Scott McFarland: Winter Retreating Spring Offence
Vancouver is a city well-known for photography. From documentary to photoconceptual practices, the city has been recognized internationally for producing some of the most innovative, challenging and unique artists working in the medium. Scott McFarland, a former Vancouverite and recent Toronto transplant, has consistently explored, and challenged, the representational expectations of photography and the medium’s relationship to the tradition of painting. His latest exhibition at Monte Clark Gallery is a compelling juxtaposition of two recent series, Badlands and Repatriation, which he is showing together for the first time.
Drawing equally on the history of photography and the landscape painting tradition, McFarland’s highly detailed and meticulously composed photographs are the product of digital composites, a painstaking process in which the artist manipulates a number of exposures of the same scene and creates a single image by stitching together elements from each. Resisting the documentary tradition wherein a photograph is understood to capture some sort of authentic truth, McFarland’s complex post-production process highlights the capacity of photography to offer more nuanced depictions of space and time.
This rigorous process is very much on display in Winter Retreating Spring Offense. The exhibition takes the notion of spring as its thematic point of departure – the idea of the season as a time of new beginnings and renewal. The two series of works on display here, Badlands and Repatriation, each approach spring from a very different perspective. Badlands reflects the North American perception of spring as a joyous time, a respite from the cold and unforgiving winter. The other has far less innocuous implications – in Repatriation, McFarland alludes to the moment when the Taliban resumes its offensive after withdrawing for most of the winter. In these works McFarland continues his ongoing investigation into our relationship with the natural world but with an added political dimension.
Cheltenham Badlands, Olde Base Line, Rd., Caledon, Ontario depicts the transition from winter to spring in a rural landscape in one large format photograph as you view the work from right to left. A number of smaller works in the Badlands series act as studies for this larger work and allow the viewer to witness a small portion of the extensive digital manipulation required to create an image that shows a single landscape in the midst of two distinct seasons. Conversely, the Repatriation photographs reference the darker side of spring and depict repatriation ceremonies for Canadian soldiers who have perished while fighting in Afghanistan. Corner of the Courageous, Repatriation Ceremony for Private Tyler William Todd, Grenville St., Toronto, Ontario, April 14th 2010 is a compelling image – a moment when McFarland’s thoughtful composition offers a unique vantage point from which to view what would appear to be a densely inhabited moment in time. If you are in Toronto, a much larger work from this series – measuring approximately 21 x 59 feet – will be on view in the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art’s courtyard as part of Contact Photography Festival from April 25 – June 25.
Cut-out Figure Study #1 (Repatriation) is an interesting work and a departure from the visual perfection that we’ve come to expect from McFarland’s imagery. In this photograph, a lone figure decked out in Canadian garb stands amidst an artificial white background, removed from his context and seemingly dropped into the middle of a different scene. When McFarland couldn’t find a way to work this man into the larger crowd scenes of the procession, he instead did a process shot of the figure, akin to a sketch or preparatory drawing, making the work that goes into creating each photograph explicit.
The inclusion of studies along with the large-scale photographs offers viewers a better understanding of the process required to construct these meticulous pictures and adds an interesting dimension to the experience of viewing the exhibition. These works are technical achievements and reveal McFarland’s mastery of colour, light and composition, and his painterly approach to photography has never been more evident. In a town where we often feel as though we’ve seen it all when it comes to photography, McFarland has managed to offer a fresh perspective and something new, a rare achievement.