Saturday, January 31, 2015

An Apothecary of Jelly Jars and Moonlight


A few weeks back we went down to New Orleans to see friends, and Bill and I went to the New Orleans Museum of Art just to go there.  We stumbled onto one of those beautiful, serendipitous experiences that only happens when you don't make checklists or plans.  In 2012, NOMA refashioned their collection of Joseph Cornell shadowboxes, collages and dossiers into a self-contained universe with dark blue walls and intergalactic spaceship lighting that allows Cornell's world to sustain itself as both playfully serious and transcendently whimsical, a rare concentration of his works that allows you to quiet yourself down long enough to understand he was probably one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century.  And not because he was a part of a trend or reflected the turbulent times he lived in or whatever, but truly because he found a way out of all of that, and into a poetic century all his own.  He was making places for himself to escape to, dreamlands constructed from cracked window-glass and old toys, white-washed lavatory doors, forgotten wire in a junk-drawer, cobwebs in a corner crystallizing into words and phrases that never get said just evoked, unspoken yet vibrating.  The room of his work at NOMA opens up into its own versions of shadowbox intimacies; you want to go to sleep inside each of his pieces, find the dream he was dreaming the moment he made each one.  He was one of those people who could not find any other way out of himself other than through recognizing what he craved and fetishizing it into his own self-made religion, worshipping hotel corridors, magic tricks, sand on shoes from the beach, postcards inside shoeboxes, mystical moments you have that always go unsaid, that intricate form of daydreaming that allows you to find a whisper even inside a hive of bees.  He was a master storyteller who found epic narratives within empty pill bottles; he found hope in paint chips and discarded envelopes.  I kept walking back and forth among the pieces there at NOMA, not wanting to know titles or dates, but just luxuriating in the fact that they have been so beautifully preserved, tiny interstitial sentences, images, objects, minutes, days, all of it self-contained, an apothecary of jelly-jars and moonlight, misery unraveled by tenacity and determination.  Joseph Cornell knew what he was doing every step of the way, those collages and shadowboxes let us know:  he found his way through by working everyday of his life on a project he could only see one small puzzle-piece at a time.