50 Boulevard De Waterloo
Isabelle Cornaro has enjoyed a growing presence on the international contemporary art scene over the past decade. Cornaro is one of a generation of artists drawing on precise knowledge and research, while at the same time pursuing a very practical commitment to the plastic formalisation of that erudition, in their work. Cornaro’s work reflects her continuing exploration of artistic representation in the Classical period (notably the history of architectural perspective and garden design), actualised in a variety of media: drawings, film, photography, sculpture. Her work seeks to lay bare the structures underpinning Classical representation (proportion, compositional grids, vanishing points), by re-casting them in geometrically-partitioned systems of her own, incorporating objects, images and human figures.
Meticulously executed yet enigmatic and deliberately resistant to categorisation, Cornaro’s practice is broadly definable as collage, incorporating bold aesthetic, historical and conceptual associations. Her sources combine erudite iconography (landscape paintings, photographs of modern architecture, still lifes) and popular culture (domestic design, cheap trinkets, kitsch decorations). Drawing on these, her work pushes at the frontiers of traditional artistic disciplines and categories, often passing from one medium or dimension to another within the same series, refuting the notion of specific supports as the unchanging preserve of specific representational forms. Cornaro treats sculpture like painting (laying bare its relationship to layout and composition, framing and colour) and painting like sculpture (emphasizing the work’s relationship to its spatial setting, and the physicality and shifting perspective of the viewer) – a strategy ideally suited to her sophisticated meditation on art and the history of art. By their very nature, her unerringly precise, structured forms blur the relationships between abstraction and figuration, nature and representation, reality and illusion. A two-dimensional landscape projection is perceived less as a plan, and more as a story-board; a volume is photographed and flattened in the process; an abstract arrangement of family jewellery recreates the underlying structure of an African landscape; more recently, objects and materials are arranged with meticulous precision on narrow, coloured stands. Elsewhere, the Sans-Souci series plays on juxtapositions of heterogeneous forms: a geometric structure made of paper folds (again derived from the transposition of existing scenes or landscapes), in which strands of horsehair are entwined like figurative motifs.
Cornaro’s work operates within a gently contradictory regime, actively questioning the paradoxes and blind alleys of traditional representation, actualised through the experience of modern movements and media from Minimalism to cinema.
For her exhibition at La Verrière, Isabelle Cornaro has produced a new work conceived as a kind of sculptural precipitate of her experiments with colour, perspective and volume, resonating with the venue’s topography and her current artistic preoccupations. Beneath La Verrière’s glass roof, the exhibition’s central structure is part mausoleum, part minimalist sculpture and functional ‘vanity’, in the tradition of 18th-century architectural follies. But the Hard-edge aesthetic of its radical, geometric form is undermined by the motif that covers its surface. The spray-painted design uses pointillism, soft shading and kitsch decoration to conceal the volume’s sharp edges and flatten its austere form while at the same conferring a curious aesthetic appeal. Created in situ, the installation is potent with the traces of its own making. The piece plays on the ambivalence of the venue as a showcase and studio alike. It is exhibitionist and withdrawn in equal measure.
As often in Cornaro’s work, however, the piece’s superficially ‘cold’ aspect masks a seductive appeal that is simultaneously rejected and playfully exploited. This fundamental ambiguity plays on the viewer’s constantly shifting affects, taste and aesthetic enjoyment of the piece, as we move around the space. This unresolved quality might be seen as one of the work’s weaknesses but in reality, it is the key to its power: the power of an analytical work with an undeniably sensual, mysterious aura, a work that accuses and challenges the politics of looking as shaped by the history of representation, by ultimately revealing itself to be more cruel than rational, more trenchant than precise, more perverse than seductive.
At a more profound level, the disturbing, ambivalent charm of Isabelle Cornaro’s works lies in the tension between their appearance of conceptual rigor, and the intimate narratives and urgent tensions that underpin and break through their formal surface. The simplest lines whisper stories, the most desolate landscapes are resonant with individual destinies, ordinary objects display a fetishistic engagement with their own materials.
By engaging with the history of architectural and pictorial representation, Cornaro’s works are not merely demonstrations. Rather, they strive to create affective genealogies – an approach that functions like a kind of archaeology in reverse, working with the fossil record, fixing sedimentary layers of objects and images beneath single colours. But beneath these fascinating historical connections, an alternative network of subversive links is forged – between corruption and perfection, classical rigor and baroque fervour, the mind and the body – as if lifting the veil on some cursed portion of the rationalist ideal. Cornaro’s work hints at a discreet, ideological critique – suggested rather than overtly figured – denouncing the subjection of the individual viewer’s gaze to the rules of representation, the body to the architectural master-plan, and the object to the economy of its own production. Because distance is everything in Isabelle Cornaro’s work. From historical perspectives to optical tools, the interstices between successive perspectival planes, and ‘disappeared’ objects, everything is there before us yet nothing is immediately palpable: an approach that sees the artwork as a form of melancholy, if we agree to the latter as a form of unobjectified yearning.