Dianne Kornberg develops the ‘Madonna Bomb’

Dianne Kornberg's "Madonna Comix" on the wall of Augen and in book form

Because I saw Dianne Kornberg’s luscious prints in book form first, in Madonna Comix, playing against 11 poems by Celia Bland, they seem out of context on the walls of the Augen Gallery this month. I like Bland’s poems and their attempt to connect us in the present day to the Biblical Mary. And in the imaginative space they create (not fill) Kornberg’s images make perfect sense. I also like the concentration the book allows, a reader’s concentration, which can be applied both to the poems and prints. They seem to require that.

Dianne Kornberg, "Madonna Bomb"

Dianne Kornberg, “Madonna Bomb”

Before turning the pages of that magnificent book, though, I should point out a few of the ways the gallery show exceeds it.

  • The prints are larger: So they literally exceed the size of the book images.
  • Because they are larger, more of the background reveals itself, the old “Little Lulu” comics on which Kornberg has built her images. Maybe you don’t know “Little Lulu”? She was the invention of Marge (Marjorie Henderson Buell) and a delightful, creatively self-absorbed character, full of pranks and best intentions that inadvertently become pranks. The comics (which Dark Horse has republished) also offer a culturally rich depiction of life in their times, primarily the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Kornberg uses Lulu as a substrate, with little bits of gold and more than a few ghosts, emerging to the surface. These are more prominent in the larger format prints.
  • The larger prints also allow a clearer appreciation of Kornberg’s sinuous lines and the abstract mark-making attack she brings to them. Assembled on Photoshop, the images often arise from Kornberg’s photo archives, but on the computer she makes them occasions for a variety of splashes, drawn lines, gestures of various sorts, some loose and airy, others more focused. Those sinuous lines most often give us a Mary at once idealized and fleshy.
  • Finally, the prints pose a puzzle, a set of points difficult to connect. The imaginative lines individual viewers determined to make the connections make would be themselves works of art, if we think of that experience of a new understanding finally dawning on us as an art experience. Which I am inclined to do.

A road map for the prints exists, of course, in the book, Madonna Comix. And we’ll get to in a bit. But Kornberg’s career here has been a long one (though she lives in Washington now), and her most recent collaborations with poets have taken her a long way from where she started. A little background may help to establish the distance traveled.

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Kornberg was born in Chicago in 1945, but when she was two, her parents moved to Richland, Washington, where her father was hired to direct the Radiation Biology labs at the Hanford Atomic Works. Her art-making was encouraged by two inspiring art teachers, Francis Coelho in third grade and Tomas Knudsen in high school. But she entered University of Washington as a science major: “Richland also had a cutting edge science program—first year physics was a course in quantum mechanics,” she said via email. “As a junior, I took a week-long field course in marine biology on Olympic Peninsula. I was fascinated.” She also was selected for a statewide science program at UW. By her sophomore year, though, she had switched to painting.

Kornberg remembers abstract expressionism as the dominant style in the painting classes, but the professors she remembers gravitating toward were more figurative—Michael Spafford and Norman Lundin. When she chose a graduate school to pursue an MFA in painting, she chose Indiana University primarily because the painting department was primarily figurative, including her thesis advisor James McGarrell and another important professor, the realist William Bailey.

ravenskullKornberg grew up with photography, though. “My father was an avid photographer, so there was a lot of picture taking in my childhood. We had family slideshows. I had a Kodak Brownie camera at an early age. When I was 16, he gave me his Leica camera.  The parent of a friend of mine had a darkroom, and he showed me how to do basic black and white printing.” At UW, she took some photography classes in the journalism department, and was further instructed by fellow student Glenn Rudolph: “Glenn introduced me to the world of the ‘camera artist.’”

By 1980, she switched her studio practice to photography, mentored by Portland attorney Gerry Robinson, a friend of Brett Weston. They went on photography trips together throughout Oregon, and she assisted at several Friends of Photography workshops in Carmel, California, “where I met photographers from all over the world who were engaged in many different ways of working,” Kornberg said. “In the switch from painting and drawing to making photographs, I felt I had found my natural medium for expression.”

