Andrew Wright: Home and Garden
Border Crossings, Issue No. 85
By Risa Horowitz
Andrew Wright can be added to the growing list of artists such as David Rokeby and Janet Cardiff who have turned their attentions to the grounds of Oakville Gallery's Gairloch Gardens location. The site is the former estate of William Mackendrick, a Scottish civil engineer who developed the lakeside property in the 1920s. Upon his passing, investment dealer James Gairdner bought the estate as a retirement home, where he refined the original gardens and practised his hobby of oil painting. Gairdner bequeathed the estate to the town of Oakville in 1971 for the strict purpose of providing the public with a walking garden and a contemporary art gallery.
To reach the gallery, located in the re-purposed Main House of the estate, a walk in the garden is indeed necessary. In winter this stroll requires surviving the gaggle of geese bound to offer greetings at the foot of the path, and passing frozen ponds to gaze wistfully at the decapitated root systems of roseless rose beds while weathering that special wind that blows off Lake Ontario in December. The garden is intended as an idyllic construction; its foundation is revealed, however, by the cyclic processes of growth and decay.
"Home and Garden," conversely, is a summery work, offering both seasonal and diurnal contrasts to what is seen outdoors. Wright controls a view of the picturesque landscape in order to continue his playful exploration of the tools and tricks of photographic technology, and investigate the self-reflexive act of taking photographs. Despite the spareness of this show—four drawings, four photographs, a camera lucida and a video projection-—no doubt owing to the limited space of the exhibition site—Wright roundly presents himself as a 2Oth-century artist playing 19th-century hobbyist playing in a leisure-class estate garden.
In the first chamber of the Main House and directly extending from his previous work, "Mises-en-scène," "Home and Garden's" Illuminated Landscapes are photographs taken of Gairloch at night. The images are lit by high-powered lamps that are visible in three images, thus presenting the gardens not as landscape photographs, but as sets for an undelivered film-play. One of the images had me imagine Mackendrick strolling on set to view the pond pensively before strolling off camera left.
In the second chamber of the Main House is the work entitled Lighthouse, consisting of a DVD projection of the grounds shot at night, along with a corresponding 5.1 digital surround sound audio track recorded on location. Within the darkened room, a circular image plays at the same pace the camera panned the gardens onto three walls. The masked image showed details of the gardens, and gave me the feeling I was using x-ray vision to look beyond the walls of the room itself.
I found myself yearning for this piece to be a camera obscura, with an inverted image sweeping across the room, presenting the actual view outside the room in real time. I have seen one of Wright's previous camera obscura works in progress, where he converted a Banff Centre studio in order to paint the inverted, projected view of the mountains. Despite my wish for a different kind of piece, I was totally drawn into Lighthouse, and the lovely trick of the image reflecting onto a corner of the room, sometimes doubling the image itself, at other times the refracted pattern of the glass of a windowpane.
In the third chamber are Wright's camera lucida and the drawings produced with its aid. The sharp-pencilled drawings—almost miniatures and placed squarely on large sheets of framed paper—are quaint views of the Gairloch buildings. In part highly detailed (the static building structures), in part lovely five-second sketches (the tiny geese who likely wouldn't stay still for anything longer than a single whoosh of Wright's hand), these are the most originally exhibited drawings I've seen in a while. There aren't, after all, too many conceptual artists who dare to exhibit meticulously rendered realistic drawings of Tudor-style houses.
The camera lucida is a simple double-lens device used by artists throughout the 19th century. The mechanism, when implemented properly, permits its operator to view both the scene before him and the drawing surface, thus enabling a precisely scaled and detailed translation of the scene. Despite its simplicity, the instrument demands a practised eye. When I peered through, after fumbling my focus beyond the contraption itself, I saw nothing but my own eye peering back at me. I was instantly thrown into the memory of having an eye exam, where I once caught an astonishing glimpse of the inside of my eyeball, blood vessels and all, while a lighted instrument was pointed at me.
In this context the camera lucida serves as a reminder of the mechanical fact of optics and how we take our viewing for granted. Bysuspending our disbelief when peering through lenses of all kinds, we enact a sort of lateral inhibition, where the eye discards much of what it gathers and functions as its own filter in order not to see the instrument itself-—like the frames of my eyeglasses, or the black box and prism of an SLR camera.
The lights and stands and electrical cables included in Wright's photographic compositions are like the frames of my eyeglasses. They are a reminder of both the mechanical fact of the media, but also of the constructed character of these particular landscapes and the seriousness with which the leisure class assumes its responsibilities and obligations. And, I suppose, this holds as true for garden strollers as for camera lucida operators, beachside painters and gallery goers.
"Home and Garden" by Andrew Wright was at Oakville Galleries—Gairloch Gardens in Oakville, Ontario, from November 23, 2002, to January 29, 2003.
Dr. Risa Horowitz is an Assistant Professor of Visual Art at the University of Regina and the former director of AceART in Winnipeg.