Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Assemblage Cabinets, Joseph Cornell and Len Cowgill

Over the summer, I went to an amazing exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Massachusetts. It was a beautifully set up and presented retrospective of the life and work of artist Joseph Cornell.

Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) 1945-46

Assemblage art can look deceptive simple to a non-artist. It is amazingly easy to do poorly. Anyone can (and often have) thrown a bunch of found junk together and labeled it art.

To produce something truly evocative by assemblage is quite difficult. To be able to create a whole body of work, of quality and of lasting interest and impact is frankly a terrifying and daunting task. I have always loved and been fascinated by assemblage. It is a technique and concept central to many styles of Theatre Design, which is the discipline in which I originally trained. Assemblage is not an area I would try to build a body of work out of, for frankly, I don't have what it takes for that.

Joseph Cornell (December 24, 1903 – December 29, 1972) is the dean of assemblage artists. His amazing work draws you in, and makes you yearn to touch, to explore, to be a part of the tiny universes he created.

Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) 1936

Untitled (Medici Prince) 1952

Untitled (Aviary With Watch Faces) 1949

My favorite pieces of Cornell's work are from the "Soap Bubble Set" and the "Medici Slot Machines", though all of his work is fascinating. Boxes and cabinets filled with small drawers or bottles. The contents of the clear bottles are there to see, and mark you itch to remove them and investigate them at leisure. The drawers, which were often closed in the exhibit, are opaque and mysterious, making you wonder what is inside.

If you ever have a chance to see his work, I would highly recommend it. As an alternative there is the excellent book Shadowplay Eterniday with essays and commentary by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Richard Vine, Robert Lehrman, and Walter Hopps. Though the writing is rather wordy, it is enjoyable and is beautifully put together, with many gorgeous full color plates, and a DVD Rom giving insight into Cornell's work and life.

A current artist who is keeping the art of assemblage not only alive, but vibrant, is Len Cowgill. He has an excellent Flickr site showcasing his work. His work shows all the best and great potential that assemblage has. Small closed objects that demand opening.


Works large and small that present their own contained universes worthy of lengthy examination, with enough substance to reward long contemplation.

Myths of Childhood (open)

I strongly urge you to go poke around in his site, his work is wonderful!

top illustration, "Joseph Cornell" by Len Cowgill, from his work in progress.

UPDATE: I was remiss in not noting that Len Cowgill's artwork is available through the Tamarack Gallery

THAT DAMNED VOICE INSIDE MY HEAD, Myths of Childhood, and portrait of Joseph Cornell are all copyright by Len Cowgill, all rights reserved to the artist, and used here by permission.

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Blogger GreenmanTim said...

This is extraodinary. Thany you so much for contributing to CofC! Regards, Tim

1:36 PM  
Blogger Jeff Roberts said...

There Never Was a Bird

There never was a bird—in that cage.
Whitewashed for company who never visit.
Never muss the unsoiled perch.
Never give a feather to the edge of the snipped wire.
Never enjoy the hole and its ocean view.

It is what it can be. It is an object
With a title. It is a prince among princes.
It is a cenotaph for soaring souls that fear delight.
It is a third image of the blue peninsula.
It is ekphrasis redux. It is connected to this by this.
It is for this that I am.

Her words were heavenly enough to name that cage.

If I could—I would pin together the feathery paper scraps
Left behind—to build the poem named Object, Untitled.

8:39 AM  

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