I haven’t seen Rachel MacFarlane’s painting Sliver (2020). It would be reasonable to assume that I had, because Sliver is the centerpiece of Paradise, the show that this review is about. In fact, Sliver is the only painting in Paradise.
And yet, I can tell you a lot about Sliver. For example, I know that it shows a night scene in a desert valley. An enormous crescent moon hangs low against a lavender sky. At the foot of the painting, a snarling tangle of agave and feral branches cuts across the valley like barbed wire. Their forms’ childlike naiveté, loosely rendered with unsteady contours, take the fangs off of their peril. Sliver does not attempt to fool you into thinking it is anything but a painting, but I have the suspicion that it actually might not be a painting at all.
I’ve spent the last two months locked in quarantine with limited access to the outside world, but in that time, I’ve learned enough about Sliver to also know that it can be found inside a very tiny, brightly lit gallery. The gallery itself is inside another, larger desert, but unlike the first desert, this one is apparently made of cut paper sculpted into shapes. Angular clouds drift by overhead. The scene is darker, lit by starlight rays shining through holes roughly poked into the top of the sky. I can only presume there is a third, separate universe beyond that, awash in starry light, but I can’t be sure.
I know all of this, not because I was able to make the journey through those paper badlands to see the show in person, but because I saw it online in Rachel MacFarlane’s video, Beacon (2020) — a night flight through cliffs and boulders that arrives at the familiar storefront entrance to Super Dutchess, a staple of the Lower East Side gallery scene, but here ensconced in a canyon. Because I know that Super Dutchess surely remains in the Lower East Side (even in the time of COVID-19), Beacon revealed to me that this oscillation between true and false, real and virtual is exactly what Rachel MacFarlane’s artwork seeks to extrapolate about thought, perception, and memory.
In the grammar of MacFarlane’s process, prepositions abound. The most critical moments happen in the transcription of images: from small to big; depth to flatness; illusion to realism and then back to illusion again. She begins in nature, often national parks, simply absorbing the experience of the landscape and doing the occasional watercolor or drawing. Afterwards, she assembles observations and impressions into small paper dioramas collaged together from painted textures. MacFarlane calls these diminutive recollections “maquettes”. In a curious inversion of the plein air method, she magnifies them into much larger paintings. Despite their apparent hyperbole of color and form, MacFarlane’s canvases are relatively faithful renditions of the maquettes’ sketchy imperfections, saturated hues and artificial light. MacFarlane is, effectively, a still life painter whose subject paradoxically happens to be landscapes.
Paradise, I can now disclose, only exists virtually. Beacon’s paper desert, it turns out, is an immaculately rendered CGI illusion recreating one of MacFarlane’s maquettes. A site-specific intervention into a space simultaneously real and imagined, Beacon draws a line directly from the LES to the Venetian colorists of the Renaissance whose vibrant trompe l’oeil tableaux exploded in and out of real space. It is one of only two pieces belonging to Paradise, an exhibition freed by the quarantine from obeying the laws of space, time, and the confines of gallery walls. There may be no better setting for MacFarlane’s work than this recursive hybrid of real and imaginary.
And no, I have not seen Sliver, but I can attest that it does exist. It hangs serenely on the wall of MacFarlane’s studio alongside an artfully lit twin of itself in miniature, an uncanny valley if ever there was one.
STEVEN PESTANA is a visual artist and writer living in Brooklyn. He holds an MFA in Digital Media from Rhode Island School of Design and a BA in Art History from New York University.