Thomas Joshua Cooper’s landscape photographs at Haunch of Venison dissolve the boundaries between the beautiful and the Sublime.
In the Critique of Judgement, his extensive analysis of the aesthetic experience, Immanuel Kant distinguishes between our experience of the beautiful and the Sublime. He posits that the beautiful, in nature as in art, is a question of form, whereas the Sublime denotes formlessness. It is found in what Kant refers to as representations of limitlessness, in phenomena such as storms at sea or interstellar spaces. Due to its immeasurable and incalculable greatness, the might of nature – the dynamical Sublime often transcends our understanding, evoking notions of the spiritual.
The Sublime, which has always been associated with the spiritual and the mystical, was a significant element in the work of German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. Rather than merely exploring beautiful views, Friedrich sought to examine a spiritual self-relation through the contemplation of nature, in other words, the experience of the Sublime. Friedrich believed the artist should not merely recreate what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. The mystery of his own existence, which he could not comprehend through reason alone, led Friedrich to create mystical, at times melancholy landscape paintings.
Thomas Joshua Cooper’s black and white photographs currently on display at Haunch of Venison convey a similar melancholy mysticism. Although only one of the artist’s photographs is dedicated to Friedrich, several of Cooper’s images articulate a pleasure mingled with terror, dissolving the boundaries between the experience of the beautiful and the Sublime in nature.
Cooper’s photograph A Premonitional Work (Message to Caspar David Friedrich and Francis Frith) depicts a pile-up of razor sharp rocks in a canyon, possibly the result of a landslide. The image is reminiscent of Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice, also named The Wreck of Hope, a painting of a shipwreck amidst a broken ice sheet. Cooper’s photograph mirrors the violence inherent in Friedrich’s painting in which the shards of ice, extending into the sky, form a monolithic tomb. Both images evoke the might of nature, whose forces are indifferent to human frailty. Indeed, the titles of Cooper’s ‘premonitional works’ suggest an impending doom; perhaps a natural disaster.
The illegibility of nature, that is nature in its wildest and most irregular disorder, is communicated successfully throughout Cooper’s work. Viewing his photographs is like entering a dark room. At first, we see nothing. Gradually, forms start to emerge from the darkness. Once our eyes have adjusted to Cooper’s dark, yet textually rich photographs such as A Premonitional Work, The Black Dove (Message for Timothy H. O’Sullivan), what we are viewing is still unclear. The experience is similar to viewing an Impressionist painting up-close; the layers of colour start to make sense only as we begin to distance ourselves. Titles such as Ritual Hieroglyph, An Indication Piece or Mythic Stone additionally underline the illegibility, or mysticism of nature.
Thomas Joshua Cooper’s photographs oscillate between the beautiful and the Sublime, between the appreciation of texture and form, and a fear of formlessness. They truly represent nature, at once delicate and forceful.