The many masks of modern art
There is something magical about art made from found objects. Especially if the transformation is witty, and points up hitherto unsuspected parallels between otherwise unrelated objects.
I will never forget, for instance, how delighted I was to discover that the head of the baboon in Picasso's sculpture ''Baboon and Young'' was actually a toy car. Or how charmed I was by Joseph Cornell's transformation of a plump and very smug chicken into the midsection of a woman in one of his untitled collages of the mid-1960s.
In both cases, a kind of visual pun was created. The viewer, startled at first by this bit of incongruity, is soon amused and enchanted by the creative audacity involved in this transformation. And even, perhaps, begins to see that perception can be a highly complex and subtle - even a misleading - act.
But, while wit and visual punning may be the order of the day for some artists, there are those for whom found objects contribute to the shaping of an art with more subterranean and complex reasons for being.
I am thinking most particularly here of mythological art, a kind of art that we in this century have generally seen as too overlain with cultural, historical , and religious meanings to be fully trusted, art that is too dependent upon specific themes and subjects to be altogether valid in a period of intense formal explorations such as ours.
And that is true even though our most important artist, Picasso, devoted a considerable portion of his creative life to probing its mysteries, and many of our other major painters and sculptors have seen fit to dip into its various levels of meaning and implication for their imagery and inspiration.
Mythological art has a pedigree almost as old as man. And it is an honorable one. Take the mythological element out of Egyptian, Greek, Assyrian, Roman, and a great deal of Western European art, and you strip it of much of its heart and soul. Study the art of the ''primitives'' and you will find it there - as you will in the art of the Pre-Columbians and the Far East.
It is, in fact, irrevocably a part of the art of all peoples and of all times. Whatever else a culture's art may have, it will also include, to a varying degree, mythic representations of primal forces, fears, taboos, and reconciliations in the form of larger-than-life heroes, gods, demons, and heavenly or hellish beasts.
This is also true today, even though we claim not to believe in such things. Try as we may to ignore them, however, the forces that generate these entities exert their influences upon us. They demand to be given form, to be given names, and to be thus placated, obeyed, or exorcised.
Our problem is that we have neither names nor forms to give them that are indigenous to our particular culture, and must, therefore, borrow those things from older and more experienced civilizations and societies - or concoct them out of thin air.
Thus, Picasso had to draw from the Greeks for his images of pagan ritual, sacrifice, and expiation; for his centaurs and minotaurs; for Pan, Pegasus, and for the overall classical ideal that went with them.
But he was not alone - witness the traditional or newly invented mythological elements in the art of Ernst, Beckmann, Chagall, Dali, Brauner, Lipchitz, Bacon, Orozco, Moore, to name only a few. And the ghosts and echoes of mythological presences in the ''abstract'' imagery of Pollock, Rothko, Still, and Stamos, as well as in the paintings of the ''New-Expressionists'' of today.
The impulse toward mythification, in other words, is with us still, and will probably remain with people as long as they must deal with forces, fears, and hopes we do not easily or fully understand. The question, of course, is how, in the absence of a clearly defined mythology of our own, we can turn this impulse into art.
One way is through the shrewd manipulation of found objects. If carefully orchestrated to achieve maximum visual drama and exotic effect, the resulting incongruities and ambiguities can momentarily suspend disbelief and pave the way for at least partial acceptance of the magical and the mythological.
The outstanding example here, of course, is Joseph Cornell, whose boxes and collages fashioned a whole new world of mythological implications and presences. And much the same can be said about some of the younger artists who are striking out in this direction with great wit, charm, and inventiveness.
One of these is Russell Redmond, an artist who creates intriguing and often exotic sculptures out of things others have lost or discarded: broken toys, children's trinkets, miniature clothing, ordinary junk, tiny bits of machines, buttons - anything and everything that strikes his fancy as necessary ingredients for his wonderfully mysterious pictorial tales.
I stumbled upon Redmond's work quite by accident a few months ago in a group show in New York's SoHo. There were several pieces on view, most of them quite small and exquisite, but all of them totally charming and enticing. Some of the most effective seemed like perfectly realized miniature worlds hermetically sealed off from ours, and with apparently only a minimum connection with our realities and problems.
In some ways Redmond's sculptures are pictorial fairy tales combining elements of Hollywood tinsel and glamour, scale model stage-sets, music boxes, decorated Christmas trees, and jewelry displays, with images and themes that hauntingly evoke things half forgotten or possibly only half known.
He titillates our memory and our imagination, and then proceeds to enchant us into sensing the underlying magical and mythological significances of his baroque and exotic imagery. The process is complex and full of red herrings, false starts, distractions, and delicious little side trips, but it's worth the effort. Even if for no other reason than that his things bring a touch of magic into our lives.
Their specific meaning, however, is left purposefully obscure, for the simple reason that Redmond wants us to participate imaginatively in the final actualization of the work as art. He may construct it according to a definite plan, and in accordance with a strongly felt creative impulse, but its actual ''meaning'' is left up to us.
As he himself has written: ''Each sculpture is in a sense a narrative. Because the elements of this narrative - the items out of which I make my sculpture - are both commonplace and mysterious, concrete and yet non-specific in their meaning, there is scope for my own imagination to enter and transform them. I hope that my work itself will stand in the same way in the mind of the viewer, suggesting meanings but leaving open spaces in the tale where the viewer can let enter his own personal experiences and thus participate creatively in his own mythology. This magical and mysterious descent into one's own personal and collective past is the method and purpose of my art.''
Redmond, in other words, utilizes found objects as components of exquisite and exotic three-dimensional pieces which entice and engage our most primal feelings and memories. They also activate the most open and intuitive aspects of our imaginations, to the end of creating works of art which blend those components and those feelings and imaginings to our own personal specifications.
In short, he builds the road and points the way, but it is up to us to complete the creative journey.