The work of Scott McFarland projects a distinctive sense of the uncanny. The preternaturally crisp detail and eerie sense of déjà vu suggest a diorama more than a photograph. Like a curio cabinet, each image holds a kind of collection: flashes of steam, protuberant buds, hoarfrost and other phenomena that we think of as temporary (and, in some cases, mutually exclusive). But this world offers up distinctly self-contradictory manifestations of nature: dark skies over sun-dappled fields, oddly splayed shadows and a few nonchalant human clones.
At the Vancouver Art Gallery’s current solo retrospective of McFarland’s work, the didactic panels and accompanying texts explain the artist’s process and steer viewers to look for clues to his intentions, some of which are more obvious than others. McFarland’s unlikely vistas are produced by a lengthy, meticulous process of shooting and reshooting at the same site over a period of months or years, followed by an extensive curatorial process involving computer-assisted manipulation. Scudding clouds, blossoms and decay are mixed and matched—digitally overlaid or transposed from one shot to another. This injects the element of time into what first appears, at a casual glance, to be a static scene.
The result is a photographic, epic fiction bursting with embodied meanings. To cite one example, McFarland’s Orchard View with the Effects of the Seasons follows a large residential lot in Vancouver’s tony west side, one which is left fallow while the future owner-developers plot its transformation. In all sorts of seasonally incongruous states of bloom, the sad-sack vegetation suggests a botanical counter-narrative to the cold economics that will be its destroyer.
Along with landscape, McFarland’s art is heavily focused on architecture. The London Zoo’s curvilinear penguin pool, a 1934 modernist masterpiece designed by Berthold Lubetkin, is notoriously hard to photograph; McFarland’s two digitally manipulated interpretations not only manage to fit the entire structure into one image, but also suggest some of the enigmatic complexity of this unjustly forgotten architect. On a more vernacular level, two large-format pieces from the Nocturnes series seem to condense the entire world into one small illuminated interior against the dark of night. Sugar Shack and Boathouse with Moonlight both evoke an agnostic’s version of a modern-day crèche: humble and familiar, yet also luminous and ethereal. (750 Hornby St, Vancouver BC)