Scott McFarland, A Cultivated View – John Grande

[Fall 2009]

Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
April 11 to September 13, 2009

Given his avid interest in gardening, west coast photographer Scott McFarland addresses the landscape with his photographs. Is he acutely aware of the history of landscape in art? The thirty-six works on view in this exhibition curated by Andrea Kunard reveal McFarland to be a very aesthetic, informed photographer. His photos address their subjects as a painter might have in the nineteenth century. The people are of our time, but the scenes might have been painted by Thomas Gainsborough or Joshua Reynolds had they lived in the twenty-first century. McFarland’s lens exploits the landscape, even characterizes it as an archetype. In doing this, he makes a point, for landscape and ideas of nature are as categorical and idealized as they ever were … A car commercial on TV can tell you as much!

McFarland presents human players gardening, relaxing, riding horses, or visiting a zoo in landscapes as ambiguous and artificial as they look natural. A subtle subtext to his A Cultivated View exhibition is our capacity to dominate, modify, play with, or orchestrate nature, even when we do not know that we are doing it. The message about control of nature, though modest, surfaces in Spraying, Norman Whalley Applying Aphid Solution (2004), an image of a gardener quietly going about his work.

Powerful for its simplicity, Gorse and Sky (2008) shows a spray of gorse bush on a hillside. One cloud hovers above. In the distance, a tiny cluster of Moslems are turned to Mecca praying, a clue to this work’s contemporary context. Fallen Oak Tree (2008) also has a simple beauty worthy of the American painter Thomas Vicat Cole or another Hudson River School artist. Garden scenes such as Hill Garden Pergola at Inverforth House (2007) show cultivated species with a “natural” complexity. They have been arranged into areas, with walls separating them. Spread out, this garden is a transitional one, dominance of nature has made way for a laisser faire approach to cultivation. Still other photos are reminiscent of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Scale and distance – from the people to the dogs, to various other people sitting, kneeling, or lying down on the grass – give View of the Vale of Heath, Looking Towards Hampstead (2007) a “naturalism” that is as romantic and contrived as were John Constable’s nineteenth-century views of Hampstead. McFarland’s landscapes play on the way we read visuals today, and this makes them distinctly – ingeniously – of our times. The visual elements in a photograph are not segregated or objectified, but part of an overall flow – the image as part of a screen, let’s say – but a very novel, static, and digitally enhanced viewfinder if there ever was one. Classic and contemporary come together in Dipping, Conrad Arida with Mother and Child Wading in the Water (2004). A mother dips her child in the fountain; a pair of pink flip-flops and a towel are strewn nearby. The man in the scene dips his foot in the water hesitantly. The scene is near-biblical. Another photo, Discussing, Michael O’Brian with Artist and Model on his Property (2005), has a similar close-up depth, and we see the human, the body, all the activity in a contemporary context, less framed by the frame. The implication is that space continues beyond the frame or borders, making this a virtual still life.

Pouring, Ben Kubomiwa Treating Fountain with Potassium Permanganate (2007), with its vivid dye dissolving in front of an orchestrated waterfall scene, and Trapping, Ernesto Gacutan Positions Against Fauna (2003), with a scene of a man setting a cage trap in a garden, again subtly look at what we do to nature, and not all of it is good. If ever there was a photographer who emblematized the contemporary language of the landscape it is McFarland, not just for his content – people, plants, trees, landscapes – but also for the way he unframes the scenes that he captures, as if he were entering captions in a photo book on contemporary myth. As an artist he understands how we have placed ourselves, and our civilization, vis-à-vis nature as we cultivate, consecrate, orchestrate, and bulldoze, eternally changing and reconfiguring the landscape. And so his photographs are as much about what has eternally driven us as humans as it is about the landscape or nature. It’s a cultivated view of our primordial drives, all very scenic, with vistas, planar visions, and people moving in and through photographic scenarios as if it were all a stage and the people in it merely players.

John Grande’s Dialogues in Diversity: Art from Marginal to Mainstream was published by Pari Publishing (Italy) in 2007 ( Art Allsorts: Writings on Art & Artists, vols. 1 and 2 (2008/2009) are available at John Grande is curator of Earth Art 2009 at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton (