The first, and perhaps most obvious, questions that arise when embarking on a writerly journey into Isabelle Cornaro’s mixed media artistic production have to do with perspective, point of view, and position. Where and how do I situate myself (both figuratively and literally) with respect to the intricate and multilayered formal structure of her work as a whole, and in relation to the individual drawings, photographs and films, paintings, installations and sculptures that comprise it? Where do I stand, what do I privilege, and what will I necessarily, if inadvertently, neglect to notice at this particular juncture in her career?
Mulling over such concerns is not only a matter of course when writing about contemporary art. These are questions generated by Cornaro’s specific materials, processes, and aesthetic approach to date, which oblige one to heed Yve-Alain Bois’ claim that “concepts must be forged from the object of one’s inquiry or be imported according to that object’s specific exigency.”1 Bois’ ideal critical method is especially relevant to Cornaro’s work. As an object-centered outlook, it underscores an artwork’s conditions of production, the conjunction of its material components and aesthetic properties, and its location in a field of continually proliferating objects. And, like Cornaro’s artistic practice, it considers the position and place of the subjects, namely the artist and viewers, interacting with and within that field.2
With all this in mind, the most convenient place to depart from is Cornaro’s installation Paysage avec poussin et témoins oculaires (Landscape with Chick and Eye Witnesses), of which there are currently four versions (made in 2008, 2010, and 2011). This series of installations can be seen as an aesthetic matrix, but not as the chronological or conceptual point of origin, from whence her ongoing engagement with the aesthetic and ideological features of systems of representation emerges distinctly. Taking as its referent classical pastoral landscape painting, best exemplified by the work of 17th-century artist Nicolas Poussin, each Paysage avec poussin et témoins oculaires reinterprets the two-dimensional surface of a picture into a spatial arrangement of ordinary plywood plinths upon which are placed different objects. In all versions, the installation is loosely organized according to the principle of linear perspective, with the foreground, middle ground, and background signaled by the increasing height of the plinths, the rapprochement of the plans, and the decreasing size of the objects as we move further into the composition. In the first three versions, imitation oriental carpets, which are rolled into tight cylinders placed parallel to the front edges of the plinths or fully unfurled beneath them like an ornate woven terrain, pace the eye as it travels through the scene. At the back of the installation more carpets, hung vertically alongside similarly-scaled wood panels, serve as the eye’s final resting place.
The objects atop the plinths in Paysage avec poussin et témoins oculaires I-III all refer in some way to representations of nature. In addition to cloisonné urns and other decorative domestic objects, like bulbous glass lampshades or baking molds of different sizes, the plinths host objects for measuring space and vision—varied rulers, magnifying lenses, volumetric measuring tools, binoculars, frames—and what Cornaro metaphorically refers to as “tautological” objects. A tautological object’s form and function are locked in a self-reinforcing semantic embrace: a ceramic vase in the form of a bunch of tulips or a cooking terrine in the shape of the rabbit that will be cooked in the recipient, or an egg cup in the image of a chick (a poussin).
Paysage avec poussin et témoins oculaires IV maintains the geometric perspectival structure of the previous versions, but veers radically toward abstraction. The plinths and freestanding walls that structure the space are iced with a thin coating of concrete, steel rods replace the rolled carpets, and the objects dispersed throughout are machine and engine parts as well as the industrial molds used to cast them. Beguiling patterns and surfaces are neutralized here into a lean, quasicinematic grisaille, punctuated with green and a spot of red. Unlike the other versions, this one is not composed in a solely frontal manner; we can pass behind the background. Scrim-covered windows in the furthest distance bring to mind the rectangle of a movie screen and also hint at a possible escape route. In all cases, we are the “eye witnesses” that enter into the space of the scene and provide a sense of scale to a new viewer that encounters it.
