Untitled (Compartmented Aviary Box). Architecture has also been a favorite reference point for contemporary artists. Christo’s early work, Orange Store Front, is an architectural fragment that acts as a stage for narrative projections. Guenther Foerg’s photographs of fascist architecture such as the Mussolini-era building depicted in E.U.R. Palazzo della Civilta, reveal the complexities of buildings which seem beautiful and orderly on the outside, but hold disturbing political agendas inside. The vast scope of Andreas Gursky’s image Avenue of the Americas makes one wonder how it was possible to capture from a single vantage point. B. Wurtz pairs photography and objects, rooting the grandiosity of architecture in the familiarity of the everyday The Lure of the Ocean Travel to exotic, faraway places and dreams of escape populate Cornell’s work. The ocean was one of his favorite recurring themes, through the inclusion of boat forms, navigational maps, seashells, and the color blue. The Surrealists often used the ocean and the threshold between land and sea as a metaphor for the edges of civilization, and sometimes reason. This is certainly the case in René Magritte’s Les merveilles de la nature (The Wonders of Nature), where a clipper ship painted to look like clouds sails by while two fish characters canoodle on the beach. The ex-sailor H.C. Westermann returned to ship forms numerous times in his art and works such as Death Ship of No Port bring to mind the lawless lifestyles of pirates, unmoored from society. A more romantic mood accompanies Paul Thek’s evocations of the seashore, the site of many potent visions throughout his career. The uninhibited scenarios of Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist’s videos such as Sip My Ocean suggest the deep blue water is the natural arena for bodily freedom both fantastical and libidinous.

Film Works
Cornell was also a prolific filmmaker. Although this may be one of the least-known aspects of his practice, he was just as ahead of the curve in his moving image compositions as he was with his collaged boxes. Early films include brash appropriations of existing imagery and the use of colored filters creates the same dreamy sense of remove that he achieves in his boxes. Here, four films from across his career are gathered together to suggest the range of his filmic interests. The Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander has also occupied herself with simple yet dreamlike films that often feature circular objects such as eggs, bubbles, and confetti -- forms that would have certainly pleased Cornell -- and the film The Tenant which she made with countryman Cao Guimares resonates deeply with the older artist’s work with its magical journey of a soap bubble through a deserted apartment house.

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