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When I encountered Kornberg’s photographs for the first time in the mid-’80s, she was making images around animal and plant remains, which sounds a bit morbid as I type it. Here’s how curator Terri Hopkins put it in her catalog essay for a group show at the Art Gym in 1995, “RE-presenting the Object:  Evidence, Notes and Observations.”

“… in 1980 Kornberg began making photographs. She had been collecting bones and it became increasingly important to her to document her finds. The camera proved a better tool than paint and canvas for Kornberg—a better tool, because it lent itself more readily to the production of precise records.”

The images were immaculate: precise, unyielding to sentiment. But within the careful, almost textural images, they communicated the layers of meaning that dead things often communicate, though oddly, exactly because they were so beautifully photography, so aestheticized. I remember sea birds, specifically, but perhaps my memory is combining earlier work with later.

Dianne Kornberg, "L.Bullata"

Dianne Kornberg, “L.Bullata”

Her work received a jolt in the form of access to a collection of bone specimens at Reed College, which she learned about from a student at PNCA who was also attending classes at Reed. “I had been working in the genre of still life construction, using found objects from the natural world and objects altered by natural processes. The student was employed by the Biology Department at Reed College and became aware of a collection of bones that had been stored in a closet after being retired from Comparative Anatomy courses taught in the mid-thirties. I have her to thank for my access to the collection. It was the beginning of a fifteen-year project making still life photographs of specimens collected and preserved for scientific study.”

Dianne Kornberg, "India Tiger 5"

Dianne Kornberg, “India Tiger 5”

In Kornberg’s hands the stuff of science made the transformation to the stuff of art. I’ll quote at length the late curator Terry Toedtemeier, writing the essay for “Field Notes,” a 2007 retrospective, again at the Art Gym:

“The photographs that have resulted explore the interplay between two kinds of archival evidence. First, of course, there are the specimens themselves: the bones, butterflies, algae or plants, but in addition there are the trappings that document the process of collecting and categorizing: the boxes, labels, wrappings, mounts and bits of string and tape. These materials, like the objects they protect or identify, are now relics as well, testament to a time when such collections were assembled for education and for pleasure. Though separated from their original purpose, these objects have served as visual treasure troves for Kornberg. The beauty of the bones and bugs, feathers and leaves that she presents in her elegant photographs is made all the more fascinating by the visual context that surrounds them and identifies them as objects of scientific study.”

So, Kornberg’s images worked as a sort of meta-photo documentation in series such as “Comparative Anatomy” (1993), in which bird skulls are collected in Wampas Bar boxes or the top of a cat bone box reads “Mandibles of Cats Disarticulated” in rather clumsy hand printing. But the aesthetic potential of these specimen investigations is explored, too, in her gorgeous gelatin silver prints: I’m drawn to the moths in the “Insecta” series, for example.

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After her retrospective at the Art Gym in 2007, Kornberg was invited by a curator who had seen the show to participate in “The Poetic Dialogue Project,” which paired artists and poets from around the country to make collaborative work. She was paired with poet Elisabeth Frost, a poet who taught at Fordham University, and they produced Arachne, an integration of webs of words and various marks, executed with Photoshop tools and printed with pigmented ink.

Dianne Kornberg, "Education of the Virgin 8"

Dianne Kornberg, “Education of the Virgin 8”

Kornberg had begun experimenting with digital printing in 2003. “The advent of high quality technology for manipulation of photographs—that is, Photoshop—and pigment printing with inkjet printers, eventually offered me a way of working in which I could combine my experience as both a painter and photographer. In the beginning, around 2003, I was initially attracted to the surface quality of the pigmented ink on various papers. It was a ‘look’ that fit with the photographs of marine algae specimens that I was making at the time—a surface quality that was impossible to achieve with analog prints.”

The collaboration with Frost came just as Kornberg was relocating her studio (and home) to Obstruction Island in the San Juans, which has only three year-round residents. “So, doing collaborative work has provided me with intellectual and conceptual challenges that are fortuitous in the isolated environment of the island.”

