Sean McFarland: Untitled (1948-2012) at Eli Ridgway Gallery

[uds-billboard name=”sean”]Sitting in an intimate room in Eli Ridgway Gallery, Sean McFarland’s loosely gridded installation of fifteen black and white images at first appears as rather straightforward landscape photography. However, in various media and techniques—polaroids, drawings, cyanotypes, and photograms—McFarland employs alteration, duplication, and substitution to make the work deceptively complex.

Sea Winds (2012) is representative of McFarland’s practice of creating black and white polaroids from collaged photographs. Sea Winds depicts a close up of crashing waves against a serene sea background that McFarland has manually collaged together from various photographs. Employing a negative (or digital file) and a printing process, photography is typically a medium of multiples where amendments can be controlled at each step. In contrast, the polaroid process prints directly from the lens, bypassing the production of a negative to typically producing a unique image. With few controls and levels for intervention, the polaroid format suggests an authenticity that McFarland skillfully uses to bely the alterations he’s made in his collaged images. Moreover, because McFarland rephotographs his collages, he interrupts the presumed uniqueness of the polaroid; images like Sea Winds are actually produced in small editions of three. Combined, McFarland’s initial collages, the use of the polaroid process, and his editions create a complicated play on multiplicity and authenticity.

In McFarland’s two versions of At Sea (2012), he presents a polaroid and a graphite drawing of the same turbulent sea. Installed slightly apart from each other on a loose diagonal, rather than next to one another, McFarland’s two versions operate as repetition and facsimile. Like Sea Winds, the polaroid version of At Sea is a collaged image. While in the drawing, McFarland has not only manually rendered the imagery, but has duplicated the polaroid’s white border and scale, making it a rendering of the photograph as an object. While the polaroid is slightly darker, McFarland’s use of black and white, as opposed to polaroid’s distinctive color, creates a level of abstraction that opens it up for substitution and play. Moreover, McFarland’s work suggests that drawing and photography—which is literally drawing with light—are both artists’ fabrications.

Through a variety of mediums and techniques, McFarland substitutes imagery to turn the viewer’s assumptions about photography’s verisimilitude upon its head. In his cyanotypes 12 Moons of 2012 (2012), what appears as a grid of moons are actually photograms of bottle caps. While in First Snow (2012), what seems to be a mountain set against a black sky, is a photogram of a piece of chipped ballistics glass. And in the darkly exposed diptych Bluff (2008-2012), the first image depicts the upward slope of a mountain to set up the second, an unexposed black polaroid. With references to visual vocabularies, like a gridded astronomical chart or a landscape diptych, McFarland manipulates his viewer’s anticipation with his own substitutions.

Because McFarland has impeccably crafted his work, the casual viewer may miss the complexities and subtleties in his work. While his drawings and some titles, like Bluff, begin to reveal his sleight of hand, at times I wish McFarland would reveal more of his deceptions. However, obvious breaks in his form could potentially distract from the sublime beauty of his images. Additionally, McFarland may risk making his work more of a game that prompts his viewers to identify his alterations or substitutions, rather than absorbing his subtle explorations of photography and perceptions.


Images courtesy of the artist and Eli Ridgway Gallery.

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