Pop culture treasure, high culture trash.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Dystopia parkway

For those of you looking for proof that the project of art criticism (i.e. the effort to represent and explain in words something that exists beyond the verbal realm) stands about as much of a chance at consensus and descriptive success as trying to bake a cake that tastes like E# major, look no further than critical appraisals of mid-twentieth century surrealist Joseph Cornell:

There isn't a sexual image, let alone a trace of amour fou, in his entire output. The most he would permit himself was a gentle fetishism. If, as some have thought, Cornell's imagery had to do with childhood, then it was one which no child has ever known, an infancy without rage or desire. Sometimes he would crack the glass pane that protected the contents of the box, but that is all he allowed in the way of violence - it suggests that the sanctuary of imagination has been attacked.

-Robert Hughes, American Visions

His works, relying almost completely on strange and powerful juxtapositions of everyday objects or elements, are small in scale...but they speak to us in the rich vocabulary of human desire. They whisper about idealized memories of childhood bliss, about smoldering romantic hopes, about dreams that hang by only a slender thread.

-Stephanie Zacharek, Salon

So which is it? Is there angst or desire or isn't there? To deny that there is, I think, misses the point of the shadow box medium that Cornell so expertly cultivated. The people represented inside his boxes--Medici princes, Marie Taglioni, Lauren Bacall, Natalie Wood--are fetishized objects but also subjects that reflect Cornell's own sense of claustrophobia, unnaturally preserved innocence and enforced stasis in the realm of the child. The glass isn't smashed because an attacker is violating the sanctuary; it's smashed because the person on the inside is trying to get out. The darkest boxes are so powerful as to be almost vocal, calling out to the viewer in whisper-screams for contact and escape.

But judge for yrself:

Caravaggio Prince, Medici Slot Machine Variant

Untitled (Medici Boy)

Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall)

Untitled (Medici Princess)

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