Scott McFarland

Scott McFarland’s photographs—of London’s Hampstead Heath, of an overgrown Vancouver garden, or of the California desert struck by hard light—are crisply rendered and technically precise, their colors vivid, the focus sharp. But closer inspection reveals visual contradictions: Flowers in a neglected garden blossom next to a tree about to drop its leaves; the shadows of barrel cacti point to the left and the right, as if the sun were in two places at once; and two images are identical but for their dramatically different skies.

McFarland was until recently based in Vancouver, and his work can be situated within the school of Photoconceptualism developed in that city over the past three decades. But whereas other photographers work with the tableau (Jeff Wall), Minimalism (Ian Wallace), or the documentary (Roy Arden), the younger artist explores the implications of photographing the impossible. He shoots the same scene at different times of the day or year, capturing different qualities of light or states of foliage, and then stitches the images together to create a not-quite-seamless whole. In a series shot at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, for example, incredible arrays of succulents—from aloe to yucca—are packed into a single frame, and shadows scatter improbably. The plants seem to have been shot (or digitally treated) to look as fake as possible: They’re all ready for their close-up. But that artificiality is also a product of the garden itself. In his catalogue essay, curator Grant Arnold notes that the act of producing a garden and the act of producing a photograph require analogous sets and the act of producing a photograph require analogous sets of decisions—choices about which elements to accentuate or make visible and which to occlude or remove. The hallucinatory images of “nature” in McFarland’s botanical garden photos are therefore constructed twice: first by the gardener, who treats nature as a prop; then by the artist’s own processes of framing, cropping, and, most significantly, digital manipulation.

In nearly two dozen photographs of London’s Hampstead Heath, McFarland shows the same scenes but with different skies. A photograph of a small observatory on the Heath depicts the eye of the telescope from within the dark, rectangular slit in the building’s dome. To the right, a weather station stands in a fenced-off area, where two men fidget with a rain gauge. Another image (installed around the corner in this show) features the same figures, same observatory, same peering telescope, but dark clouds to the right indicate that a storm is rolling in. If the Huntington series combines the hallucinatory with issues of collection and patronage (as Arnold argues), this pair of prints in particular, is, I think, the key to McFarland’s method. These images compare the apparatuses of science to the apparatuses of photography. While the telescope peers upward and measurements of precipitation are taken, the sky itself changes from one photograph to the next. McFarland’s practice of digital manipulation—made explicit by the replacement of the sky—critiques the supposed veracity of photographic representation; by extension, these photographs throw into question the objectivity of science. McFarland sets up a competition between photography as representational medium and rivals such as telescopes and gardens; in doing so, he turns his practice on itself.

Clint Burnham