Rachel MacFarlane

Altered States by Mitch Speed

Click through to see the essay ’ Altered States’ by Mitch Speed in the booklet made for my exhibition Fool’s Paradise at Nicholas Metivier Gallery, in Toronto.

Altered States

By Mitch Speed 

How might we build new lenses, through which to encounter life’s actual vividness? It seems
that digital technology has upped the stakes of visual experience, numbing our eyes and
imaginations to all things not glowing. Maybe ritual drug use could us re-animate regular old
non-electric visual experience. But the space for such practices was long ago squeezed out, by
the taboos of conservative culture. It’s in this question, that Rachel MacFarlane’s new pictures
do their work.

Within late capitalism, art often figures as a manually produced resistance to the technical
engineering of experience—an engineering that both produces and satisfies desire. But if art
can carve out spaces for jarring experiences in a monotonous and addictive consumer culture,
MacFarlane’s new paintings have an especially focused objective. The images are keyed to
slighted ecological worlds; and more importantly, to the way in which the psychedelic properties
of those worlds exist in a strange antagonistic relationship, with the synthetic properties of
technologized experience. In MacFarlane’s paintings, which are produced at hypnotic rhythm,
motifs borrowed from the former realm, seem illuminated by the blazing light of the latter. To
look at them is to cycle through an optical unconscious populated both by rough bark and
shimmering LCDs, smouldering twilight and the melancholic blink of late night texts.

As I write, a thunderstorm is developing outside my window. It’s 9:00 AM, and the looming
clouds are light grey, verging on mauve. Jaggy branches wave across them, and across a brick
building, whose windows are glowing yellow hollows. The feeling of this situation – nature’s
sinister capacities mixing with charming atmospherics—echo Macfarlane’s paintings.

These canvasses could be allegories for an experience of nature, backlit by an elusive mixture of
technology and imagination. In Nightcrawlers at Tangerine Magic Hour 2017, four silhouetted
plants droop like lurking hands, in a childhood nightmare lit by fiery reds and oranges. Each
step bears a single ragged frond, while the foreground is a rubble of large rocks, and squatter
plants with broader leaves. Excepting a patch of white, the scene is cherry fuchsia, and lilac
drifting into blue. Nightmarish drama derives from shadows; cast against a coral backdrop,
these suggest a puppet show or diorama, with an intense vibrancy, worlds apart from the usual,
subdued hues of landscape painting.

This tending towards hyper-color over naturalism has origins in MacFarlane’s process. First, she
uses construction paper to construct small models. Observing the resultant pictures, it’s evident
that her goal is less to mimic these mock-ups, than to form caricature echoes of them. It’s the
repetitiveness of MacFarlane’s plant-like motifs, that cause her work to read as kind of elusive
meta-critique, mores than an attempt to depict. And so, of all their painterly referents—the
staccato outlines and acidic colours of Alice Neels portraiture, the vividly abstracted mountains
and trees in Lawren Harris’s landscape paintings—her pictures seem most closely aligned with
the endless lives of bottles and vases, painted by Giorgio Morandi during the middle of the last

The elder painter’s milky hues pale, next to MacFarlane’s florescence. But the artists meet on
planes of procedure and ethos. Photographs of Morandi’s studio show a room bedecked with
glass vessels: a thousand specimens awaiting study, often slathered with paint or plaster to
denature the objects. Walking into MacFarlane’s New York studio last spring, I likewise found a
small room filled with more models than pictures. As with Morandi, the paintings that comprise
her oeuvre are intimately bound to these unassuming objects, and the studious procedure they

Despite this resonance with past painting, MacFarlane’s models and pictures cling assiduously
to our present moment: or at least to the subjectivities that live in it, formed by decades of
evolving digital entertainment — so many video game environments and animated film worlds.
Stylistically, the internal dialectic of her work comprises these referents, and the outdated
modality of painting, mixing landscape and still life. Her 2016 picture Tides is especially
indicative of this relationship between contemporary phenomena, and historical method.
Therein, an arching accumulation of leaves and other semi-organic forms (maybe sheets of
paper, maybe small wooden fences…) sits beneath five small, floating marks, in black and blush.
Scarlet, purple, pink and orange, the lower objects flicker between recognizability, and
manifestations of colour—just that.

This flickering implies a resistance to processes by which objects, people and nature are reduced
to pure sensation—fodder for un-thinking consumption. Pleasurable as MacFarlane’s paintings
are, the rigour of their making bears this function out. These are pictures that live on the verge
of an encounter, between so many breathing bodies (human or otherwise…) and their
intemperate technological surround.

- Mitch Speed is an artist and writer based in Berlin. A contributing editor at Momus, he writes
regularly for Frieze , and has contributed to Flash Art , Camera Austria , Artforum , Hyperallergic,
and Turps . He was co-founder and editor of Setup, a journal of contemporary art and writing
published by Publication Studio. In 2016, he earned a graduate degree in studio art from the
Mason Gross School of the Arts, at Rutgers University.

This image is on the back of the booklet cropped in as a give away poster. 

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