Photoshop Genius or Arthouse Hack?

Scott McFarland’s composite images are lush, glossy, and made with the help of computer software to combine multiple images in one piece: a handy tool called Photoshop. Yet the artist statement leading into his exhibit washes over that term as if this type of creation is not only new and revolutionary, but fit for the walls of Vancouver’s senior art house.

McFarland’s work on display is very divided, with two different statements battling each other within the exhibit. This juxtaposition places photographs side by side – they either depict a desolate locale, or one inhabited by an overabundance of population. He is interested in what he calls the “careful cultivation” of places, with venues ranging from botanical gardens, zoos, and public fountains to sheds, and yards. Basically anywhere humans have groomed and primped (even if it’s been worn down by the time he takes his image, such as his shack series) intrigues McFarland.

An interesting concept of McFarland’s work is the idea of his images being manipulated on a computer combined with the subject material. In a small series throughout the exhibit, McFarland shoots a selection of Los Angeles photo labs that have gone out of business. The colourful signs now sun bleached and the doors boarded up, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic, recalling the days of film photography.

McFarland’s images pose the problem of being too composed, and too tidy. Considering that a multitude of original sources go into creating one final “photograph,” the concept of a focal point is lost, often creating an image too busy or distracting to enjoy. But perhaps that is McFarland’s goal. The colour is also a huge factor, in that the intensity and variety of hues in one single piece can be off-putting in their abrasiveness. The shots feel fake and empty: we, as the viewer, don’t know what is ‘real’, and what is part of the original photographic source material. Considering some shots are singular images and some have dozens of originals making up the final product, it’s hard to move past that concept, and getting caught up in the idea of ‘composites’ can be a deterrent from enjoying the work.

For example, in the piece “Granite Bowl in the Berlin Lustgarten,” a plethora of superimposed characters take center stage, including (but not limited to) an accordion player, dancing children, and buskers. The characters themselves are nothing eye catching, as they all try to compete for the viewer’s busy eye. In the end, the figures merely end up taking away from the beautiful scenery. Consequentially, images like this say nothing specific, and essentially feel like a photoshop jerkoff session, albeit a well done one. It’s a shame that this piece and others like it take such precedence in McFarland’s show, because some of his other work is truly breathtaking.

The pieces of McFarland’s catalogue that showcase an isolated and empty location remain beautiful and exquisite. In conjunction with his other work, the more simplistic and natural pieces are far more striking. It would be a much more interesting display if only these types of images were on exhibit. In imagery of yards and trampolines covered in snow, an empty penguin zoo habitat, or a deserted wood shed, McFarland engages in a narrative dialogue, letting the viewer fill in some blanks that could recall anything based on one’s personal history. These stunning pieces got to the core of what it seems McFarland is truly trying to say: a human disconnect or lack of communication with the subject matter via ‘manipulation’ of the image, creating a feeling of abandonment or isolation.

Shifting between the two separate types of imagery, it is easy to feel lost in the introverted isolated type of images, and then annoyed and unimpressed with the others. Is this the type of reaction Scott McFarland is looking for from his audience? It’s hard to tell. But you can make up your mind personally by visiting the work, which is on display at the VAG through January 3rd.

// JJ Brewis

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