San Francisco

Sean McFarland

Jack Hanley Gallery

Using a dramatic depth of field characterized by sharp foregrounds and blurry backgrounds, Sean McFarland makes images that are part theatrical gesture and part document. His pictures reduce generic, albeit picturesque, cityscapes to the scale of a model train set. The sixteen pictures—all untitled, 20 x 20 inch C-prints made between 2003 and 2004—often depict identifiable locations in San Francisco. One daytime street scene, for example, shows a block not far from the gallery and captures the tension of encroaching gentrification. Depicting a row of crumbling buildings, one faced with scaffolding, it features such contrasting elements as a sleek black car parked next to a bright blue Portaloo. The scene is shot from above, perhaps from atop a building across the street. But the atmosphere is farther away from reality. This image, like most in the exhibition, seems toylike, but there’s a slight feeling of discomfort as McFarland indulges an irresistible fantasy of making urban grit something we can lord over.

In another shot, a pale Art Deco apartment building that served as a location for Hitchcock’s Vertigo appears as a vast facade. The use of a subject from a classic film makes sense here, as Hollywood has a way of turning actual places into malleable fictions, confusing San Francisco’s hilly neighborhoods with the flatlands across town.

In most of his richly colored pictures, McFarland achieves a stereoscopic effect within a single image, without the need for a Viewmaster’s plastic hardware. He achieves this effect by assembling photographs into modestly scaled three-dimensional dioramas that are then rephotographed. This practice adds a crafty layer of artifice and conceptual distance. It throws into question the photographs’ veracity: Are these real places or seamless collages? While McFarland’s technique may risk gimmickry, he never succumbs to it but instead manages a balance of formal and emotional qualities.

McFarland’s concentration on urban locations spins his work in mythic and psychological directions. His pictures of parking structures, vacant lots, freeway overpasses, and landscaped playgrounds all tap into the alienated romanticism of the city, a combination of exhilaration and isolation at the root of modern life. His images, which rarely include the human figure, are analogous to a breathtaking view from a lounge atop a high-rise hotel, albeit one in a dicey part of town. A safe distance from the stench of urine, skid row can exude a certain charm.

The show’s final image, of a tree planted on a city street, hints at the breadth of McFarland’s practice. Shot at night, a ring of curlicues crudely rendered in crimson spray paint circles a metal grating that covers a patch of exposed soil. It’s one of the few subjects that McFarland confronts with a more subtle manipulation of depth of field. The sense of dimensionality is less apparent here; the tree recedes into an ambiguous darkness that combines brooding and whimsy. The picture, like Vertigo’s spiraling title sequence, suggests compellingly off-kilter visions to come.

Glen Helfand