Monday, December 3, 2007

Joseph Cornell and Louise Nevelson

Structure, Limits, and Freedom

I finally made it over to the SFMOMA for the Joseph Cornell exhibition. I’ve been a fan of his elaborate, enigmatic boxes since my art student teens (and he was a real working artist from a borough other than Manhattan too!). It was a kick to see so many of them, and alongside the collages, magazine covers, and assorted weird stuff he made.

Last month, after I saw the
Louise Nevelson show at the deYoung, I knew I wanted to explore her work in the context of issues raised (for me) by Cornell. I’ve always really liked her work, too, but for very different reasons. Cornell’s work is enigmatic, but in a playful and Surrealist vein; his work by using common objects and collage is so accessible as to be “user friendly.” The word enigmatic also comes to mind when I think of Nevelson’s pieces, but her choice of materials and forms most often convey a sense of austerity and discipline.

The show at the deYoung is large enough that one truly gets a sense of entering Nevelson’s world, so that a range of responses can develop over time to the body of work and themes emerge. Many critics go on at length about her choices to work in monochrome. My friend
Anna Conti had some very interesting thoughts about Nevelson’s sculpture being essentially a form of drawing. We all are drawn to various responses and concepts based on our individual “filters” (though most professional critics would deny that they have personal filters and instead come up with more hifaluting verbiage about theories...).

One of my own filters for art comes from my personal sense of what the creation of art does for me:
it helps me mediate reality. So I look at all these structures Nevelson has built and I see as a unifying structure rectangular grids or boxes that contain enigmatic elements....just like Cornell’s boxes. And I wonder if each of them needed that structure to help make sense of the world.

It could be that the linear structure imposes order on chaos. Both of them, if you read the critics, are dealing with capital-I “Issues”: Nevelson with the Holocaust and social issues, Cornell with various infatuations and interest in nature and in how the world works. A box is both literally and metaphorically a marvelous device to “tame” or control big problems or things that threaten to be overwhelming. Nevelson’s discipline and Cornell’s obsessiveness each in its own way could support this theory.

On the other hand, it could simply be that having the linear structure is a useful starting point for entering into the creative act. Many artists and artisans like the idea of solving a problem or a puzzle, and setting specific parameters is an easy way to do this. One might do a drawing every morning in a 3" x 5" pad, design a series of houses that fit a 25 foot wide lot and touch the houses on either side, or write about life and death using the sonnet form. Once a form is mandated, there is freedom to proceed within it.

I think this is why some of us in the martial arts really get into learning kata. The steps of the kata are the structure. The form is mandated. Once you accept this as a given (and have a certain proficiency), there is freedom to explore endless variations: what happens when my weight shifts from the ball of this foot to this heel before I start to raise my sword? If I exhale while turning my head, do my shoulders do something that affects my stance? Do things change if I conceive of this movement as a pulling rather than as a pushing?

These two exhibits and the martial arts I've studied demonstrate how a good structure can serve as a lifelong learning or creative tool. Chose or build your's well !

(This post was copied from Janet Rosen's Blog, Zanshinart)


Nancy Ewart said...

Very perceptive and well written essay. If you can't make the SFMOMA screenings, Ubu Web has some of Cornell's films up on their website.

Anonymous said...

Thank you...and thank you Anna for dragging my butt over here (grin). I guess in a couple months I'll be the farflung Northern Correspondant, reporting on art stuff in the Ukiah area.