The box, the simple box, may be the art form of the 21st century. With or without its sixth wall, it promises a mystery; when its contents (or lack thereof) are displayed, some deeper mystery often remains. Past masters like Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp have inspired new generations of artists to fill rectangular solids with an assortment of found objects. Depending on your taste and perspective, this is either a form of sculpture or a short step up from the elementary-school diorama. The box is thus the darling of both the Tate Modern and the community amateur show: the bricolage celebrates vision rather than craft, suggesting to some that art is effortless, to others that it’s inscrutable. Meaning seems either elusive or all too obvious.
Gabriel Collins, the narrator of Stacey D’Erasmo’s new novel, “The Sky Below,” imagines his life as a series of such containers. He begins with the boxes and wrapping paper from which his mother builds elaborate mini-cities during his New England childhood; graduates in adolescence to shoeboxes full of pilfered knickknacks, “the kinds of things that would never be missed, that were treasure only to me”; and later embarks on a career as an artist. The objects he thinks of pasting into his works are varied and often grotesque: shreds of balloons, a belt buckle, teeth, hair, watch gears, a bottle of his own mucus, “pop-up line drawings” of male organs and sketches of 9/11.( Collapse )