Published on: January 22, 2015Last Updated: January 22, 2015 7:25 PM EST
So, now I know what it’s like to be on the set of Breaking Bad.
Andrew Wright’s art studio in south Ottawa resembles the illegal meth lab built by television’s nebbish-dad-turned-drug-lord Walter White. For one thing, Wright’s studio is a nondescript garage space in the back of a nondescript building in a nondescript industrial park, ideally suited to not attracting attention.
Wright, like White, is a teacher, though he teaches photography at the University of Ottawa, whereas White taught chemistry in a high school. Wright only acts like a slightly crazy chemistry teacher, busily mixing chemicals from bucket to vat, all precisely measured and weighed and handled carefully, lest they explode, or splash and burn out someone’s eyeballs. I stand well back.
Wright is dressed in papery coveralls, gloves and a gas mask, as often were White and his assistant, Jesse. Wright has an assistant in Brendan de Montigny, the co-owner of PDA Projects gallery on Elgin Street. Those familiar with de Montigny know he has a fashion sense, but today it’s coveralls and mask. Safety 1, style 0. (Oh, the things we do for art).
The pair are at work on objects that will be part of Wright’s exhibition at the Ottawa Art Gallery, so they’re busily spraying various things with coats of primer and fixer and other dangerous chemicals I didn’t quite get the name of and, finally, silver. Formerly utilitarian items, long discarded, are reborn as objets d’art.
The show will be titled Pretty Lofty and Heavy All at Once. (OAG curator Ola Wlusek once made a suggestion to Wright, and he responded, “it sounds pretty lofty and heavy all at once.”) The show, now open and officially part of the upcoming Ontario Scene, contains many photographs that, typically for Wright, subvert the notion of what a photograph is.
For Wright, the subject of a photograph is but a prop that allows him to play with the process, the technology, and the things a photograph is made of. “It’s about reducing it to its core elements,” he says.
“As a photographer, I’m not really about pictures, which is a weird thing to be, right? You can’t be a photographer without taking pictures. Of course I take pictures, but my interest in photography is not about the picturing part of it. It’s about almost everything else.”
When Wright takes a photograph of a bendy tree on the shores of Georgian Bay and holds his camera at an angle to “straighten” the tree — there are 18 such photos in the exhibition — it’s not about the tree, it’s about thwarting your expectations. He delights in recounting — he briefly pushes up his gas mask to tell me this — how one writer said that Andrew Wright’s art forces you to “tilt your head to see straight.”
There are actually two types of head tilt when viewing Wright’s photographs. One is the practical tilt, when looking at something that literally is crooked. The other is the reflective tilt, usually paired with an enquiring “hmm.” Something is askew, you might think to yourself. For example, in Wright’s “tin-type” photos of clouds, shot with a vintage camera, those clouds are actually crumpled paper towels that were used in the studio.
Then there’s the photograph shot with a modern camera, from a moving train, that has a vintage look — except for the captured movement of the passing grass that is crazily and incongruously kinetic, a gift of the modern shutter speed that both contrasts with and complements the vintage feel. The photograph’s immense size, at five by almost eight feet, only heightens the sense of movement. “I love the idea,” Wright says, “of throwing people into a bit of a visual conundrum.”
Conundrum is the definition of the glorious and dryly titled piece, Disused Portrait Camera Considers Wedgwood Vase. The installation features an antique camera and a small jasper ware vase, each sporting a thick coat of shiny, reflective silver applied by Wright and de Montigny in the mad-scientist lab/garage. The camera is pointed at the vase, and both are encased in a box made of one-way mirrored glass. Look into the box and you see a shiny surface that’s surrounded by mirrors, yet you cannot see your own reflection. You see only reflections of the vase and camera, repeated in every direction, to infinity.
If you look up from the mirror box feeling destabilized — Wright loves to toy with your sense of balance — be careful to not trip over the large installation of 16 panels on the floor. Each panel is curved, some strongly, some barely at all, and they’re brought together in a room-sized grid of undulation.
The panels are covered in varying degrees of deep, limitless black (a key element of photography) and more of that gleaming silver (ditto). The colours are divided sharply, in contrast to the flowing curves of the panels. The whole thing was inspired by the elements of photography, but what I see is a sudden blast of sunlight skittering across the churning, dark waters of the north Atlantic in winter.
What can I say? Maybe I breathed in too many chemicals at the Breaking Bad art studio. Regardless, there goes Andrew Wright again, messing with the viewer’s head.