Beauty is a Void

April 28, 2005

In college I took a concept seminar class on beauty. The first assignment was to make an artwork that was as unattractive as possible. For some this meant creating a piece of kitsch, for others it was an exercise in audacity. I chose to subvert a historical masterpiece and, with apologies to Van Gogh, turned Starry Night into something utterly banal.

It's difficult to intentionally make something ugly. Maybe this isn't true in the industrial world of consumer goods, but at an art school tethered to a historical tradition of craftsmanship, it is a challenge. Many people didn't succeed. Most people struggled with the idea.

After our critique we were randomly assigned someone else's hideous object to somehow beautify. The parameters were fairly loose: essentially, you had to have the object serve as the primary material for the new work.

I was given a ceramic mosaic fish with kissy-lips and cartoon eyes. As Ceramics  was a studio I studiously avoided (too dirty), it would prove difficult for me to work in that medium. I opted instead to document the creation utilizing some pinhole cameras I'd recently built. 

I draped the fish in some white muslin and then sprayed it with water for that "wet drapery" look so adored by Classical sculptors of the Hellenistic Period. Between that, and the softening effect of the pinhole camera, I was fairly certain that I could create a few images that would be considered beautiful.

For the most part the results weren't that intriguing.

But, oddly enough, this image of the fish lips. . . 

. . . would unexpectedly mimic earlier work. . .

. . . and remain one of the more enigmatic photographs I've ever taken.

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