By Sheli DeNola

As of October, the Joseph Cornell exhibit “Navigating the Imagination” has taken the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) by storm. The exhibit features an astounding range of work consisting of over 200 pieces.

Since first exhibiting his work in 1932, Cornell has not so much evolved as an artist, but rather grown. Cornell was the first American artist to reach international acclaim without having received any formal training. This growth is exhibited in Cornell’s ever-flourishing construction; from his early collages, which piece together the most fantastical images, to his later shadowboxes, which are both virulent and ethereal in their concepts. It wasn’t until his death in 1972 that the full span of his work could be assembled.

“[Cornell] basically came out of European Surrealists, like Marcel Duchamp,” said Evan Calder Williams, a graduate student in literature at UC Santa Cruz who specializes in psychoanalysis and philosophy. “But he was also able to encompass the changing times. His shadowbox work utilized products of capitalism. In his writings he explores surrealist dream logic, but also the assemblage and refashioning of capitalist logic.”

Duchamp is best known for displaying a ceramic urinal (“Fountain”) as art in 1917, spawning the innovative found object art movement. This “sacrilege” spoke to the reformed artistic movement of the times, which sought to express a changing culture through the reflective lens of art.

“The exploration that becomes creative,” Cornell wrote of his work. Cornell felt that when he created his art it was not the act of an artist. This concept is very much present in his methodology. Cornell worked with mostly found objects, a process which calls for not only an immense visual faculty but a sense of craftsmanship.

The exhibit opens with a layout of Cornell’s work. Glue, nails, marbles, thread, and baubles decorate the display in a strange arrangement that pushes the bounds of organization. A photo of Cornell shows him standing in front of a sink running his hands through a cascade of bubbles; a smile plays across his lips like an afterthought. The image is strangely dark and yet very childlike.

“Cornell’s lyrical infatuation with loss … may be seen as a preparation for his inevitable forfeiture of the world itself,” wrote Richard Vine, one of the essayists featured in a compilation of Cornell’s work, “Shadowplay Eternal.” As such, Cornell’s work came to embody a carefree exploration of the impossible and yet a haunting feeling of the unaccomplished.

One of his most famous collages, “Untitled (Schooner),” 1931, features a majestic ship whose outer sails are entangled in a spider web. A flower frames the spider web; the image is strangely reminiscent of a gramophone, and paradoxically evokes possibility and containment.

Cornell’s work plays on opposites; texture, scale, imagery all become delicately choreographed constructions. Through this contrast, Cornell is able to undermine the detachment from the subject, rendering the viewer’s emotions vulnerable to the art.

“Observatory Corona Borealis Casement,” 1950, is a piece from his hotel series. As a child Cornell traveled a lot. This series is dedicated to the hotels he visited. “Observatory” features a light wood box with a series of panels. The overall effect is a sort of cage and window that looks out onto the stars. The way in which the box is constructed makes the stars seem touchable. In the confines of such a small space, the infinite scale of the universe seems compressed and all too accessible.

“We’re human beings and we are curious about things that go beyond stimuli,” said Steven S. Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC. “It comes from 20 million years of evolution. Space is beauty and mystery combined, it is one of the last great mysteries.”

The power to make the imagination physical renders Cornell’s work magic. Curiosity is thrust from the pages of thought and contained in a box. Mystery becomes an evocative medium in which all is possible.

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