In an impossibly pastoral setting — fading classical architecture, a swooning, partly cloudy sky, distant mountains rising from the shores of a lake — a wealthy family is more interested in keeping up appearances than celebrating the day, while a few of its members fumble with lawn furniture. Elsewhere, possibly in another part of this vast estate, two men beat the living crap out of a third man under gathering clouds and circling birds.
Welcome to the works in John Goto’s “High Summer,” a collection of campy, funny, and sometimes menacing images that do a thorough job of tearing down the past and pointing us toward an uncertain future.
“High Summer” runs at the Yale Center for British Art through Aug. 19, appearing in a single gallery on the museum’s second floor.
The exhibit aptly shows that Goto’s choice to satirize the British landed gentry is far from new, as the student curators who put the exhibit together pair Goto’s images with satirical images from the past. Goto’s take on landscape, though, is fertile ground to dig into. British gardens, after all, weren’t trying to bring a bit of untamed nature close to the house. Rather, they offered a sanitized, cleaned-up, idealized form of nature, carefully manicured, free from harm. The lands around the landed gentry’s estates equated animal predators with working-class people by putting the gentry’s manors at a safe distance from both. Their isolation made them, in the eyes of many satirists, both oppressive and clueless, objects of genuine animosity and scorn. How could people who wielded so much power also know so little about the lives of most of their fellow countrypeople?
Goto’s addition to this long tradition of satire feel right up to the minute. It was one thing to satirize the British landed gentry a century ago, when Britain was still in command of a worldwide empire and the power the wealthiest members of British society wielded was quite real. It’s another to come in with the British Empire decades in the rearview mirror and the country now in the throes of Brexit, painfully deciding just how much it even wants to be a part of the rest of the world. The empire is gone. The sources of wealth that fueled it have vanished. And new waves of immigrants have come to British towns and cities, looking for a better life.
Goto’s images mix all of this into a heady stew. They point out that trying to keep up colonial-era appearances now is, well, kind of silly. The country and the world have changed so much. But the meeting of the old and the new has also led to some jarring dissonances — some of them funny, some of them genuinely startling.
Among the funnier images is Pasturelands, which points out just how unnatural the “natural” landscape of a British estate is by arranging animals in the same way that the plants are arranged. It’s ludicrous the way that a diorama in a natural history museum can seem ludicrous when you blink and suddenly realize that the animals in the diorama would never, ever congregate so close together in the wild; if you came across that kind of scene on a hiking trail, you would wonder what was wrong with all the animals around you, and whether you should be there at all.
Goto gets a lot of mileage out of placing intruders in his unnaturally pastoral landscapes. In Eco-Warriors, nothing disrupts a fox hunt like a bunch of environmental protestors scaring away your game by telling you you’ve ruined the actual natural environment.
But — similar to Brigands above — High Ground is possibly the most arresting image in the exhibition. It brings you up short for its uncanny way of collapsing the past, present, and possible future. It brings back echoes of 20th-century conflicts — think American GIs in the ruins of French towns. It also looks a lot like some of the images that came out of the second Gulf War at the beginning of this century, a similarity all the more stunning because Goto finished his pieces a couple years before that invasion happened.
High Ground is a sharp reminder that there seems to come a time in almost every regime when it finds its palaces overrun by an occupying army, and soldiers weary from battle rest their dusty boots on woven rugs and polished marble, whether it’s Visigoths in Rome or Americans in Baghdad. There’s a touch of absurdity to the whole thing, of empires rising and falling, when old ways are smashed and new ways struggle to be found. What are we supposed to do with that? Where do we go from here? “High Summer” is too smart to offer easy answers. But it won’t let us avoid the questions, either.
“High Summer” runs at the Yale Center for British Art through Aug. 19. Click here for hours and more information. Admission is free.