Sunday, January 13, 2008

Navigating the Imagination

“The notion of a curious, wistful man walking the city and turning up treasure in debris, seeing the transcendent in the forgotten, the discarded, the mundane – such a notion is intrinsically hopeful.” – Leah Hager Cohen

This morning while flipping throught the Sunday NY Times, the Book Review section fell open to page eleven revealing an illustration of Joseph Cornell’s “Parrot for Juan Gris” (pictured here) and a review by Leah Hager Cohen of the new Cornell catalogue, Navigating the Imagination by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan. I was blessed to have received this book as a Christmas gift from my parents – my father having been mesmerized by the exhibit as much as I was. For those of you who read my earlier blog post on Cornell, I did indeed make it back again to see this show two more times before it closed last week, and I was richly rewarded for it.

One thing I was struck by was Cornell’s use of containers within containers, such as a box that contains little drawers that one must open to discover the treasures inside. Unfortunately the museum does not let you actually touch the pieces, but I could imagine the delighted curiosity that would accompany opening each of the drawers in a piece like Untitled (Aviary with Drawers) from 1949. I myself as an artist have been consistently fascinated by the concept of containment – often using containers as the starting point for a new piece – whether that starting point be a new bottle or an elegant frame. The idea of doubling the concept of containment by adding containers within containers sparks new creative ideas for me.

Another thing that impressed me was how richly Cornell fed his creative spirit. An incredibly well read artist (the catalogue contains a selected bibliography of 150 titles in his library), he often drew direct inspiration from figures like Emily Dickenson. He also created “folders, slipcases and small valises with loose arrangements of ‘imaginative pictorial research.’” For example, in his portfolio, “Portrait of Ondine,” Cornell spent 20 years gathering ephemera such as illustrations, photos, newspaper articles and more all in homage to the nineteenth century ballerina Fanny Cerrito in her role as Ondine. As Hartigan says, “the combination reveals how far Cornell ranged in creating a new poetic context for his subject.” I love the idea of researching an area of fascination over a long period and allowing the research to be poetic, rather than linear and multimedia, rather than purely verbal.

As the book reviewer describes with this catalogue on Joseph Cornell, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan “doesn’t navigate his imagination so much as map the explicit tributaries that fed it.” And in doing so she has created a new tributary that is feeding the river of my own imagination.

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