Shotgun Reviews

Sean McFarland: Glass Mountains at Stephen Wirtz Gallery

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Danica Willard Sachs reviews Sean McFarland’s Glass Mountains at Stephan Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco.

Sean McFarland. Glass Mountain, 2013; gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches, edition of 3. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco.

Sean McFarland. Glass Mountain, 2013; gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches, edition of 3. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco.

For Sean McFarland, there’s no such thing as a straight photograph. In Glass Mountains, McFarland’s first solo exhibition at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, the artist manipulates digital chromogenic prints, Polaroids, and cyanotypes, creating images that confound and beguile. McFarland renders his nominal subject—landscapes—unfamiliar, experimenting with photography’s most basic components (light and paper) to challenge the veracity of what we see.

Dim and foreboding, Untitled (Mountain Light) (all images from 2013) depicts a boulder-strewn forest floor with a sliver of light peeking through a grove of pines. The low contrast is evocative of a cloudy evening. McFarland, however, achieves this effect not by taking long exposures in the dark, but rather by using drastically short exposures taken in daylight. The impression given by this grouping, installed at the front of the gallery alongside a number of similarly made images, is of time slowing.

Perhaps the most overtly manipulated photographs in the exhibition are several images McFarland made without a camera. Day Moon, for instance, is a series of small images of a white orb on a blue background. Here, the artist simply placed a penny on photo-sensitive paper, moving the penny halfway through the exposure to create a slightly blurred, moonlike sphere. Arranged against a white backdrop, a group of these resulting cyanotypes seem to document phases of the moon. The adjacent Nine Horizons is a collage of nine black-and-white Polaroids depicting a sky at sunset. McFarland achieved this gray-scale effect by leaving the film for various exposure lengths in an old Polaroid camera with a severe light leak.

McFarland views this body of work as a culmination of several years of image making in conversation with photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan, Robert Adams, and Ansel Adams.[1] Like these artists, McFarland uses photography to show the viewer a particular vision of the landscape while undermining any truth value in the act of documentation. Robert Smithson wrote in 1971 that, “There is something abominable about cameras, because they possess the power to invent many worlds.”[2] Contrary to the distrust voiced by Smithson, with Glass Mountains, McFarland shows that photography’s very same power of invention can be quite remarkable, even when the camera is done away with altogether.

Glass Mountains is on view at Stephen Wirtz Gallery through December 21, 2013.

Danica Willard Sachs is a freelance curator and writer based in San Francisco.

[1] Sean McFarland, presentation at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, November 7, 2013.
[2] Robert Smithson, “Art Through the Camera’s Eye,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 371.