What is it exactly about Joseph Cornell’s boxes that make them irresistible? Is it the way they hover in the art museums, so meek and fragile amidst the more aggressive totems of Modernism?
Their remote little collaged worlds, packaged and sealed in boxed constructions, are ultimately private windows that hold graceful calculations of placement and form. They seem to connect us to Cornell’s thoughtful, protected psyche in a way that the work of his contemporaries in the 1930s through the 1960s, could not.
Cornell, as a self-taught artist, wasn’t alienated from the New York art world, but he did spend much of his time at home in Queens taking care of his brother who suffered from cerebral palsy. His boxes seem to embed things like care, introspection and quietude in the cast shadows and focused, overtly intentional compositional strategies of the found objects.
In Milwaukee, we have the artist Josie Osborne, who has for at least 15 years now plied some of Cornell’s territory. When one artist so firmly represents a kind of art making, it is very hard for another to carry on within that style and not be diminished by the relationship.
But Osborne seems to share Cornell’s tendencies with such a temperamental bond and sincere admiration that she has pushed her assemblages into their own realm. She is still holding hands with Cornell, but the connection has somehow come to enhance her work rather than discount it.
Osborne’s work is on view in the inaugural show, “In the Balance,” at Walkers Point Center for the Arts, through May 29. Amanda Gerken and Heather Wiedeman are also included.
Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, after 17 years at its former location on 9th and National, purchased and renovated a building at 839 S. Fifth. The new space is as perfect as it could be. It has been scrubbed, painted and assembled by a devoted group of volunteers (mostly artists).
The place shines. Five-foot-square panels of Baltic birch provide sleek, contemporary flooring, with light pooling down from upper clerestory windows in two adjacent, 300 to 400-square-foot galleries. There’s a sanctified, urban cathedral feeling to the rooms.
This inaugural show, fittingly, addresses the theme of space: How three different artists transform more or less flat planes into expositions of dimensional time, place and structure. Gerken, an interior architect, makes mostly small abstract paintings that speak loosely of tectonics. Explosive, disruptive energies conjure geological forces, earthquakes, lava flows. Wiedeman’s paintings are collaged and layered tactile constructions that present angles, geometries and bits of architecture, suggestive of urbanity.
I like their work, but the new gallery space at WPCA is small enough that any one of these three artists could have ably commanded the room. The three together feel crowded and don’t add up to a greater whole. Small group shows can enhance our ability to see individual bodies of work through comparison, but that’s not the case here.
In a way, the same thing happens to Joseph Cornell’s boxes that happens to Osborne’s work here. They don’t quite jive with anything around them. At the Art Institute of Chicago’s new Renzo Piano Modern Wing, they’ve reinstalled the Cornell collection in its own self-contained glass vault with dim lighting. We have to experience the Cornell boxes as their own mini-worlds. They are not relational.
Ditto for Josie Osborne’s pieces. Even assembled in their own small groupings, they want to be self-contained. It’s just how they work.
The reward of these pieces is their small moments of stasis – like the way two old caster wheels bump up against piles of small wooden shapes in a the piece called “Baggage.” Or the way translucent layers create gently worn skins that lightly protect the drawn lines, grids and circles, notations of plans that now exist as fragments. Some of the drawn lines drape over circles, which then become pulleys. A real chain or a string might fall from one, bringing the outside world into the orchestrated world.
The focused consideration that Osborne places on a piece of string or the placement of a slip of paper brings some humor to the pieces. These overwrought decisions are the stuff of our dumb lives: Should I wear the red shirt or the striped one, should I walk the dog now or wait an hour?
Osborne’s work demands gentle contact with the viewer. Approach quietly and stay awhile.