scott mcfarland and ivan morley
6 september 22 november
The photographic practice of Scott McFarland explores cultivated private
Vancouver gardens, the back rooms of commercial photographic labs and the interior
of an isolated cabin on the Pacific north coast. He chooses to work concurrently
between these three selected locations, observing unique, singular images of
unseen and non-spectacular environments. McFarland depicts references to the
process of photography as a chemical and optic medium within his images so that
their formal dynamics and structure become the reason behind each picture.
McFarland took walks in affluent Vancouver neighbourhoods in the late 90s,
wandering through vacant formal gardens originally created for the personal
pleasure of the citys old English establishment. He has since been given
access to the last maintained estates, documenting their array of indigenous
and exotic species and the everyday acts of manufacturing nature of those who
tend them. While the gestures of the gardeners in Cutting on a Slope, 2002,
and Trimming, Late Summer, Sarwan Thind, 1999, havent changed significantly
since Courbets day, the appearance of security equipment hidden among
foliage and the striking, artificially lit Segal Garden at Night, 2002, reminds
us of the apparatus used to record them and amplifies the sense that these are
contemporary private spaces guarded from public intrusion.
In Pouring, Ben Kubomiwa Treating Fountain with Potassium Permanganate, 2002,
McFarland photographs an act of strange beauty. The agent used to clean a picturesque
pool and waterfall is pure magenta one of three primary colours in the
optical spectrum used to create and enhance colour photographs. This reference
to the process of photography as a product of chemistry recalls the earliest
19th century photographers assertion that it is both an artistic and scientific
medium. Similarly, in Filtering, Peter Harrison Changing Water Pump Filter,
2002, the concept of liquid filtration suggests the beginning of the development
process while the clear reflection of the landscape in the pond is an optical
reference to the medium.
More literal references to the peculiar science of photography can be found
in pictures of the commercial labs where McFarlands images are subsequently
developed and printed. Here the medium itself becomes the subject of the photographs.
He presents the lab interiors with circulating fluids, twisted tubes
and waste as derelict, even visceral environments, in contrast to their
pristine photographic products. In Photographic Enlarger Parts with Light Source,
2002, a colour filter unit with yellow, magenta and cyan filter gels reflect
florescent light while a picture of a darkroom safelight which is usually
intended to be invisible to the processes of photography becomes an abstract
graphic element floating in a darkened room. Even in this, the most apparently
idealised of all of his photographs, one can make out dark splatters of chemicals
on the walls.
McFarland regularly photographs the interiors of a cabin in an isolated community
on the coast, an hour and a half north of Vancouver. These delicately observed
nocturnes use their light sources as subjects. The warm glow of available light
from lamps and embers enhances a mood of exaggerated cosiness and an unapologetically
romantic ambience in which all the furniture and dcor feels rustic and
familiar. They are reticent, affectionate studies of a place with which he has
developed a close affinity. As the surrounding wilderness contracts and neighbouring
cabins are modernised and refurbished into retirement homes, they are also a
poignant record of the disappearance of that most iconic of Canadian spaces
the cabin in the woods.
Photographing the unseen or the unseeable is an important aspiration in all
of his works. Whether in the quiet of a private garden, the isolation of a darkroom
or in a cabin in the middle of the night, his tireless observation and subtle
construction of each image leaves one aware of the time spent creating them.
Scott McFarland was born in 1975 in Hamilton, Ontario, and lives and works
in Vancouver. He studied under Jeff Wall and Roy Arden at the University of
British Columbia, graduating with a BFA in 1997. Their tutelage taught him the
value of grounding ones work in the medium and understanding photography
as a high art, with its own traditions. This is his first exhibition in London.
Ivan Morleys colourful and idiosyncratic works combine high art
with low culture and local craft within traditions of visual narrative and oral
storytelling. Based in Los Angeles, he shares the current West Coast interest
in undermining perceived limitations of decorative art by working
with wax, dye, thread, batik and oil on glass, cotton, and panel. His images
move between the highly literal to the seemingly abstract, fired by the dynamics
and realities of life during the development of California in the 19th century.
Collectively and individually titled El Monte, these works are fuelled by a
short text that Morley based on tales surrounding an especially lively, sometimes
violent, 1850s frontier town. His anecdotes are written in the present tense
and deliberately avoid grand interpretations of history or sentimental nostalgia.
They have more to do with verbal traditions of storytelling and verge on myth
which will have been particularly pertinent in a new settlement establishing
its own collective folklore. Personal, peculiar and quirky, they look at how
people survived and entertained themselves.
In one passage Morley describes how the ground in El Monte was so damp that
the willow pole furniture in most dwellings would grow roots and establish itself
in the mud floors virtually overnight. This legend is conveyed in the most literal
of his paintings, a bedroom with foliage sprouting from a four-poster. In another
work he combines batik with hand-stitching to show the same bed from above.
In a heavily embroidered piece, and three oils on glass, the pattern of the
floral bedcover is repeated and reworked until it becomes a field of colour,
exploding in delirious abstraction. Morleys paint sits flatly on glass
surfaces, like a Renaissance translucent glaze, or medieval stained glass window.
He particularly revels in the knots and whorls of woodwork, painstakingly rendering
them with a high stylisation, in one case on the back of a bar room door. Its
painted window advertises a cock fight, Mexican circus and horse race, with
a menu of assorted bootleg alcohol and mysterious concoctions designated to
townsfolk according to race and sex.
Together the El Monte group raises questions about where and when they might
have been produced. They are obviously contemporary, as well as functioning
as highly decorative artefacts. Morley refers to them as souvenirs of
a fictional as well as an actual place, rather than as works
or paintings. They illustrate varying versions of a reconstructed
past, suggesting that any historical interpretation is an assortment of present-tense
fictions and that the re-telling of a story transforms it to the point where
it bears little resemblance to the original. For Nietzsche, history
was only possible through an awareness of the unhistorical, which is like
the surrounding atmosphere that can alone create life. Morleys most
abstract, fragmentary paintings seem to be more involved with this 'surrounding
atmosphere' than literal analysis of text.
The El Monte group are parts of a poetic myth rather than history paintings.
By exploding the conclusiveness of grand narrative history, in the Wagnerian
vein, they shed more light on colonial expansion and the dream of Manifest Destiny.
They retain relevance to todays El Monte a gritty suburb of Los
Angeles whose population absorbs narratives woven by contemporary Hollywood
rather than storytellers. Together these pieces work as fragments of lived experience,
with an active rather than a nostalgic relationship to the past 'nothing
to do with time passing and everything to do with it being paused'.
Ivan Morley was born in 1966 in California, and lives and works in Los Angeles.
He graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989 and completed
a Master of Fine Arts at the Art Center College of Design in 2000. This is his
first exhibition in London.