When classified and distributed within Cornaro’s “landscapes,” these found objects, whose debt to the Duchampian readymade is avowed, rouse the concept of mimesis, issues of resemblance, and techniques of reproduction, all of which have been integral to artistic expression since Prehistory and to the sphere of philosophical aesthetics since Antiquity. Representations of nature, especially imitations of an empirically observed and copied or an idealized thing or scene, were long considered to be inherently inferior to the “real” world. The appeal of artistic, scientific, and even social accuracy in representation has since ceded, in part thanks to the readymade’s implicit critique, to the belief that there is no distinction between the appearance of things and some fundamental essence or truth about them: all reality is mediated via representation.
Cornaro stages the temporal and spatial complexity of this mediation under the guise of highly articulated presentations in order to underscore a chain of relations that are at once formal, representational, and social. One senses that Guy Debord’s critical revision of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, whereby images come to supplement commodities in the mediation of all social relations is latent throughout her work, which explores the relationship between a representation of an “outside reality” (in this specific case a painting, itself a representation absent to us, but which we can imagine), how that representation is constructed, and what we project onto and into it.
Without attempting to compose an accurate portrayal of a specific landscape, wholly mimetic and more abstract or decorative regimes of representation cohabit and jockey for our attention in the space delineated by the Paysage avec poussin et témoins oculaires series. Further, the illusionism provoked by their perspectival display posits an ideal viewing position and a fixed spectator that is in essence a fiction, and an ideologically over-determined one at that, which is completely unsettled and undermined once the viewer begins to wander into the space and approach the objects on the pedestals. The intrusion of the mobile body in time tampers with the alleged integrity of the depiction of rationalized, timeless, pictorial space. While the perceiving subject and the perceived object are fundamental to the very conception of perspective, as well as to the understandings of space and the formations of knowledge that materialize from it, Cornaro engages with this history only in order to expose and subvert it.3 The popular notion during the Renaissance that a two-dimensional picture should give the viewer the illusion, via the use of perspective, of entering into a three-dimensional scene is first enacted and then completely turned on its head thanks to the dynamic interplay of the initially conjectural image and the simultaneous material presence of the objects that are used to build it.
With her mise-en-scènes, Cornaro emphasizes that regimes of representation are historically and culturally determined constructs that influence our ways of seeing and our temporal and physical modes of access to the visible world, but also that these can serve as the setting for much internal experimentation. Similarly, the art historian T.J. Clark, writing about perspective in Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (1648) and Landscape with a Calm (1650–1651), notes that “Part of the appeal of perspective to painters, surely, lies in the way the bare linear structure involved sets up the promise, or illusion, of systematic determination, all the better for painting to play its coercive and generative games with. All the better to show the powerlessness of mere structure against the play of metaphor, of materials—format, physical size, light, touch, ‘grounding,’ orientation of surfaces, shock of color, opacity and transparency of atmosphere.” He concludes: “Of course it is these that put viewers most powerfully in relation to imagined worlds.” 4
The references to theories, traditions, and technologies of representation—painting, sculpture, the decorative arts, as well as the mechanical modes of casting and lens-based media—that abound in Cornaro’s work are nearly always tethered to depictions of space. But the constant cohabitation of different media, along with Cornaro’s enmeshing of the mimetic or figurative in the abstract or schematic, destabilize any lingering opposition between these modes and terms. Take the series of “drawings” Le Parc de Sans-Souci (The Grounds of Sans-Souci, 2005), which minimally renders the structure of manicured gardens “à la française” into a sequence of vertical strips of white paper through which wispy curved tendrils of human hair have been tucked at intervals to simply mark elements of the cultivated, codified landscape, such as a statue or a tree, that were visible in the photographs. The soft and tactile materiality of the locks of hair contrasts sharply with the crisp precision of the sequential cuts in the landscape-format page. Like swirling hand-annotated musical notes on a partition, the locks in themselves are mute. Yet they evoke sensuality, and even sentimentality, and thus resist the sheer objectification proposed by the system in which they are confined.
