Yosemite, Explored Anew

Yale University Art GalleryWhen people come back from nature, they often have a hard time with adjectives. “It was incredible, it was awesome, it was beyond beautiful,” they say, before declaring, “it’s hard to describe.” Then they reach for their iPhone and swipe through pictures: a jagged peak and blue sky, a misty waterfall, a dark green valley. They shake their heads.

“This doesn’t really capture it,” they say.

The old problem of describing the sublime is central to the Yale University Art Gallery’s new show, “Yosemite: Exploring the Incomparable Valley,” which runs through Dec. 31. 

The show attempts to impress Yosemite’s power over visitors and the American imagination. The words “astonished,” “overwhelmed,” “captivated,” and “awed” all appear in one sentence of the introductory text on the gallery wall.

But how can an exhibit explore a place that’s so vast, a place that naturalist John Muir — and now the exhibit — call “incomparable?”

The curators chose to approach this problem by trying to represent Yosemite from many angles. There are the literal camera angles in photographs by Carleton E. Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, and Ansel Adams. We see different slices of the park, from different points of view, in black and white: Half-Dome, Sentinel Rock, the Falls. These stunning photos are the heart of the exhibit, and perhaps have most influenced how people has come to imagine Yosemite and the West. Muybridge’s image of a lone man made small by the backdrop of Yosemite Falls tugs on the heartstrings.

The exhibit approaches the park through a naturalist’s lens too, as the curators drew from the collections at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History and the Yale Forestry School. Slabs of grainy granite are elevated by a sign that encourages viewers to touch. Pressed boughs of white fir and California redbud sit next to botanical descriptions. And a cross-section of redwood — cut from a sequoia that was 22 feet wide — sits on its side with a timeline above it. The line begins at 650 C.E., when the redwood started to grow. More recent events, like Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 Yosemite Grant Act, are all clustered at the far end, a visual reminder that human history and natural history operate at completely different scales.

The exhibit tries to teach some history lessons, too, in this viewer’s opinion less effectively. It pays homage to the Miwok people who inhabited Yosemite for nearly 4,000 years by displaying traditional woven baskets, but with limited context. Beginning with a small bronze statue of Lincoln at the entrance to the exhibit, visitors are immediately immersed in the story of the United States’ westward expansion, but the show’s accompanying text does little to critically engage with this history; in fact, it sometimes falls into sentimental clichés about the West that have been common among East Coasters for a long time.

The curators’ multifaceted approach to representing Yosemite makes sense. The struggle is to represent the whole of something, to make it three-dimensional, and the attempt to unify the pieces that we arbitrarily delineate as history, science, and art is admirable. But the slabs of granite still seem disconnected from Ansel Adams’ stunning photo of Half-Dome, and the poster that names the plants in Albert Bierstadt’s paintings might be trying a little too hard.

But then, on the exhibit’s back wall, there’s something absolutely arresting: Bierstadt’s “Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail” (above), the centerpiece of the show. It’s painted on a massive canvas and practically glows from its center. The light, the size, the color, are all dazzling. It might not quite capture it — Yosemite’s actual Glacier Point Trail — but it might come close. Or it captures something totally different, but still sublime.

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