BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Features | 01 MAY 10
Featured in
Issue 131

Isabelle Cornaro

Oriental rugs, Chinese porcelain, inherited jewellery; miniature landscapes, tautological objects and 16mm film

BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Features | 01 MAY 10

Every now and then a single art work becomes associated with an artist in one’s mind and sticks there, obstinately refusing to cede its advantage no matter how sincerely one appreciates that artist’s entire output. Until recently, this has been the case, for me, with Isabelle Cornaro’s installation Paysage avec Poussin et témoins oculaires (version 1) (Landscape with Poussin and Eyewitnesses [version 1], 2008–9), which I first discovered in her 2008 exhibition at La Ferme du Buisson art centre in the Paris suburbs. Loosely based on a painting by Nicolas Poussin, this ‘landscape’ comprises a set of plywood pedestals of varying dimensions and tightly rolled, hung and unfurled oriental carpets, arranged according to rules of perspective and favouring a single point of view. Wandering into the three-dimensional interpretation of its two-dimensional art-historical ancestor, I discovered that the pedestals are topped with large cloisonné-patterned urns, smaller decorative items Cornaro calls ‘tautological objects’ because their forms mimic their functions (such as a duck egg-cup in the shape of a duck), as well as devices for measuring space and for aiding vision. In keeping with the perspectival organization, the size of these objects diminishes depending on their placement in the foreground, middle-distance or background.

Paysage avec Poussin … distils the conceptual and formal concerns that traverse Cornaro’s mixed-media work, namely the framing of perceptual experience by representation and the potential accuracy and slippages of translation between the reproductive modes of drawing, photography, film, and installation. In her dual channel installation Premier rêve d’Oskar Fischinger, (Part 1 and Part 2) (Oskar Fischinger’s First Dream, [Part 1 and Part 2], 2008), an homage to the avant-garde animator who famously worked on Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940), Cornaro films carefully arranged and lit compositions of everyday objects on neutral or black backgrounds on 16mm, with different lenses, in panoramic or close-up shots. Her framing and filming strategies distort the scales of the objects; miniature perfume bottles adopt hieratic, sculptural poses; blown-glass paperweights transform into mysterious, luminous planets. Her installation Black Maria (Phenomena Overwhelming Consciousness (2008) juxtaposes a set of 11 abstract perspective line drawings with 11 slides depicting a figure in an urban park landscape. The camerawoman approaches (or is it purely an effect of a telephoto lens?) until only the model’s mouth fills the frame. Cornaro’s relationship to her subject remains uncomfortably ambiguous: is their intimacy real or purely a representational construct?

Moulage sur le vif (vide-poches) (Life Casts (Catch-All), 2009. Pigment prints on rag paper, 103 x 73 cm. All images courtesy: Galerie Balice Hertling, Paris and the artist.

Cornaro mines this ambiguity by setting up a tension between the analytical, lyrical and anecdotal, as in Savannah Surrounding Bangui and the River Utubangui (2003–7), minimal landscapes she ekes out of inherited jewellery she has disposed and composed onto landscape format sheets of plywood (displayed in glass cases or as photographs taken from above). The artist insists that her autobiographical or emotional attachment to her chosen objects is of no importance, though she does not deny that her selection and approach can be interpreted as emphasizing their fetishistic aspects. More important to her is how the solidity and stability of the objects mutate, how an object accrues value or withdraws almost to the point of disappearing under specific regimes of representation.

In an early Super-8 film, Vanité Vive (Live Vanity, 2001), we see Cornaro’s hand placing objects on a wooden tray-table. Lately, as if to neutralize the literal and symbolic presence of the artist’s hand, she has distanced herself from her materials by interposing technological processes of reproduction. Her Moulages sur le vif (vide-poches) (Life Casts [Catch-All], 2009) are 1:1 scans on coloured backgrounds of neatly arranged or haphazardly grouped objects – vintage silver spoons, shells, crystal bottle stoppers, printing plates, ceramics. But it’s her most recent work, Homonymes (2010), that signals a striking aesthetic and conceptual turning point. Inspired by Viennese art historian and psychoanalyst Ernst Kris’ study of the ornamental life-cast pottery of 16th-century craftsman Bernard Palissy, who devoted a great deal of his life to cracking the secret of Chinese porcelain (he failed), Cornaro has cast table-tops loaded with her objects in monochrome mouse-grey plaster and placed them on trestles. The objects are again classified: one table holds ‘tautological objects’, another objects of measurement, another decorative objects and the last, hung on the wall, contains a heap of miscellaneous items. The tables are subtly illuminated by three new films (Film-Lampe, Film-Lamp; Floues et colorées, Blurred and Coloured; De l’argent filmé de profil et de trois quarts, Money Filmed From a Side View and a Three-Quarter View, all 2010), and from a short distance it appears as if everything has been dusted with a fine layer of ash. The silky texture of the plaster begs to be caressed and the degree of similitude, achieved through a complex multi-part casting process, is breathtaking. With the Homonymes, Cornaro has essentially released me from the spell of Paysage avec Poussin … and stimulated great anticipation for what will come next.

Vivian Sky Rehberg is a course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.