The Beautiful Struggle

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Brigitte Carnochan, Roman Head, 2021, Archival pigment photograph, 30”x39”. Photo: Courtesy of Themes + Projects

Beauty has a sordid history in art. Once held up as the most essential aesthetic principle, beauty has been championed, diminished, and had to fight for its value. An esthetic of pain has taken center stage in twentieth and twenty-first century art, emphasizing artists who express or parse personal struggle in their work, often correlating to an aesthetic that places more emphasis on content than technical mastery.  

Exhibitions of suffering offer viewers and artists a sense of empathic solidarity. But at the cost of a diminishing appreciation of beauty, a kind of Catch-22 that serves to further elevate suffering as an antidote.

Brigitte Carnochan’s solo exhibition Still Beauty, on view at Themes + Projects, 1275 Minnesota Street, explores the aesthetic principle of beauty in two distinct series of photographs. The major body of work are large pictures of floral arrangements Carnochan made throughout 2021, bringing to mind the still-lives of Flemish painters. 

Mistaking Carnochan’s photos for paintings would, in fact, not be such a mistake. The photos were achieved using a process Carnochan calls “painting with light,” in which the photographer uses a flashlight to highlight various elements of the subject during a long exposure. Multiple takes are then stitched together digitally to achieve the finished product. This method makes the photographs appear hyper-real while imbuing them with the luminescence of an oil painting. 

Bowl of Cherries reads like a classic still life with arrangement of fruit and flowers; Yellow Lillies puts greater emphasis on the floral array. Roman Head incorporates a Classical bust, evoking further communion with art history. A close look at each composition betrays the fact that they’re made of multiple exposures: blurred edges where one take overlaps the other become evident, lending to the painterly quality of the work. Inclusion of pinned butterflies in each picture feels like a reminder of the fleeting capture of a photograph, even if Carnochan’s process defies this.   

Brigitte Carnochan, Natural Wonders #71 Rose Vase, 2020, Cyanotype over Platinum, 16”x20”. Photo: Courtesy of Themes + Projects

Process has always been at the forefront of Carnochan’s practice, her work evolving alongside technological advancements in photography. She’s experimented with alternative and antiquated processes. 

A second series of smaller photographs, dated 2020, accompanies the still-life’s, combining cyanotype and platinum printing processes in which emulsion is painted directly onto a sheet of paper and a large negative is exposed directly to sunlight. These pictures have a drawn quality, akin to sketches, where the larger photographs occupy the space of painting.

These photographs veer away from the still-life composition, focusing on single elements and smaller moments in nature. Natural Wonders #66 Fern shows a drooping fern blade visited by a kaleidoscope of butterflies. Natural Wonders #71 Rose Vase reads like a pared down version of one of Carnochan’s light paintings: a delicate arrangement of roses sits in an antique vase, not a full-blown collection but perhaps flowers for the table. Whether or not these pictures are staged like Carnochan’s still lives, in both series she achieves a sense of effortlessness: the unselfconscious character of natural beauty.

“Beauty means harmony” Carnochan said. “It’s not war. It’s peace.” 

The value of a work of purely aesthetic beauty is not in its portrayal of struggle; its worth is in the fact that it doesn’t portray struggle. Beauty alleviates pain. In observing beauty, we find solace in a lapse, however brief, from the constant pressures of our lives.

Still Beauty is on view at Themes + Projects through December 23, Tuesday to Saturday,11 a.m. to 6 p.m.