Toronto-based artist Scott McFarland doesn’t represent reality—he cultivates it. He is best known for creating dense composite landscapes—often gardens—that conflate the temporal and spatial coordinates of the not-quite-natural world. McFarland’s images hinge on artificiality—or at least assemblage—as do the photographs of Jeff Wall, for whom he worked as an assistant. And like many post-Conceptualist artists nostalgic for modernism, McFarland probes the specific properties of his media, although the media in question make for a decidedly unmodernist mélange that includes analog photography, digital editing, day-for-night cinematography, and the high-end T-shirts that McFarland uses to clean his lenses.
Consisting of three series as well as one video, McFarland’s recent show investigated the process and history of photography. Namely, “Thinking About a Picture” demystified what Henri Cartier-Bresson famously described as photography’s “decisive moment.” Cartier-Bresson believed in the necessity of capturing “in a fraction of a second” the fleeting moment when all the elements of a scene reach perfect equilibrium. Rather than fetishizing the purity or instantaneity of this approach, McFarland engages durationally with his images, photographing a single vista over the course of a few weeks. Using Photoshop to assemble these images into a composite moment, he brings a forgotten sense of the longue durée into the era of Snapchat and Instagram.
In the series “Santa Anita,” 2017, McFarland references another photographic icon—the pioneering Eadweard Muybridge, who in the late nineteenth century produced a now- famous series of chronophotographs in an attempt to determine whether a galloping horse ever lifted all four feet off the ground at once. The photos ended up serving as the prototype for the invention of cinema. In his richly layered, prismatic images of a racetrack, McFarland overlaps bodies and horses into a palimpsest of instants, or what he more prosaically describes as a “film dump.” Instead of offering proof of the racehorse’s flight, McFarland’s images transform the walking ring into a blur whose capacity for amassing moments outnumbers cinema’s twenty-four frames.
When McFarland does turn to moving images—for Sun for Moonlight, Colour Pattern Test Strip Picture, Little Jane Island, 2017—the result is a familiar recipe of composites. The slowly panning shot of an island was filmed in day-for-night cinematography, a deceptively simple trick whose result I could have watched all day-for-night long. The “moonlight” is unnaturally luminescent, the water spectacularly crystalline. As we become hypnotized by this magical little anomaly, chromatic bands glide across the frame, reconfiguring its glowing palette while referencing the color bars that guide televisual chrominance and luminance.
Alongside such carefully self-referential works, the series “Lens Cleaning,” 2016–17, appeared to be a trivial intervention. McFarland displays himself cleaning his lens with his T-shirt in the moment that typically precedes the click of the shutter. Captured on the surface of these seven images are photographic traces of bits of debris; lodged between the
photograph and the color-coordinated frame are the bits themselves. In literalizing the resignification of photography’s detritus, McFarland commits a flawed if deliberate misreading of its ontology and yet another reference to its origins. By providing an image that faithfully stood in for the object, the camera liberates the arts from what André Bazin termed man’s “mummy complex.” Just as we no longer need the horse in the room to study its locomotion, we don’t need the actual dust to understand photography’s dematerialized remains.
For all of his cleverness, McFarland’s real power lies in his feeling for landscape. In the most visually compelling series, eleven high-hung LED light boxes both depict and enact the phenomena of clouds. Aptly named “Sky Leaks,” 2016–17, they exploit existing light leaks in combination with liquid spills to transform cloud negatives into sublime abstractions. Nodding to Alfred Stieglitz’s majestic series “Equivalents,” 1925–34, McFarland mines the potential of these arresting accidents to suggest inner emotions. Neon flares, indigo flows, and ghostly beams submerge and partition ethereal images of vapor and gas in ways that evoke not only atmospheric conditions but the very pneuma, or vital spirit, of the soul. Compared to the ubiquitous digital manipulation in the other series, these are old-fashioned tricks. No wonder they resonate with a timelessness the others lack.