Walking through the new Jem Southam photography exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art is a bit like showing a friend family vacation pictures: It’s impossible to find the pictures that tell the story best before the friend becomes bored and disinterested.
The exhibit, called “Jem Southam: Upton Pyne” after the photographer and his subject, a pond near his home, is well-intentioned. According to the gallery, it’s supposed to “ask us to re-examine notions of meaning and beauty in the landscape” by presenting the history of a small pond in rural England over six years. While this sounds like a reasonable artistic springboard, the exhibit unfortunately does not take a leap of faith in any direction, leaving it quite bland.
By all counts, “Upton Pyne” is worth 10 minutes of an afternoon for someone who already likes photography. The pictures, particularly a diptych of the lake and a shot of rolling wheat fields taken from the edge of the pond, do show touches of a technically flawless photographer.
But the exhibit’s ultimate shortcoming is a lack of any real sense of purpose. The exhibit description mentions that it chronicles the pond’s life in three periods, two restorative efforts by separate families and a period of neglect in between, but these periods are only discernible by guesswork since the photographs are inexplicably arranged in nonchronological order.
This lack of temporal linearity might be excusable if the photos were arranged by location in order to show the evolution of the pond through time, but even this only-kind-of-almost happens in the second room. In this section, pictures of an abandoned backyard are the only parts of the exhibit that are even remotely emotionally stirring — the brightly colored patio accessories which had signified a family’s ambitions are now gone without replacement. But this set’s effectiveness is undercut by a slight change in camera angle over time, which makes it hard to verify if the picture is indeed of an abandoned backyard.
“Upton Pyne” often leaves the impression of a cruel inside joke between Southam and the curator. Why are the viewers not allowed in on the party? Signage could have explained what Southam was thinking when he took the picture and why the curator arranged the rooms and paintings in what now seems to be an arbitrary order. Such personal explanations may not be necessary for more well-known artists, but a bit of guidance would have saved this exhibit from complete disarray.
The only piece that is truly interesting by itself is a diptych close to the entrance. It’s the broadest view of the lake in the exhibit, and while making it a diptych by cutting it into two pieces seemed unnecessary at first, it does draw attention to the most prominent features of the lake — the metallic colors of the water and the uninhibited chaos of the overgrown brush on the shores.
Perhaps most telling aspect of the exhibition is the position of a viewing couch, which faces the aforementioned photograph of a wheat field. Not only does this picture not actually have the pond in it, the couch faces away from the rest of the exhibit, making it impossible to contemplate the show in its entirety from that vantage point.
Art with commonplace subjects is supposed to comment on life by transforming the everyday into something extraordinary. But by the end of the “Upton Pyne” exhibition, the pond had stayed a pond, and my notions of meaning and beauty remain quite the same.