Mia Brownell
The Paintings of Mia Brownell
Carolyn Korsmeyer

Still-life painting is sometimes regarded as a decorative genre that renders domestic scenes with masterful illusion but lacks the profound messages conveyed by art that addresses themes from history or myth. To the attentive eye, however, still life pictures have always carried meanings far beyond their ornamental virtues.

This is especially notable with paintings from older traditions that employ so-called memento mori motifs – remember death – which often appear in works from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. If one looks closely at such paintings, a beautifully arranged table laid with luscious fruits, gleaming oysters, wine poured into thin crystal, may also be seen to display a melon split and rotting, scavenging mice, invading insects – all rendered with delicate precision. Spilled cups, broken lute strings, even the occasional grinning skull might be included in the scene to bring to mind the transience of human life in the midst of the sensory enjoyments of the table.

Mia Brownell’s paintings offer a postmodern reversal of this kind of double message. Painted with exactitude and detail, her pears, grapes, and apricots are nestled in what at first appear to be abstract wreaths. Heirs to the legacy of still life, their swirling dynamism is anything but “still.” But if symbols of death attend some older arrangements, Brownell’s compositions bring into visual prominence what lies behind the life of the foods we eat – the genetic structures that carry the codes for all organic things, that bring them into being, program their ends, and determine their qualities. And that are now manipulated to produce foods without season, without blemish, and sometimes without taste.

There is something dreadful about the beauty of those chromosomal swirls. Their compositional harmony signals the power of what we are only beginning to decipher about the templates for life. The now famous double helix of DNA is usually merely notional: we know it is there, but it is so tiny that it falls beneath awareness. Brownell’s pictures magnify it into huge nests that both sustain and trap, generate and control. The fusion of life and death in traditional memento mori painting here is transformed into a fusion of life and the genetic codes that bring it into being.

In some of these works, grapes are strung along chromosomal strands, as though the transition from gene to fruit were but an unfolding of nature. That nature has been manipulated by technology gradually dawns as one is drawn into the composition. Even more uneasy is her incorporation of animal forms into the swirls. In “Still Life with Chicken Villin Headpiece,” for example, a plucked chicken arches voluptuously within the DNA that shaped it for the table. It has a seductive and almost obscene look, rather like the nakedly plucked fowls of Felice Boselli or Chaim Soutine.

Brownell returns us to something that much contemporary painting deliberately eschews: figural verisimilitude and beauty. Her pictures are visually captivating. As we examine them, the sheer machinery of nature comes to mind. But so do the manipulations of the genetic biologist and the drives of agricultural markets– revealing disturbing depths in the loveliest of pictures.

Carolyn Korsmeyer
Professor of Philosophy
State University of New York, Buffalo

Professor Carolyn Korsmeyer's chief research areas are aesthetics and emotion theory. She is presently at work on a study of disgust as an aesthetic response. Her book Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy (1999) explores the neglected gustatory sense of taste and its claims for aesthetic status. She also works in the area of feminist philosophy, and her recent book on this subject is Gender in Aesthetics: A Guide to Feminism and Philosophy of Art.