Thinking Inside the Box by Kate Tyte

Thinking Inside the Box, an exhibition by Joseph Cornwall at The Lake Arts Centre, Kendal

Review by Marcus-Pembleton-Fotherington-Wright

My detractors have often accused me of harbouring prejudices against what my editor directs me to term ‘the regions’, in the absurdly PC nomenclature of our age. This is entirely false. I bear no ill-will towards the provinces; rather, I loathe provincialism.

Provincialism; that narrow-minded, backwards-looking mentality of the inherently ignorant, can be found in the metropolis as well as ‘the regions’. It can even be found amongst academicians and members of the Arts Council who prefer giving grants to one-armed lesbian vagina-knitters to real artists. But the usual mindset of the provinces is provincialism.

And nowhere in Britain is more provincial than the Lake District. Newcastle may be a ghastly eyesore that ought to be walled and moated to protect our sensibilities, but at least the Geordies have spirit.

The Lake District, on the other hand, is limp. A land of desolate tea room-cum-gift-shops hawking twee little watercolours of sheep-peppered mountainsides and lumpen pottery handcrafted by middle-aged divorcees with an appalling penchant for sensible shoes and colourful scarves. The customers, middle-aged be-anoraked couples, eschew honest, glorious despair in favour of putting a brave face on their sexless marriages and performing the ignoble pretence that it might brighten up later.

And it is to this wet swamp of sentimental dross that I have travelled. I write this not with the rose-tinted glasses of a critic who has been softened up by an all-expenses jaunt to the Venice Biennale, negroni in hand, on a balcony overlooking the plaza. I write this in a chilly, chintz-wallpapered bed and breakfast with a too-short bed and the rain lashing down.

And yet: Joseph Cornwall’s small but perfectly formed exhibition delighted me.

‘Thinking Inside the Box,’ is an awful title, granted. But when our most esteemed academics are reduced to writing childishly punning essay titles to generate the interest that their otherwise insipid work cannot, we are perhaps foolish to expect more of our artists.

The title is at least relevant. The exhibition consists of seven large, plain brown cardboard boxes, grouped in a circle on the floor.

The first box had a peephole in it. I had to force my lofty frame to assume an awkward squat, my undignified knees creaking to peer through the hole. The box contained a series of boxes enclosing each other to vanishing point like Russian Dolls.

Other boxes are crushed, closed or open, torn or cut, or they contain a raggle-taggle of oddments including children’s toys and a broken tea set. To be fair to Cornwall he’s done his best with the material, presenting every variation of a cardboard that can reasonably be imagined.

It looks like a jumble sale. Exactly the kind of god-awful conceptual crap that ought to have been killed off in the womb.

The press release idiotically informs me that the boxes have ‘visual weight and texture.’ I abhor this linguistic inaccuracy: weight and texture are not visual qualities. Apparently the Russian-doll boxes are:

‘A comment on the preposterous absurdity of the right-wing tendency to essentialism. The humble box becomes an elegant interlocutor asking ‘How am I constrained by the social matrix and how does it re-fashion my identity as part of an endless inter-textual conversation?’

Precisely the type of meaningless drivel that the vacuous brown-nosers of the art scene routinely churn out.

But then I discovered something. In a magnificent, up-ending flourish, the artist actually spends part of each day ‘thinking inside’ one of the boxes.

What wit, I thought. Cornwall is playing the establishment at their own game. For all their insistence on art as a form of ridiculously nebulous ‘self-expression’, we all know that those who ‘think inside the box’ – who have skill at drawing, perspective and anatomy, who study the masters, who continue the hallowed traditions of the canon of western art – are the true artists. Those who claim to ‘think outside the box,’ are simply the pitifully talentless, egotistical non-entities lauded by a delusional arts establishment in thrall to mindless celebrity culture and pointless iconoclasm.

This is a crap exhibition and a delicious joke.

As I was standing in the foyer, buttoning my Barbour against the drizzling gloom, the curator hurried out and said ‘Joseph was pleased that a critic from London was so interested in his work. He’s invited you to take part. He’d like you to think inside one of the boxes with him.’

I thanked her, and said I would think about it.

Over a pint in The Host of Daffodils Inn, I contemplated.

I take my work as a critic seriously. It is my duty to inform, enlighten and direct the readers of this column, so that you may avoid spending your money on rubbish. I remain resolutely impartial. I do not let friendship taint my critical integrity.

I do not dabble in the arts. But Cornwall’s exhibit is not art as such – it is satire at the expense of the art establishment, and I share its sentiment.

So, by the time you read this column, you will find yourself in the unique position of being able to criticise the critic, as he participates in ‘Thinking Inside the Box’, until August 31st.

Editor’s note:

Regular readers of this column will know by now that before this paper went to print, Marcus Pembleton-Fotherington-Wright died. He had a stroke, possibly brought about by the stress of forcing his famously six-foot four frame into a cardboard box.


Kate Tyte has a degree in English Literature and for many years worked as an archivist at places including The National Portrait Gallery, The Royal College of Surgeons and the Natural History Museum. Now she teaches English in Portugal. She is a regular contributor to Slightly Foxed magazine.

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