At the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 3, 2010
From the get-go, painting and photography have been inextricably bound together. The pictorialists tried to make their photographs look like paintings. The Futurists, in their paintings, mimicked the blurred and segmented movement found in Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographs. The photorealists created paintings whose subject was the photograph itself. And in his large-scale, backlit photo-transparencies, Jeff Wall has alluded to paintings by Nicolas Poussin, Edouard Manet, and Paul Cézanne, among others. The digital age has done nothing to diminish each medium’s obsession with the other.
This continued entwining of art forms is evident in Scott McFarland’s computer-montaged photographs, on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery. So is the parallel entanglement of nature and culture. Both conditions are conspicuous in his 2006 series, “Hampstead”, inspired by the landscapes of the early-19th-century English painter John Constable. McFarland’s colour photos, shot in various locations around London’s immense Hampstead Heath, pay homage to Constable’s attraction to the same place. They also play variations on that painter’s rendering of multiple versions of the same scene, and on his open-air studies of the changing effects of light and weather.
From its architecture to its arching rainbow, McFarland’s The Admiral’s House, as seen from the Upper Garden at Fenton House is a contemporary photographic re-creation of Constable’s painting The Grove, or Admiral’s House, Hampstead. In other works in this series, McFarland digitizes dramatically different skies—some stormy, some benign—over the same Arcadian landscape.
Based in Toronto, McFarland earned a BFA at UBC, and his work reveals the early influence of the so-called Vancouver School of photo-based art. His career was launched from this city, through the colour photographs he shot in the private gardens, orchards, and stables of Vancouver’s West Side and Southlands in the early 2000s. Since then, he has gone on to examine botanical gardens, zoos, public parks, and other landscape and architectural forms and spaces in London, Berlin, Southern California, and Ontario.
Over the past decade, McFarland’s working methods have changed from straightforward analog photography to the creation of highly manipulated images in which he digitally splices together multiple segments of the same landscape or structure, shot over a period of days, weeks, or even months. In both variations of Orchard View With the Effects of the Seasons, for instance, the blossoms and foliage of spring, summer, and fall are contained within the same seamless panorama.
The digital assist means that there are no constraints of time, space, or documentary veracity in McFarland’s work: he can build whatever impossible pictures he wants and they will look “real”. At least until they’re closely scrutinized, revealing incongruities of light, shadow, time, and figuration. In this sense, his art challenges our understanding of the nature of the photograph and its relationship with the truth. There’s nothing really new about this project—as long as photography’s been around, it’s been manipulated by its practitioners. Photoshop, however, has added a vast digital dimension to the darkroom antics of earlier photo artists.
At times, McFarland’s picture-making is motivated by the simple urge to photographically preserve a place that is soon to be demolished, such as a couple of low-tech photo labs in Vancouver and Los Angeles. But he is also preoccupied with the parallels between the artificially constructed “naturalism” of his digital prints and the equally artificial scenes that are often his subjects. These include African porcupines in a snow-covered Berlin zoo and geographically incompatible cacti planted side by side in a desert garden in California.
McFarland’s images are technically impressive, revealing beautiful effects of light, colour, and form. The clarity, detail, and often panoramic sweep of his landscapes can be lovely to contemplate. They often stimulate thoughts about the ways humans attempt to control, measure, label, and arrange the natural world. But some of his images can also be a tad overdetermined, overcontrolled to the point of being lifeless. As seen in View of Vale of Health, Looking Towards Hampstead, the figures look as stiff and as artificial as taxidermy animals in a museum diorama. Perhaps they’re meant to mimic allegorical figures in historical landscape paintings. Perhaps they’re intended to further muddle our ideas of what’s real and what’s not. And perhaps reality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.