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Art [Hearts] Dance: Joseph Cornell and Karen Kilimnik Come Together in a Romantic Ballet

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In the recent documentary about Alice Neel made by her grandson Andrew Neel, Neel said about her paintings, "I go so out of myself and into them [the sitters] that after they leave I sometimes feel like an untended house." I can only relate to Neel's feeling in my experience as a dancer. Over a decade ago, I had the privilege of studying on scholarship at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance where I was surrounded by some of the world's most stunning dancers upholding a technique that had incredible historical and emotional weight. Like Neel's paintings, Graham's technique and choreography is deeply psychological and emotionally challenging, not to mention very physically demanding. I had the opportunity to work with choreographers like Yuriko Kikuchi and the late Pearl Lang. It was a significant chapter in my life. I tell you this to preface a discussion that was inspired by a show I saw recently at Sprueth Magers London, pairing the works of two unlikely American artists, Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) and Karen Kilimnik (b. 1955), through their mutual love for Romantic ballet.

Cornell, who was more or less a recluse, collected nineteenth-century postage stamps, photographs, guidebooks, magazines, memoirs, Victorian engravings, and arranged these beautifully in his handcrafted diorama-like boxes and collage works on paper. Inside these boxes existed a world of Cornell's own, one where he transcended time and place, often where he idealized the romantic nature of the vanished past, including Romantic era ballet, which took place during the early to mid 19th century and produced ballets like La Sylphide and Giselle. Apparently Cornell pursued, borderline stalked, New York City Ballet ballerina Allegra Kent until eventually the artist and dancer (after initial weariness of the artist) became close friends. (Cornell's infatuation with beautiful young girls he met and starlets he adored was influential to his practice.) The show includes his primary homage box to the elegant dancer, a now fragile piece with a antique looking image of a young girl, a stone ball (Cornell uses balls often in his work, referring to games and representing fate and luck), and an image of Kent on the back of the box overlaid on now-yellowed newspaper clippings about the dancer. Before his death in 1972, Cornell produced hundreds of works on the subject of ballet and reveries about beautiful ballerinas like Kent.

Though separated by more than a generation, Karen Kilimnik's work deals with a similar obsession with the romantic sublime of the past and personal fantasy. She too has a magpie approach to her practice, collecting materials like glitter, stuffed animals, ribbons, and faux eggs alongside her paintings, drawings, and photographs. Curator Todd Levin discovered that Kilimnik also has an affinity for ballet, and the exhibit showcases several of Kilimnik's Romantic-style paintings devoted to the ballet--like her Degas Painting Hair Ornament Accessories Bag World, based on Degas's The Dance Foyer at the Opera--and an installation comprising of pointe shoes, balled up tutus, and a small rectangular slab of concrete called Paris Opera Rats, 1993, exposing the less than romantic nature of the dancer's world--the underbelly, the backstage.

No doubt Cornell's work stands out as superior in this show, and the two artists' are connected by a very fine thread, but even with the potential to be clumsy, the exhibition stands on two feet, gelled perhaps by the theatricality of the rooms--painted in a midnight blue with glitter and stars adorning the walls. At first I wasn't sure whether this interior environment undermined the works or enhanced them. I think it does neither but it makes the experience as magical and escapist as a night at the ballet. The show is augmented with ballet ephemera loaned by the White Lodge Museum and Ballet Resource Centre, as well as a Degas study for Little Dancer of Fourteen Years that hangs under a spotlight not too far from Cornell's Kent homage, titled Cinq etudes d'une paire de jambs, 1878-80, loaned by Thomas Gibson Fine Art Ltd.

Art [Hearts] Dance: Joseph Cornell and Karen Kilimnik
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This exhibition brings me to a discussion on the relationship between dance and visual art and the mutual admiration that artists and dancers have for one another, or so it seems. I had a wonderful and lengthy conversation with Antony Gormley about his connection to dance earlier this year--I was interviewing him about the Event Horizon project, a very body-centric work--and since I have thought about this natural connection between visual artists and dancers. Perhaps it's because of the mutually arduous and emotionally demanding nature of their work respectively or the body literally or figuratively being represented or representing some transcendent quality. Perhaps it's the visceral nature of both art forms or the power to relay emotion through both the hand and the entire body. The artist-dancer relationship goes back to Degas, of course, who was inspired by dancers and the backstage ballet culture, and later with Ms. Graham herself, who collaborated with artist and architect Isamu Noguchi. The relationship--now more reciprocal, it seems--has carried through into post-modern and contemporary art, producing some stunning collaborative works. Here are a few examples:

Since the 1970s David Salle collaborated extensively with choreographer Karole Armitage for New York-based modern dance company Armitage Gone! Dance, designing sets and costumes for many of her dance productions, including Wild Thing, 2009 (set by Jeff Koons, costumes by Salle); Ligeti Essays, 2005-07, http://www.armitagegonedance.org/photos/photos/38 (set design by David Salle and Clifton Taylor); Connoisseurs of Chaos, 2008 (set design by Salle), and countless others. Armitage has worked with a number of visual artists, including Kilimnik who designed the set for Made in Naples, 2009, http://www.armitagegonedance.org/photos/repertoire/57.

British sculptor Antony Gormley has worked with Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, creating minimal and versatile sets for the acrobatic dancers and Shaolin monks. See Gormley and Cherkaoui's Sutra, 2008, below.

Idris Khan and Sarah Warsop, who has danced for Rambert Dance and Siobhan Davies Dance, collaborated on Lying in Wait, 2009, at Victoria Miro for The Collection. http://www.sarahwarsop.com/

Martin Creed has recently been experimenting in both music making and dance. His work Ballet (Work No. 1020), which premiered at Sadler's Wells last year, will be performed at Traverse Theater for the Edinburgh Festival, August 8-15.

Please partake in this discussion and share links of more examples.

Joseph Cornell and Karen Kilminik at Sprueth Magers London, through August 27, target="_hplink">http://www.spruethmagers.com/