Friday, February 19, 2016


Mr. Cornell
Joseph Cornell is one of those peripheral and yet totally important figures in contemporary art history who haunts and informs a lot of what is made and seen today.  He passed away in 1972, and yet his influence and the scope of his ghostliness illuminate a lot of what has happened artistically and aesthetically in the 20th and now 21st Centuries.  He was humble and yet ambitious, ingenuous yet sophisticated, "outsider" yet completely in sync with his contemporaries, including the Surrealists and everything after.  He lived in a small, unremarkable house on Utopia Parkway in Queens, taking care of his brother who had cerebral palsy, and working a lot of odd jobs to sustain his household that included both his brother and mother.  He basically spent his lifetime outside of those activities making intricate, oddly meaningful "things" out of materials he lifted from life:  postcards, fabric, toys, bottles, glasses, etc., all usually aligned poetically and ominously in shadow-boxes.  He also made movies, created hefty dossiers devoted to movie-stars and waitresses, wrote, and even collaborated with his brother on a series of delicate drawings/collages that merged fairy-tale wishes with a scratchy/gorgeous obsession.  In fact, most of what Cornell did seemed burnished by an overarching obsession to find meaning in what is already in front of you, as if a junk-drawer in your kitchen is a primal resource for reinvention and even transcendence, every little doodad and left-behind nothing a reason to daydream, to travel while remaining still.
Our next Thunder-Sky, Inc. exhibit, “Utopia Parkway Revisited: Contemporary Artists in Joseph Cornell’s Shadow" (opening February 26, 2016 with a reception 6 to 10 pm and closing April 9, 2016). features beautifully and incidentally Cornell-inspired works by Jeff Casto, Marc Lambert, Christian Schmit, Matthew Waldeck, and Matthew Waldeck Jr.  They all make art that both mimics Cornell’s approach (collage, sculpture, assemblage, and appropriation), as well as the spirit involved in his vision, creating and recreating an aesthetic universe based in nostalgia, obsession, and pop culture.  Casto's works are the closest in spirit and materials to Cornell's boxes, but he also has his own sense of deadpan whimsy and ache, as if he's taken in Cornell's need to make something out of nothing and pushed resources and dreaming to their limits.  Lambert's works featured in the show respond to Cornell's use of everyday materials (Lambert paints on ceiling tiles), and also to his starry-eyed sense of cinema and history.  Lambert meticulously recreates universes collaged from movie-scenes and folklore, juxtaposing Sasquatches with pyramids, pterodactyls with UFOs, a psychic boyhood embellished with a sense of sentimental ache and poetry.  Waldeck, Jr.'s drawings have that same sense of longing for Utopian context.  Executed in magic-marker on 8" X 11" sheets of paper, they function as a sort of illuminated manuscript informed by television, solitude, and a search for more than is there.  Waldeck, Sr. creates funky, frenetic dioramas (and other contraptions) made from machine parts and other junk.  They playfully reference space-travel, carnivals, and miniature civilizations, in a Cornellian flourish and flicker.  Schmit's one piece in the show is truly masterful, and acts as both a comment on, and a rapturous biographical portrait of, Cornell, constructed with a painstaking accuracy and ingenuity pretty much akin to everything Cornell accomplished.
It's going to be an incredible show.
A lot of times I argue on this blog that biography often handicaps the way we see and consume art, that knowing that the artist has a diagnosis or hardship or whatever shouldn't get in the way of feeling and understanding the art for what it is and can be.  You don't want to lose focus or respect by attaching charity and other kinds of condescension onto the whole shebang.  But Cornell's work and life intermingle in ways that go beyond "diagnosis" and "charity."  From limited means and a "small life," he forged an incredible body of work that somehow captures lightning in a bottle every time you witness it.  He dedicated his life to minutiae and what it means when you take the time to excavate it, to reinvent and reimagine it.  He discovered vast planets inside the smallest of boxes, and allows us today to take such endeavors completely seriously. 
Matthew Waldeck, Jr.

Matthew Waldeck, Jr.

Matthew Waldeck, Sr.

Jeff Casto

A wall of Jeff Casto works
A wall of Marc Lambert works

Marc Lamber

Marc Lambert

Christian Schmit

Jeff Casto