Given the insults we’ve inflicted on the planet, is it any wonder we have difficulty re-creating a Walden-like experience? Soil to Site, the final installment in an 18-month cycle of events titled Natural and Creative Capitol, examines the always-fraught relationship between man and nature. It features three Bay Area artists who lean toward the Edenic, but who also openly acknowledge the challenges facing anyone who seeks to establish a deep relationship with what today passes for wilderness.
If there’s a through-line running through the exhibit it’s that wilderness exists purely at our pleasure, and it does so only through acts of human beneficence, not acts of God. Sean McFarland, a highly skilled simulation artist, has a strategy for negotiating this skewed state of affairs. His collaged photos, based on images that he collects and digitally reconstructs, are designed to operate like dioramas, re-creating “facts” of natural history by fictionalizing them. Crepuscular and hermetic and alternating between medium-sized C-Prints and tiny (3/1/2 x 4/14”) Polaroids, they make the familiar seem strange and the strange seem familiar. The five prints on view here come from two series, Dark Pictures (2011) and Pictures of the Earth (2009-11).
They make you feel as if you’re staring through a keyhole into art history. Impenetrably dark foliage, broad vistas, pristine waterfalls, lightening and other primordial aspects of the Earth recall photo-graphy’s 19th century beginnings and its ongoing dialog with American and European Romantic painting of the same period. McFarland integrates these elements into fakes that are wholly plausible, but not so perfect as to make you think you’re looking at a “straight” photograph.
As such, they’re apt metaphors for his belief that our perception of the Earth is altered by everything we’ve done to it (and everything we haven’t.) If that comes off sounding too much like the postmodern cliché about the relativity of everything, so be it. The longer you look at these pictures the more apparent it becomes that they are not just simple exercises in visual destabilization but, rather, subtle pleas for the exercise of consciousness.