Figures, lines, and frames converge in Black Maria (Phenomena Overwhelming Consciousness) (2008), a slide installation based on an original artist’s book made by Cornaro, the title of which refers to Thomas Edison’s Kinetographic Theater, the first cinema production studio. It is comprised of photographs of a landscape whose focal point is progressively telescoped to reveal a woman standing therein, the projection of which is accompanied by a series of line drawings (in fact, digital reproductions of pencil drawings) that reduce the transparent images of the figure in the landscape to opaque diagrams on paper. Cornaro’s figures in a landscape are consistently seen from an abstract point of view. One naturally tends to read the photographic images in Black Maria as prefiguring the drawings, as the original “text” in a translation whose final outcome is a barebones rendition of a pictorial source. In truth, the relation between original and copy, composition and decomposition, or of the construction of an image and its deconstruction is shown, as in any translation, to be a mediated relation of interdependence in which the quest for equivalences involves possible misreadings and misinterpretations, as well as a conversion of meanings.
The potential for the found objects that populate Cornaro’s work to be transformed by their contexts and invested with multiple meanings is continuously stressed via their use and nimble transfer across different mediums, classificatory systems, and modes of display. Like readymades, the objects are merely selected by the artist not made by her, and function here as formal components that participate in the construction of a picture. She likens them to motifs or graphic elements, void of any deliberate affective charge. In the series Moulage sur le vif (Vide-poches) (Life Casts [Catch All], 2009–2011), a variety of small objects (including tools, molds and stamps, poker chips, vials, a seashell) were gathered and arranged on colored backgrounds, either haphazardly or according to a typology based on their use and function or their symbolism. Cornaro scanned the collections to produce a flat, true-to-scale, two-dimensional replica of the three-dimensional objects, then repeatedly framed and cropped and printed those images, as if in the pursuit of exhausting all of their possibilities. However, Cornaro’s objects serve other purposes and live other lives when captured in one frame, or when they are re-composed, lit, and filmed or photographed from a different point of view. This is the case with her 16mm films Premier rêve d’Oskar Fischinger (Oskar Fishinger’s First Dream, 2008), which prefigure the Moulage sur le vif. In the former, the tiny figurines, lenses, perfume bottles, and decorative glass paperweights that appear frozen in the later Moulage sur le vif are grouped together and filmed according to specific cinematic conventions—the close up, the panoramic shot, the static shot—to explore representational codes and their effects, and the passage from a single perspective to a montage.
The vexing issue of narrative in Cornaro’s work, which is never literally resolved but merely evoked through the ongoing processes of making, framing, composing, and recomposing, is raised in works like Savane autour de Bangui et le fleuve Utubangui (Savanna around Bangui and the Utubangui River, 2003–2007). These are landscapes based on family photographs and composed out of jewelry arranged on plywood boards, which are displayed in horizontal vitrines and as photographs taken from above. The articulated gold links of a watch bracelet form the peaks and valleys of a distant hill, while a grouping of chains can indicate a horizon or the winding course of a river. A loose pendant of precious turquoise stone and pearl serves as some sort of landmark, as do a diamond and a ring. Although these are landscapes in the barest sense of the word, like the schematic directions you may get from a stranger asked on the street, the nature of the materials—jewels inherited from Cornaro’s mother, reminiscences of an upbringing in post-colonial Africa— offer a rare autobiographical glimpse into the artist’s personal life via the vectors of habitually fetishized objects and the longstanding association of photography with memory.
If the autobiographical interpretation is entirely secondary, the question of authorship and ownership of the objects she employs in her work is overwhelmingly elided. While the multitude of objects that figure there are generally not grouped according to artistic or stylistic conventions of historical progression (as they would be in a museum for example), the underlying art historical significance and meanings of her materials still cannot easily be dismissed. Her penchant for taxonomical organization and presentations of collections; her careful attention to traditions in modes of display and the place of the viewer; the presence of the landscape as privileged referent; and her recourse to reproductive technologies of photography, film, and casting as a means of de-emphasizing the role of the artist’s creative hand, are all supported by and generative of discourses about their aesthetic and social uses and values. Drawings are associated with construction and knowledge, photographs indelibly linked to souvenirs, casting and imprints with the mark or trace. Such materiality plays an undeniable role in the construction of meaning.
