Sean McFarland

Glass Mountains

November 7 - December 21, 2013

Stephen Wirtz Gallery is pleased to present Glass Mountains, an exhibition of new work by Sean McFarland

While the title references a specific place—Glass Mountain in California’s Inyo National Forest, where several of the images were made—it also conjures a mythological space, in a poetic overture that references dichotomies of endurance and ephemerality, transparency and mystery, truth and belief.

Like the early anthropological photographers, this work explores nature as other within the cultural context of wilderness and the heavens. Included in the exhibition are clusters of framed photographic images—primordial visions presented in fragments, collage, and Polaroids arrayed on the gallery walls. These works are counter-balanced by large-scale c-prints suffused with twilit inscrutability, but from which scenes of a dark spirituality slowly emerge. McFarland adroitly harnesses the symbolic power of the natural through images so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that, at first glance, we are predisposed to accept their veracity. Behind the curtain, however, an elegant sleight of hand is at play, and closer inspection reveals impossible photographic scenarios merely masquerading as truth.

McFarland operates with alchemistic ardor, constructing Polaroid pictures from other media, and upending the visual cues and expectations associated with other photographic processes, including cyanotypes, the c-print, and gelatin silver. Recognizing that truth is a never-ending reckoning in photography, his work extends and deepens the debate, making trust an integral prerequisite to the experience. Drawing from early 19th century photographers of the American West, the works are elaborate conundrums of literalness and illusion, arguing that the camera sees differently than the eye.

McFarland creates scenes of seemingly familiar yet fantastical splendor from the most banal source material, even producing convincing images of the natural cycles of earth and the cosmos from cameraless processes, while cheekily asserting himself as our witness to apocalyptic explosions, lightning strikes, and majestic mountains and waterfalls. What is shown feels authentically observed in nature, thus revealing our powers of cognition as thrillingly corrupt.

Sean McFarland earned his MFA from the California College of the Arts in 2004. He has exhibited nationally, internationally, and locally at Eli Ridgway Gallery, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Berkeley Art Museum, White Columns, New York, NY, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF Camerawork, Headlands Center for the Arts, The San Jose Museum of Art, Galeria de la Raza, and Jack Hanley Gallery. He has received the Phelan Art Award in Photography from the San Francisco Foundation in 2005, a Fellowship from the National Photography Institute at Columbia University, Baum Award for an Emerging American Photographer in 2009, John Guttmann Photography Fellowship in 2009, and a Eureka Fellowship in 2011. His work is the collections at SFMOMA, Milwaukee Art Museum, Oakland Museum, Berkeley Art Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art Library, Humboldt State University, and UC Davis. Sean currently lives in San Francisco and teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute.