The French artist Isabelle Cornaro came to prominence with her large-scale installation Paysage avec Poussin et témoins oculaires (Landscape with Poussin and Eye Witnesses, 2008) in which she paraphrased the ideal landscapes of the classicist Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) and examined the relationship between landscape, painting and sculpture in a distinctive style with a finely balanced mixture of cheap materials and valuable collectors’ items: chipboard plinths of various heights, variously rolled or hung Persian rugs, Chinese vases, antique brass instruments. Besides looking good, this also provided a commentary on the links between contemporary perception and perspective and the productive shortcuts needed to transfer a two-dimensional motif from art history into a three-dimensional structure. With hindsight, Paysage avec Poussin et témoins oculaires also struck a topical nerve, appearing as the perfect reflection of that time’s renewed interest in eclectic home decor and art history.
But Cornaro’s first major solo show in Switzerland, with sculptures, photographs, wall-mounted and video works, revealed a more conflict-ridden picture. For according to a statement by the artist herself, and in spite of the ragbag quality of many of her works, she is not a great lover of flea markets. On the contrary, she loathes rummaging around in other people’s former possessions: ‘I dislike the slightly pornographic relationship to objects, half-sentimental, half-lecherous, that these kinds of places generate,’ she says in an interview handed out during the exhibition and posted on the Kunsthalle website. Dealing with all manner of junk and jumble, then, makes her ill at ease: ‘This unsympathetic relationship to my source material creates a tension that I much prefer.’
Cornaro turns this antagonism towards everyday objects to productive use by casting them, with a range of techniques, into assemblage-like sculptures in rubber and plaster. In the show’s first room, she hung four large-format plaster casts from her series Homonymes II (2012): greyish, formally identical relief panels in which a tangle of rugs, lacework and jewellery could be identified. The detail in some of the artefacts immediately raised the question of exactly how they were produced: are the rugs really cast, or are they appliquéd? But they must be casts, right, because the four panels differ only in nuances of colour: grey-green, grey-brown, grey-violet and grey-grey. They also recall the Dust Breeding photographs made in Marcel Duchamp’s studio by Man Ray in 1920.
God Box No. 1–3 (2013), on the other hand, a series of works produced specially for Bern and shown in an adjacent room, looked like weighty, blocky fetish objects: three chest-height steel cubes, their surfaces adorned with box-shaped things that exuded a peculiar, oily smell. No wonder: these boxes are decorated with (sometimes recurring) rubber casts of ornamentally arranged everyday items such as coins, chains, light bulbs, key rings, lenses, pieces of string or gloves. Then, in the basement space, there were three huge mobiles (Ornaments No. 1–3, 2012) whose angular, coloured industrial mirrors suspended from steel cables negated any expectations of Calder-esque frailty. These three groups of works acted in the show as a counterweight to the floating video projections (e.g. Floues et colorées, Blurred and coloured, 2010, and Film-lampe, 2011), photographic works (Portraits II, 2013) and the three serial spray-paint murals from the series Reproductions (2010). The overlapping clouds of colour in this last series evoked a permeable visual world lacking hard outlines. Here, one entered a dusky universe ruled by the humming of a half-dozen video projectors: pieces of jewellery arranged in groups, photographed as if for a Lalique catalogue, close-ups of Murano paperweights and antique coins, scraps of cartoons. This is how Cornaro approaches her aversion to the cult of junk: by exaggerating its inherent sentimentality and lecherousness, on the one hand, and, on the other, by dissolving them in the blurriness of fragmentary video images.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell