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Box Set

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Seashells from a special trip, grandmother's old photographs of people no one recognizes: Every time we move we swear we're going to throw that stuff away, but we never do. We cannot let go of the objects because we are afraid of losing our memories. We are afraid of losing a part of our selves.

In the 20th century, artists began using "found objects," often the things people had thrown away, to create assemblages. New York artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), in particular, assembled compasses, texts and other found objects in boxes to create wonderful artworks that were personally meaningful to him, yet evoked a sense of nostalgia in viewers. Tucsonan Herb Stratford is one of Cornell's contemporary heirs.

Stratford's exhibition, Institutional Alchemy, at the Tucson Museum of Art, continues his exploration of assemblages constructed of found objects placed in hinged metal, wood and leather boxes. Stratford is drawn to objects that have recurred in his growing body of work: old photographs, dusty vials, magnifying glasses, anatomical drawings and texts scrawled in chalk on black surfaces.

Although some of Stratford's new assemblages bear the nostalgic sense of memory and loss that have been his hallmark, his growing fascination with the precise examination of science makes most of these pieces emotionally cooler than his earlier work. Looking at Stratford's new work is interesting, but so is following his career.

Institutional Alchemy, which was curated by Julie Sasse, TMA's curator of contemporary art, is part of the museum's "Directions" series, which features "emerging" artists. In her exhibition brochure, Sasse aptly defines an emerging artist as one who "is coming from obscurity and entering into a broader realm of recognition." This clearly describes Stratford, who will have his first solo exhibition in New York this fall at the famed O.K. Harris Gallery.

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