In Praise of Assemblage Art, Joseph Cornell and Eco-Depot Marketplace
By Kathleen Kondilas Franks
Early in 1930, a shy man named Joseph Cornell (1903- 1972) in Queens, New York, began making small artworks to entertain his brother who was confined to a wheelchair. His small early pieces evolved into a new art concept, one which is very alive today. Though it began nearly 90 years ago, what we now call “assemblage” is a relatively young art form compared to other visual arts.
Merriam-Webster defines ‘assemblage’ as “an artistic composition made from scraps, junk and odds and ends.” It’s a collection of items thoughtfully placed in a shadowbox or grouped to stand alone. Similarly, the French word ‘bricolage’ means something constructed by using whatever comes to hand.
An assemblage is often composed of ‘found objects’ from the flea market or thrift store that hold some timeworn beauty or meaning. Some assemblages seem like a puzzle to solve, though an idea guides their making. The artist may not reveal that idea, hoping that viewers will bring to it their own meaning, just as you would for a painting or music.
Cornell’s art evolved into larger pieces containing an assortment of things he had found. He walked a lot, scavenging for things that attracted him. Ingrid Schaffner describes this process in her book The Essential Joseph Cornell: “A shallow box that at first glance appears to be no more than a charming jumble of trash and trinkets. But take a closer look and you see that a transformation occurs: everything has been deliberately selected and arranged. Magically, even the miniature appears monumental. Mysteries unfold. Games are being played.”
But why, you ask, would someone seek out used or worn objects that seemingly have no current use? Timeworn, classic, outdated objects have an unspoken beauty and imperfect charm new stuff often lacks. That said; don’t be surprised if in today’s assemblage arts, newer objects are added to the mix.
Someone asked which comes first, found object or idea? As an assemblage artist, I know it can be either one. For example, I found a pair of shoe warmers at the flea market last year and was immediately inspired. The warmers may have come out of the 1950s. What intrigued me besides the aluminum foot forms were the two electrical cords coming out of the heels ending in one electrical plug. Eventually, I made an assemblage about being connected to home no matter the distance we travel. Another time, a quote by the writer Anne Lamott inspired me to make something about lighthouses and standing strong in who you are.
Eco-Depot Marketplace (EDM) in Asheville’s River Arts District displays the works of 50-some local and regional artists that are all categorized in some way as “environmental.” To qualify, the work must relate to the environment in materials, technique or subject matter. “Many of our artists upcycle mundane items into higher forms of art or creative usable items,” says owner Shelley Schenker. “The assemblage pieces are the ones that take on new artistic form and usually make folks stop to ponder. The author, Kathleen Franks, makes thought provoking art combining many serene and nostalgic items.”
At the moment EDM hosts four other notable assemblage artists. Their works range from the whimsical to the serene to politically dark. Deb Anderson gets a kick out of shock value and explores themes such as body image, politics and the occult with found items that include musical instruments, mannequins and skulls. Alan Kaufman creates a plethora of whimsical characters out of anything from toys to toilet parts, while Sandra Shelly’s work includes assemblage, altered books and thematic collage. Jill Howell fashions large-scale wall pieces that thoroughly explore fun themes while becoming something functional like message boards or jewelry displays.
In 2006–2007, The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, held an exhibition of Cornell’s art and recreated his workspace in Queens. This slight, introverted man with no degrees and little art instruction brought the world a new art form. He would never know the scope and influence of his assemblage.
Eco-Depot Marketplace will host a “Meet the Makers – Homage to Assemblage” Event on Sunday, February 12 from 1-5 p.m. EDM is located at 408 Depot Street in Asheville’s River Arts District and is open seven days a week 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Learn more at ecodepotmarketplace.com.