Finding landscapes in the least obvious places.
Sean McFarland makes pictures. This odd phrasing is choice, because the content of his work is not so easily condensed. McFarland has long been an almost academic observer of changes in the California landscape. The multi-layered realities of wild vs. preserved vs. man-made have deeply entangled sentiments, which are echoed in the deeply entangled methods he uses to produce his photographs. Inspired by fabricated representations of the natural world—natural history museum dioramas, postcards, images from the Whole Earth Catalog—McFarland experiments with his own pointed manipulations of landscape pictures. 2009 brought the documentation of ready-made “wildness” with a series of Polaroids titled Pictures of the Earth. The photographs are no ordinary snapshots, but are produced from a variety of pre-edited images, re-shot from delusory perspectives. To peek behind the curtain, the scenes are most akin to meticulously crafted collages with evidence of their individual parts concealed. The result is pictures constructed from almost entirely false environments. The irony in “instant” photographs, however, is that their veracity is difficult to question.
But in recent years McFarland’s interest in the truth behind analog photography has expanded—becoming an interrogation of suspended disbelief, and what we refer to as “natural.” His December 2013 exhibition Glass Mountains (Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco) is a collection of images presenting increasingly transparent artifice as compelling likeness of our lived environment. Produced from the abstraction of commonplace objects, the photographs blur the lines between expectation, sentiment and rational observation. A full moon is simply the result of a coin on light sensitive paper; the “stars” are a glistening in sidewalk concrete; and mountains are the reframing of broken shards of glass, printed to actual size. I’m in possession of image-altered postcards from the artist, and as I look them over, the change in spirit of his recent work is impossible to ignore.
Ashley Stull Pictures of the Earth had a lot bound up in the conceptual value of “instant photographs.” You haven’t completely moved away from Polaroids, but I’m seeing a lot more studio ephemera and dark room process in Glass Mountains. What prompted that shift?
Sean McFarland Recently I've been weary about relying on any one material—it’s easy to ignore content when focusing on a particular method for making. What I'm interested in is not finite, not discrete. Why shouldn't the materials and processes employed in making not share this same quality?
It's a way for me to take back control of the work from a process that is ultimately limited (the film is no longer being produced). I’m interested in moving into a working space that’s more open ended and less serial. It's easy to make a "body of work" comprised of twenty seemingly different pictures that is really just the same image made over and over again with slight variation.
A shorter answer is that maybe I was getting bored and possibly afraid of making the same picture over and over again.
AS You used to maintain a blog as an archival space for things going on in your studio. I remember sifting through it prior to your exhibition at Eli Ridgway in 2011. You’d made a lot that hadn’t been shown at that point! Do you still use the blog as a reference? Has it played a role in wanting to exhibit some of the process-oriented tidbits you’re showing now?
SM It's something I still use. It’s an incredibly practical way of keeping an archive or journal of ideas because I won’t lose, misplace or damage it. If my computer explodes or gets burgled, or the original objects disappear, I can still reference the content easily and in it's same organized form. I recently took everything off of the walls in my studio and put it into boxes very quickly, worrying more about getting it out of sight than preserving it perfectly. Hopefully when I re-open the boxes new connections can be made between pictures. Having a static archive of work like the blog that uses the same or similar pictures that are now in the boxes allows me to not only see what I know but generate new work. Two images that I would never have thought would have an interesting dialog can all of sudden appear next to each other. As for exhibiting "process-oriented tidbits," I’m not completely sure what that will look like yet. Much of the ephemera created in the studio can easily slip into the realm of the precious...
AS Speaking of negotiating preciousness, tell me about the decision to turn Glass Mountains into a book. Did something feel incomplete about a gallery exhibition for these specific works?
SM The gallery exhibition is what prompted me to make the book, which is currently only in the "dummy" stage. I didn't feel that the exhibition was somehow incomplete, but it did reinforce that the pictures in the show need other context, much like many photography books rely on the anthologized collection images for meaning. My abstract images rely on the more traditional pictorial images to reference natural earth forms, and the traditional pictorial images rely on the abstract to create a sense that each appears as the other. Pre-determined cultural structures that define our relationship to landscape have a lot to do with that confusion, and I like that.
AS What sorts of studio ephemera can we look forward to seeing more of? To what ends? I’m hearing rumblings of drawings, journals, and maybe even an audio supplement.
SM I am interested in representation so drawing has been something that I've done in the studio for the past few years. Mostly for the reason that you can draw a horizontal line across a piece of paper and with very little effort make a convincing image of the landscape.
For the exhibition Glass Mountains I started to think about sound. I did audio an audio tour that will most likely be an element in future projects. It exists now as an afterward to the book. The text/audio doesn't fully describe each image but in some way discusses it's context outside the exhibition. Here's an example of the text/audio, referring to the image, Small Clearing…
"You have come to a small clearing in a dense wooded area. Two trails intersect. At this site 150 years ago, there were no trees or plants, only sand. Golden Gate Park in San Francisco was constructed in the 1870s and protects this new wilderness today. When you visit the park, take the time to see its other dioramas at the California Academy of Sciences."
AS There’s a hint of institutional critique in that. You play with the legacy of photographers of the American West, and at the same time with that of their digital contemporaries, and the museums that show them. How are each tied to the new direction of your pictures?
SM I am less interested in the landscape as seen by the early photographers of the American West than in the contemporary landscapes we re-produce through their images. The same goes for artists working now. It's not so much an institutional critique as a conversation about a cultural relationship resulting from canonical photographic history.
AS So, a figure like Vilém Flusser… friend or foe?
SM Neither, but I do like his writing.
AS The dioramas at the California Academy of Sciences: awesome or cringe-worthy?
SM They're not much different from going to a national park, or from the park just outside of the building where they exist.
AS You’re very good about observations like that—taking in and documenting things right in front of us that not many notice. You've even sent me a few Polaroids taped to postcards that you’ve constructed on the fly. Sending images through the post is another clever way to confuse their origin. Is there any part of you that’s influenced by mail art?
SM I've always been interested in photography as souvenir—as a surrogate for experience in a way. I often photographed what was on the postcard already, then taped the instant photograph over the photo-mechanically produced postcard. To me it's an inside joke... that the scene existing on the postcard was real, in the same way that during the 19th century the U.S. government sent photographers to capture images of the American west. Mine were just coming from the Grand Canyon, or Lisbon, Portugal.
Ashley Stull is a writer and independent curator currently based in the Midwest. She has curated shows at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, The Luggage Store (San Francisco), and Eli Ridgway Contemporary. Stull has previously worked as a curatorial assistant at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art (Omaha, NE).