November 3, 2006

Finding Beauty in the Simplistic

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It’s important to remember that art is not just about the product but also the process, especially in the Johnson Museum’s current exhibit: “Upton Pyne: Photographs by Jem Southam.” While Southam’s Upton Pyne does not hold great aesthetic appeal, intellectually, it is quite profound.
Take your first glance. You’ll see trees, and then more trees. From various angles, they will frame a pond, some shrubbery and casual garbage strewn across the grass. The photographs are in no way breathtaking. They are not provocative enough to incite shock, not moving enough to merit great concern and not beautiful enough to excite. So what’s the big deal?
Take a closer look. You’ll see that all fifty of the photographs are essentially of the same specific scenery: a pond behind an old house and its surrounding landscape, which happens to be in a small agricultural community in rural England, not far from the artist’s home in Cornwall. While bicycling through the countryside several years ago, Southam encountered this pond, which had actually formed at the site of an eighteenth century manganese mine, and photographed it at the height of its decomposition. It was littered with trash and had all the signs of a true wasteland in the making. A significant handful of the pictures in the exhibit give evidence to this state.
Had those been the only pictures, I doubt Southam would have showcased them at all. But then he did something interesting: He decided to return. Over the course of seven years, Southam returned and chronicled the state of the pond in three different stages as both man and nature interacted with and changed the state of the scene. The first stage is filled with tall grass, a little boat, flowers and other rejuvenations that a man took upon himself to introduce in an attempt to transform the pond into a place of beauty.
After three years, this man abandoned his attempt, and it was soon taken up by two others, who decorated the area with a domestic theme — they added fences, a children’s swing-set, picnic tables and other remnants of a living human presence. The last stage is characterized by a muddy farmyard, as Southam takes a step back and situates his pond in a broader vision of the landscape.
With Southam’s “Upton Pyne,” the more you learn and the closer you look, the more worthwhile the work becomes. In his book Landscape Stories, Southam refers to the “Upton Pyne” series as a “collection of histories.” And so they are. They offer small clips of moments in time and space that capture the change and progress in a wedge of the landscape of life. Furthermore, in the very act of photography, Southam grants importance and beauty to a place that would otherwise remain insignificant and unnoticed. By deeming this place worthy of his art, he infuses it with meaning, and in doing so, establishes new notions of beauty.
Nature (along with man) has even left a few unintentional symbols through which we can follow the evolution of Southam’s phases. The image of the little boat that is often found adjacent to the pond serves as a constant marking point for the state of the surrounding landscape. The first time we see it, it is new and quaint in its fresh brown wood. Later, as the pond has turned green from algae, the boat too is discolored, slightly blackened with tinges of green. Finally, the boat is not only decrepit and green, but also overturned. As we follow the progress of the boat, it is tempting to look at Southam’s work as a narrative.
Nevertheless, the exhibit is not characterized by the linear nature of narrative but rather, the cyclicality of history. The photographs are not meant to be organized but compared, for just as life and nature are always in flux, the images in these pictures are too. They do not stand in the progression of a consistently improving landscape, but live in cycles in which the land is attractive and then ugly, contaminated and then tidy, destroyed, revived and destroyed again. Here, Southam has acutely captured the realism of change and growth in life. It is the process in which he has captured it that makes the product so great.