Matter and meaning reconverge in the cast sculptures titled Homonymes (Homonyms, 2010), after words that resembles each other when spelled and pronounced, but share different meanings (such as the word left), or in Cornaro’s case, things that bear the same name but do not refer to the same object. Here, objects related to representations of nature, as in the Paysage avec poussin et témoins oculaires series, are selected and grouped according to kind: objects with geometrical forms linked to image-making; objects decorated with ornamental forms or repeating patterns; and objects taking the form of something found in nature. Heaped together and cast in gray plaster, the objects are fixed in time and space through a mechanical procedure that leaves no room in the process for artistic intervention beyond their selection and arrangement.5 This produces a fundamental, structural tension between the presence, or absence, of the artist’s subjectivity and the formalization of the work of art. The initial “aura” of the objects, their purported “authenticity” as commodities, domestic utensils, scientific implements and tools, is neutralized into a homogenous gray mass of shapes and patterns set on tabletops. Nonetheless, it could be argued that any “aura” those objects once contained, thanks to their individual pre-histories and their afterlives as elements in Cornaro’s artistic production, is at once destroyed and secured, subterranean, in the form of the relic or trace. Walter Benjamin famously described “aura” as that “unique phenomenon of distance however close [a natural or historical object] might be” and the decay of “aura” as the desire to “get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.”6
The Homonymes seem to confront this problematic head-on. The casting process can be seen as fixing what were once mobile, transient objects into a more or less stable and immutable sculptural form. The parallels between casting and photography, where the mold and the negative allow for further reproduction, but the imprints still hold us in thrall, are made abundantly evident here. Yet in her first presentation of these works, at Galerie BaliceHertling in Paris in 2010, Cornaro worked against the grain of any such correspondences by surrounding the Homonymes with three films that projected cinematic modulations of color and light into the space and onto the sculptures. The formless sprays of bright and muted pigments on white backgrounds in Floues et colorées (Blurry and Colored) contrasts with the highly symbolic representation of coins and banknotes in De l’argent filmé de profil et de trois quarts (Money filmed in side and three-quarter profiles), while Film-lampe (Light-Film) focuses on the bulbs and flashes of light that make cinematic experience possible. The reticent and static multi-dimensional Homonymes rest on their tables as if beckoning to be revived, while the films endeavor to work their own particular brand of magic, flickering over surfaces, concealing and revealing details in the casts.
These objects previously cast, or objects similar to them, are once again set into circulation in one of Isabelle Cornaro’s most recent sitespecific installations, Le Proche et le lointain (The Near and The Distant, 2011), which entreats the viewer to explore the surfaces and volumes of their forms by meandering through the 14th-century vaulted space of the sacristy of the Paris Collège des Bernardins. Arranged on sheets of vividly colored paper inside vitrines, the colors, textures, and forms of the objects are caught in the play of verticals and horizontals at work in the principle of perspective that regulates the Paysage avec poussin et témoins oculaires. One looks into and enters the space by descending a small staircase, and proceeds through it by looking across and into the set of vitrines that house the objects, which can be confronted from any angle or side. The colored paper creates a distancing, even theatrical effect. The accessibility of different viewpoints, coupled with the characteristics and features of the medieval edifice, disturb the rational precepts of that principle.
Isabelle Cornaro’s constant negotiation of the synthetic view from afar and attentive close examination repeatedly clarifies how we see what we see. But just when one thinks one has grasped and taken hold of an image or idea produced by a particular compilation and composition of objects in space, a seemingly minor adjustment of our bodies or of the objects causes a shift in register, a transformation of the interior geography of a space, and ultimately, what we thought was fixed reveals itself to be unstable. Paradoxically, my attempt to synthesize Cornaro’s artistic production here reveals that the only narrative that might emerge from it is decidedly non-linear in nature. Her relentless exploration of those elements that structure our perception and divide our attention keeps us on the move too, in search of secure interpretations that may never appear on the horizon.