Reality in a Box 

CHRISTOPHER TAW: SHADOW BOXES

at One Country Gallery, through June 5

Christopher Taw's shadow boxes recall the boxes of Joseph Cornell. Influenced by the French symbolist poet Mallarme, Cornell assembled diverse, often ordinary things in ways that led the imagination to meanings beyond the obvious. In one untitled box (c. 1957) from Cornell's "Soap Bubble Set" on view at the Art Institute, a yellow cork sphere is perched on two horizontal metal rods, behind which is a large photo of a planet or moon. A ring hangs from one of the rods; a cordial glass is at left; a broken clay pipe of the type that might be used to blow soap bubbles sits on the bottom. Here Cornell creates a paradox of scale: the cork and the ring are being compared to planets, and this little symphony of circles suggests an equivalence between the tiny and the cosmic, an equivalence possible only in the mind's eye. As Cornell once wrote of soap bubbles, "The fragile, shimmering globules become the shimmering but more enduring planets."

By contrast Taw is a realist: his boxes are rooted in, and lead the viewer back to, the physical world. The earliest box in the show, Closet (1975), literally takes the form of a closet, the glass in the position of the door. The white-walled room, with a shelf and rack, is scattered with odd two-toned hangers made of color-coded telephone wire. It's in the Hall Closet (1980) is another, more cluttered miniature cubicle. Tiny bundles of newspaper lie on the floor; a thermometer hangs on the wall, as do several small drawings and prints. Some of these objects, such as the newspapers, might logically be in a closet--but who hangs art on a closet wall? On the floor with the newspapers are actual kitchen matches, leaning against the wall; these look enormous in the miniature room, introducing an almost surreal disparity. Here, within an "actual" room--a realist space Cornell almost never provides--Taw introduces mystery.

Even stranger and more powerful are Taw's group of six small works, part of a recent series of smaller boxes each containing only one, two, or three objects. An untitled box (1994) holds a rusted piece of machinery; a grid of bluish circles covers the back wall. The odd prominence given this piece of junk, which almost seems to press against the sides of the box, encourages the viewer to bring his own associations to it--as he would with a Cornell box--but the rusted object's physicality prevents him from going on a weightless mental journey from soap bubble to solar system. With a Grain of Salt (1992) places a saltshaker on the floor of an otherwise empty cubicle whose walls are black with white specks, a pattern that suggests the night sky--in which case the shaker is absurdly large. Like the matches in Closet, the isolated saltshaker asserts its own physicality, denying the piece any of Cornell's transcendent delicacy and returning the viewer to the world of everyday objects.

Desert Rose (1982) evokes the museum diorama as well as playing familiar modernist games with illusion and reality. Most of the back of this longish box is covered with Taw's watercolor of a desert landscape; one corner of the paper on which it's painted is unattached and curls forward, reminding us that the picture is an illusion. In front of it on the box's floor are stones, sand, a stem with yellow leaves, and a rose. In a work of high modernism, neither the watercolor nor the desert objects would be seen as more "real"; they would be in tension with each other. But here the curved edge of the picture and the fact that the watercolor landscape does not create a very successful illusion literally seem to "tilt" the viewer's attention to the actual sand, stones, rose. Nature is given precedence over the artist's creation.

Taw, 43, has lived in Chicago since 1969, when he enrolled in the School of the Art Institute. While he has been making these boxes for two decades, only one has ever been exhibited; his drawings have been in group shows, but this is his first one-person exhibit. He cites as influences not only the few Cornells the Art Institute had when he arrived here but also the museum's Thorne rooms--miniature rooms filled with realistic furniture, rugs, and views through windows and doorways depicted in painstaking detail.

The Thorne rooms are meant to answer questions about historical decorating styles, but Taw's box The Attic (1980) raises questions that are unanswerable, "making puzzles to which there are no solutions," as Taw puts it. A doorway at the right of an empty white room leads to a stairway and presumably to the attic. The room is not rectilinear, so the floorboards running parallel to one wall meet another wall at a weird angle. The stairs, ending about halfway up in a landing, appear to lead to another flight to the left. Though the viewer's eye is drawn into the room by the receding lines, it's also deflected by lines that end abruptly or take odd angles. A light coming apparently from the attic adds to the sense of mystery.

Taw and Cornell clearly have different worldviews. While Cornell encourages an ever more refined inner vision, giving each object a preciousness that removes it from the everyday world, Taw roots his vision in actual physical objects or scale replicas of them. To view Cornell is to be taken on an inward journey, which will be different for each viewer. And to view Taw is to be reminded of the mystery and beauty in daily encounters with the ordinary--a closet, a saltshaker, stones and sand. Like many younger artists, he's unwilling to give his imagination greater priority than physical reality; his art seeks a more even balance than Cornell's between the individual's transformative vision and physical givens. If The Attic reminded me of my childhood fears of mysterious stairways, Desert Rose recalled the primal pleasure of encounters with stones, sand, flowers.

Perhaps the most complex of the boxes is Strange Garden (1992). While most of the box is relatively dark, as in The Attic a light comes from within, from behind a closed garden gate at the rear. In the foreground are planters in which "plants" made of the ends of elevator cables formed into loops sprout from the soil. Pointing every which way is a labyrinth of what seem metal logs, made of small reinforcement bars used for poured concrete. If urban gardens are usually attempts to soften the metal and stone of the city with greenery, this garden reverses that expectation, just as the seemingly haphazard arrangement of logs is the opposite of the well- ordered landscaping of most gardens. The whole scene, with the closed gate, has a slightly threatening edge, a suggestion of industrial detritus come alive and run amok.

Yet additional viewings reveal a hidden order--the chaotic logs, mostly at the left, seem to balance the well-ordered vertical bars of the gate at the right. I began to see a raw, wild beauty in this recycling of junk into a "garden." And by directing the viewer's attention toward the actual world, Taw expresses not only a concern for the real state of things but an interest in recovering from modernist art's personalized, hermetic vision a child's sense of discovery of the everyday: sand, stones, a shaker of salt.

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