Sean McFarland: Glass Mountains

BY Glen Helfand, November 24, 2013

Sean McFarland, Untitled (Dust), 2013. Courtesy Stephen Wirtz Gallery

The title of Sean McFarland’s poetic, illusory exhibition refer to hiker-friendly peaks in National forests—there are Glass Mountains in West Texas, Oklahoma, and California. The term may have emerged from minerals that glistened to prospectors when the sun hit the landscape just so, but as a phrase it also suggests fragility, a mountain that could shatter.

Fittingly, the expansive exhibition is a fractured collection of variously scaled images, from tiny, contact-sheet strips to 30 x 40-inch pigment prints, carefully composed in mixed, staggered groupings that amplify McFarland’s sense of poetic construction. The images are all moody darkness and cloudy atmosphere. He shows brambles in extreme shade, misted valleys, and literal patches of gray. Only a series of small cyanotypes inject emphatic color, though the process’s signature blueprint tone portends future fading. 

Sean McFarland, Untitled (Small Clearing), 2013. Courtesy Stephen Wirtz Gallery

The large color works on view at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, such as Untitled (Small Clearing), 2013, are prosaic patches of forest that glisten in the dark, like the fur of a panther or the sheen of blackberries ripening on a thorny vine. Untitled (Dust), 2013, has a drier, but equally nocturnal illumination, though there’s a touch of the uncanny in the apparent moonlight. McFarland employs stylizations and photographic tricks that create a vision of nature. Long exposures emulate cinematic day-for-night shots, but the constructed velvety murk also evokes the darkly decorated apartment in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 1884 symbolist novel Against Nature

McFarland similarly employs artifice to generate atmospheric fictions. The color works resemble windows into small dioramas, imitations of life. These display a mixture of influences, the formality of California landscape photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan, the composure of Sugimoto’s natural history museum still lifes, and the theatricality of Gregory Crewdson’s early suburban landscapes and Thomas Demand’s crafty recreations of sites. McFarland does not hide his tricks, but neither does he proclaim them. In an age of ubiquitous filter apps that make any phone snap seem aged with sepia or fading Kodachrome, few viewers expect complete truth. In the potent Three Falls, 2013, which resembles a black-and-white snapshot (3 1/4 x 4 1/4), there is evidence of multiple exposures through misty overlays. Yet the eye pieces them together, as McFarland has, into a somewhat seamless view. There may actually just be one waterfall, but we want to believe in the more abundant possibilities. His pictures do their best to help fuel the dream.