The poet Celia Bland saw Arachne at the Chicago Cultural Center, sent Kornberg several poems, and asked if she would be interested in a collaboration. Since then, Kornberg has completed six projects with Frost and two with Bland, including Madonna Comix. A book with Frost, “Bindle,” is scheduled to be published by Ricochet Editions in the spring.

I asked Kornberg about how the poems work for her as an image maker:

“For every project I’ve done with poets, I feel like I’ve needed to invent a new visual approach appropriate for the content—come up with a new “visual language.” It is a continuing challenge for me to find a way to fully integrate image and text into visual pieces. In part, this is because text is perceived in a linear way while a visual work is spatial and is experienced in a non-linear way. For example, In ‘Arachne,’ found text appears on labels mimicking scientific notations, while the more lyric text is hand inked. Multiple dialogues are created: between hand-writing as scientific notation and as poetic/lyric phrase; between hand-writing as trace (partially erased) and the web as visual/glyphic trace; and between scientific and lyric ways of understanding the phenomenon before us. In Madonna Comix with Celia Bland, I decided to use stylistic elements from comic books.”

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Madonna Comix is an extravagantly beautiful book, and its riches include an introduction by Luc Sante, who teaches at Bard with Bland and is one of my favorite contributors to the New York Review of Books.

Dianne Kornberg, "Virgin Mary Before the Winter Prom"

Dianne Kornberg, “Virgin Mary Before the Winter Prom”

Although I wouldn’t say Madonna Comix makes explicit religious arguments, the poems are a meditation of sorts on a central figure in Christianity, Mary. Meditation is too passive a word, though. Bland captures Mary “Getting down the body, unhooking his hands/like drapes from a rod—/only to stop a hole.” She compares Mary to the pelican, which beaks its breast until it bleeds to feed her young: “…with my blood,/you suckle the pouch beneath my/maw—that’s myth, that’s Christ, that’s why/I’m quiet and sustained.” She imagines Mary as a cigarette machine or in flight or surviving in a materialistic world. Actually, the last one is in the voice of the poet: “Should I be good?/I am cane sugar crystallized/on the papillae of the American idiom — no ideas,/longing for things.” She even considers Mary as a suicide bomber in the disturbing “Madonna Bomb.”

Sante describes Bland’s poems as “lean, tough verses” that “act , swiftly and directly,” and that contain a “coil on tension, a clench,” inside their “fibrous matter.” And is description of Kornberg’s “audacious pictures” is compelling and correct: “Limbs, beaks, crotches, feathers all tumble over the page.”

What I love about the prints is how the various elements—the Little Lulu comics, words from the poems, drawings, photographs, loops and marks and squiggles—mush together in a tumble, how my eye jumps from one to the other but still manages to make sense of it. We never get that serene stereotype of Mary on the page. Instead, there are layers of meaning, images, metaphors, that explode that stereotype, recombining the resulting bits into something quite different that still speaks to the ineffable, if not the specifically Christian.

“The Christian Madonna is the source of a rich iconography that I reference in the images,” Kornberg writes. “Although the work is no longer recognizable as photography (my working process here is much like that of painting), photographically derived imagery is central. The figures are based on my negative archive. I made additional photographs to use as needed and incorporated some appropriated imagery. I retained and used many of the residual artifacts that result from working with software.”

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It took a feat of imagination by publisher Jim Leisy, who died almost a year ago, to conceive of Madonna Comix, with its multiple fold-out pages and out-sized format. He showed me the proofs of the pages before they were printed, spread out on the floor of his office, and they presented something bigger, stranger and more beautiful than I could fully encompass, something only someone with a deep knowledge of printing, photography and art could have conceived. Only after he died and after I saw the finished book, did this bookmaking idea of his make sense to me. And the risk that all great publishers take when they decide to go all-in on the talents of writers, photographers and artists, also came clear.

Madonna Comix is a risky endeavor—the subject matter, the images, the format—the very thing that the commercial world fears to do. I’ll miss Leisy’s puckish delight in rolling the dice on projects like this one and not just because this one was such a winner.

Read more by Barry Johnson.

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