Inside the Box
by ALEXANDRA MALMED
The American artist Joseph Cornell's sister recounted that his first experience with the cosmos was one of fear. After examining the winter sky from a window in their childhood home, Cornell began to physically and visibly tremble. He was overcome with a gnawing anxiety concerning the concept of infinity.
Cornell spent his life in New York, where he filled his notably isolated days with walking and journaling. The altar-like boxes that he composed using bits of paper, postage stamps, things made of glass, and natural objects (egg shells, dried plants, and shells) echo this life of solitude and incessant collecting. In his studio he categorized his accumulations of oddities by type (compasses, feathers, glass spheres, tiny jars, etc), and kept them in small boxes until their proper placement in one of his safe-haven-black-holes of assemblages became apparent. The objects that he collected, mostly through scouring secondhand stores, were literally fragments of other people's memories.
And yet Cornell somehow saturated the objects with his own spirit, so that once vagrant things became personal and sacred. I have had a few small paper jewelry boxes of things: a thinning beaded bracelet that I wore every day for three years, a wooden “moon ball” that a boy gave to me during the very rainy winter of my freshman year of college, a tangled, ropey scrap of my baby blanket, a gifted and still unwrapped ginger candy, the skeletal remains of a daisy chain I made at the Neem Karoli Baba ashram in Taos, a milky, fake-looking rock from a mountain by my parent’s house, and a piece of ivory card stock, embedded on one side with the peeling remnants of a pressed pansy and, on the other side, a drizzling of spidery, frantic birthday wishes for my first birthday. The message on the card is illegible save for the word MAGIC.
When I was younger I often worried that someone would find these boxes of treasures, assume that they were weird collections of trash, and throw them away. But now I think that Cornell’s use of such otherwise banal objects proves that these entities can emanate some sort of power (or at least significance) that exceeds mere personal nostalgia.
Early on, Cornell developed a fascination with astronomy and became familiar with celestial maps and the studies of Galileo and Copernicus. In addition to maps (his favorite) and drawings of the sky, he collected over 100 books on astronomy throughout his lifetime. Eventually, he went on to introduce astral images and concepts from this self-education into his collages and three-dimensional assemblages. This stayed with him.
And so the majority of Cornell’s boxes, ostensibly "about" astronomy, also concern his fear. As we look into the intimate dream worlds of his boxes, we become aware of the potent relatedness of our internal fear and our external surroundings. Fear and the external are universal and, it turns out, distinguishable but indivisible.
Our fears tend to feel more isolating and more personal than anything else, and yet by acknowledging and sharing them, we can (even if just for a moment) overcome them. The boxes, which rarely contain traces of palpable autobiographical imagery, feel personal and even vulnerable despite the strength of their lyrical compositions. Cornell's use of astronomy — a practice, concept, and colossal physical presence — communicates a certain level of unspoken trust to the viewer. Revealing fear’s looming internal presence to another person is perhaps the most intimate of all gestures.
I have come to defenselessly love only a few people in my life. I can clearly remember the individual moments in which I knew that each of these friendships could turn into something involving real, exposing love. The individual people have very little in common, but my recollections feel mostly the same — perhaps because each took place during a very vulnerable exchange of words concerning our fears.
Last summer in a dark underground bar in Santa Fe a near-stranger severed the thick mindlessness of catching up by telling me about his once-suffocating lifelong relationship with anxiety. I immediately felt as though I no longer needed to maintain the jovial, untroubled acquaintance shield that I seem to wear more often than not. I no longer felt the need to take slow, careful sips from the can of Pabst we were sharing. We later admitted that that neither of us really likes to drink.
I was stripped of the usual feeling of intimidation I felt around him and wanted to physically push my weight and warmth againt him because words didn't feel convincing enough to tell him how much of my life I had spent feeling the same way. Thus feeling of closeness to him has stuck to me — relentlessly, and in a very significant way — despite time and the languid stretches of land between New Mexico and New York.
The act of demonstrating the concept of infinite space and time within the boundaries of a box — a structure that references art history (compositional grids, museums), shelter, and human confinement — was important to Cornell. Doing so is, perhaps, a means of suggesting the possibility of incarcerating or at least binding our innate fear.
The images he uses of constellations were cropped by necessity, and yet even these small clippings of cosmic images communicate the idea of something that is boundless. Cornell’s journal entries reflect this concept: he tended to write about small, precise day-to-day moments that, for one reason or another, had a profoundly transformative effect on his life.
Cornell’s employment of astronomical images and concepts was not hindered by his fear — in fact, his boxes seem to confront the very notion. Ultimately the boxes are actually able to diminish fear’s magnitude and power by placing it in the context of other internal realities of the human mind — namely, imagination and knowledge. Take the box Cassiopeia 1, in which Cornell subtly brings our attention to every aspect of the stars. Here we have frayed, thinning fragments of paper marked with the "dark cloud." The Australian Aboriginals paid careful attention to not only clusters of stars, but also to the sky’s use of negative space in the formations of the Taurus’ stalwart head and the very beautiful but vain Cassiopeia.
Cornell was deeply fascinated with feminine beauty — despite his reclusive, lonely existence, he was frequently consumed by periods of slow, deep longing for numerous ballerinas and Hollywood actresses. History and mythology are referenced, of course, in Cassiopeia 1, but they are re-appropriated within the context of the box.
Between Cassiopeia and the Taurus is a picture that seems to offer a hand in explaining stellar lineups in a high school textbook. But then even science becomes merely an element of a poetic collage, because all of this is surrounded by the heavy presence of a creeping, peeling ivory wash. This white emphasizes the medium of paint and the artist’s hand. It connotes decay, flatness, change, perhaps even earth itself. It provides a smothering contrast (in both subject and appearance) to the dreamy, wispy navys-and-blacks in the piece. It does not feel clean, empty, or spare, as white often does. It seems to be hiding once-exposed layers and secrets of the box. And there is so much of this thick, severe white.
Cornell was said to have spent great expanses of time looking for images in chipping paint on New York walls, just as one does with Magic Eye posters. That he was able to utilize the same method of subjective seeing, be it of images in flaking paint on forgotten surfaces or in that which he was most afraid of — the infinite cape of a sky with its snags of cosmic points, is perhaps the conceptual nucleus of his work. Cornell would see, then create, then demonstrate the possibility of infinity within the small and the possibility of reining in the boundless.
Alexandra Malmed is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. This is her first appearance in these pages.
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