Metaphor and Metamorphosis
Joseph Cornell: Stargazing in the CinemaJodi Hauptman
Yale University Press, £25
I have long believed that collage – in all its guises, as construct and as construction – is the most important cultural idea of the twentieth century. Since Braque and Picasso’s first shifts from the flat surface to three dimensions in 1911-12, a revolution has spread ceaselessly through all areas of creativity.
Two artists who have been quietly exploring their own idiosyncratic connections to a world in flux have emerged from this heritage of the disparate and the dislocated: Candy Jernigan (1952-91) and Joseph Cornell (1903-72). While from different eras, their palettes of ephemera and urban detritus are similar. Superficially they are fellow travellers but under even cursory scrutiny they prove to be riding in different vehicles in distinctly separate atmospheres. Cornell is best known for his "shadow-boxes”, obsessional constructions of the exotic and the elliptical. Jernigan, unknown outside of the tiny universe of a New York so-called avant-garde (strangely all unnamed apart from her partner Philip Glass), has left a body of work comprising themed collections from her travels, objects assembled as matter-of-fact evidence, in journals, as drawings or as the things themselves.
Evidence: The Art of Candy Jernigan is a rose-tinted eulogy, lovingly written and designed (even using Jernigan’s rubber stamps for folios and chapter headings), beautifully printed and bound, and stuffed full of lavish full-colour reproductions. Sadly, it is over-pumped with a text reliant on anecdotal memories of her homely kookiness, an inheritance we’re informed, of the obligatory dysfunctional upbringing, as irrelevant as US TV soaps which trade on the same for an audience of the similar. When it comes to critical interpretation her supporters are mute.
An assured draughtsperson, her work has the knowing roughness of the stylistically adept illustrator, but it is highly derivative of Saul Steinberg and with echoes of the cod-Hockney dandies of late 1970s-early 1980s UK illustration. The "Evidence” sets, whether of travel, food, mathematics, psychology, and so on, are nothing more than arrangements of objects as specimens, hands-off trophies of the privileged drifter exposing the cold detachment of the spectator. Only in one area does she glimmer; her "Natural Evidence” series: studies of bugs, leaves and grasses show simple, honest and gently humorous drawings which suggest that a career as a natural history illustrator might have been a more apt journey for her.
At its worst this tome is an unnecessary, chatty, coffee-table curiosity, in which editorial discernment is as mysterious as content. No doubt her pool of friends will treasure this souvenir, murmuring agreement with each effusive claim for her "witty and astoundingly resonant works of art” and "her one-of-
a-kind talent”. They should consider that
the absence of analysis is due to the fact that Jernigan’s work is actually thin and that she was merely a featherweight. What you see is all you get.
Joseph Cornell: Stargazing in the Cinema is similarly celebratory but in this instance justifiably so, as Jodi Hauptman’s interpretative readings reveal an artist whose mastery of his mediums is matched by metaphoric understanding, poetic composition, mathematical wit and, in his explorations of the fabulous and evanescent, a genuine passion.
Hauptman concentrates on Cornell’s "cinematic imagination” and the correlations between his methods of accumulation and juxtaposition in the box and collage works, and those used in his "portrait-homage” films featuring untouchable woman-child icons of dance, opera and film, including Hedy Lamarr, Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe.
Offering provocative observations on Cornell’s rebus-like mind and his pioneering developments in the compilation film form, Hauptman discusses his startlingly abrupt changes in time, sequence and events, the splicing of film upside down and in reverse, the stutterings of typographical intrusions flashing up as blurs, alluding to his innovations in film as pre-empting the
fast edit of TV commercials and the pop video. Similarly, she proposes that his considered use of repetition anticipates Warhol, as does his practice of projecting films at slow speeds, pre-dating the
slowed down Hitchcock and Scorsese samples of Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon by some 50 years.
Both artists offer us the tactile world of material things: Jernigan merely recreating objects as or in actuality; Cornell presenting the objects metamorphosed within mysterious associations of fugitive image clusters. Both books expose the differences in depth, ambition and meaning between the two. As Jernigan toys with the illusion of the real, Cornell immerses us in the depiction of incongruous worlds beyond reality. Utopia Parkway calls.
First published in Eye no. 35 vol. 9, 2000