NOTES ON A PICTURE: SCOTT McFARLAND
Scott McFarland, Discussing, Michael O’Brian with Artist and
Model on his Property, 2005, Digital C-print, 40” x 48”
Scott McFarland photographs gardens to deal with aspects of picture making. The figures shown maintaining them mimic the actions and procedures of the photographer, and the lab technicians who develop the photographs. McFarland systematically, but always extremely tacitly, reveals these processes – mixing chemicals, checking water temperature and purity, magnifying, trimming, and so on – and in doing so has turned the garden into an analogy for photography.
A few years ago he began to include the property owners in his pictures, in order to consider the viewing and reception of the work. The owners operate as surrogates for the collectors of his work; other works, peopled or not, have also subtly addressed the presence of curators, critics, and general gallery goers.
McFarland’s method evokes Michael Fried’s reading of Courbet by using figures to reflect on aspects of the work. In Courbet’s Realism, Fried discusses The Wheat Sifters, Courbet’s painting of two peasant women and a young boy sifting wheat by three different technological methods. As part of a larger argument about Courbet’s enterprise, he relates various aspects in the painting to the creation of the work. He suggests, among other things, that the central figure, using a sieve to sort the grain from the chaff, represents the actions of the painter (or beholder) of the work. The grain, acting as the pigment of the paint, falls upon a large cloth, which here acts as the canvas.
Whereas Courbet uses a cloth as a surrogate for the canvas, McFarland uses plants. Plants are dependent on the same two integral aspects of traditional photo-chemical process: light and water.
Discussing, Michael O’Brian with Artist and Model on his Property, 2005, corresponds to an earlier work from 2004, called Dipping, Conrad Arida with Mother and Child Wading in the Water. It refers to a moment from before either picture where McFarland was negotiating with O’Brian to photograph his garden.
Discussing bears intentional structural and situational similarities to two other Courbet works. Most blatant is The Meeting (also known as Bonjour Monsieur Courbet), where, like McFarland and O’Brian, Courbet and his patron Alfred Bruyas are engaged in conversation. Bruyas’ servant in McFarland’s work is replaced by Conrad, who is bringing towels down to the pool area. McFarland has effectively cast himself as Courbet; Courbet’s hat – in his painting it is found, out of respect, in his hand – is the same type that he is wearing, and wears regularly when shooting to shield the sun from his eyes. In Discussing, a woman (the Mother from Dipping) is sitting off to his right. The woman, wearing a long, bright orange sarong, has no analogue in The Meeting, but does relate to the woman behind Courbet in his painting The Painter’s Studio, Real Allegory Determining a Phase of Seven Years in my Artistic Life.
The Painter’s Studio, where Courbet depicts himself working on an unfinished landscape painting, relates to McFarland’s situation as well. Here he is setting the groundwork for future works; he is not showing himself in the active mode of actually taking his photographs, but rather the quiet, logistical situation of planning the work. While McFarland and O’Brian were discussing the potential photography, McFarland was no doubt actively looking for potential motifs. But the moment in Discussing, we know, was not the initial work that he sought to make. Instead, and importantly, it was only later that he returned to this moment. We can see the finished work here shown in the process of making, Dipping, 2004.
Scott McFarland is a Vancouver based artist. He is represented by Regen Projects, Los Angeles, Union Gallery, London, and Monte Clark Gallery,Vancouver and Toronto. Current exhibitions include ‘ClickDoubleClick’, Haus der Kunst, Munich, and ‘Boys and Flowers’, Western Bridge, Seattle.
Adam Harrison is co-editor of Doppelganger magazine.