If you feel the need to absent yourself temporarily from the material world, visit the Sackler galleries this week to feast on Joseph Cornell’s amazing multi-layered universe.
In the theatrical, fairy tale ‘Palace’ a forest of twigs stands impenetrable behind a white castle, its mirror-windows reflecting your image back at you. It sits in a box behind glass and you are at once part of it and excluded from its secrets, but the journey is yours and the promise of a dark fairy tale mystery comes alive in this inanimate universe where you slip in seamlessly to roam through remembered childhood imagery, stories and adventure, stepping out of the world you can see into the one you cannot – the imagination.
Each box, and there are many, is its own world, dream-like, indecipherable, evocative and a perfectly balanced composition. Clay pipes and celestial charts, a Medici princess in a case lined with street maps and childhood building blocks papered with sundial, ladder, wild cat, with below an intriguing drawer holding feather, fan and sealed package containing what?
In Untitled (Soap Bubble Set Variant) 1952-54 a pipe bowl face gazes impassively up at the heavens it floats through, back lit by white driftwood. Splashes of white paint on the glass suggest planets whisking through eternity, and the heavenly blue beyond is given depth and a suggestion of plummeting space by vertical white lines in a starry, timeless and strangely passive world. What on earth does it mean, I don’t know. Does it capture the imagination and press it on to other fertile regions – yes.
This is not just about boxes. Cornell’s film GNIR REDNAW is made from unused footage from a commissioned piece. In it he assembles an upside down experience of what we know – a journey that could be familiar becomes vertiginous as the brain reassembles what is scrambled and inverted back to the known.
This is an exhibition of expeditions, a wandering through childhood imagination and adult awareness, mixing it up, making it new and unexpected. It’s the unique body of work of an artist unselfconsciously absorbed in an intricate and complex universe where the child and adult are encompassed and richly expressed together and where the journey in imagination is as real and potent as any other.