Home and Garden
Oakville Galleries  (Exhibition Brochure)
November 23, 2002 - January 25, 2003
By Kim Simon

 The existence of the formal garden, as a retreat from the bustle of our contemporary lives, holds within it a belief in the power of nature to refresh the spirit with a sense of hopeful wonder. I have a memory of visiting the famous Public Gardens in Halifax and looking forward to this sense of rejuvenation through such an aesthetic marvel. Along with this effect however, I remember a subtle frustration at a series of signs telling me to keep off the grass, refrain from any ball play, and keep my dog on a leash. In essence, I was being encouraged to experience the garden in a very prescribed way: I was meant to walk on this given path and see these gorgeous flowers.

I was reminded of this encounter in Halifax when I first viewed Andrew Wright’s work for Oakville Galleries. When he was invited to exhibit at the Gairloch site, like many artists before him, Wright was compelled to respond to the unique location of the gallery nestled into the idyllic, lakeside public gardens. Home and Garden is immediately striking in that, for images of a public leisure space, Wright’s representations of Gairloch Gardens are completely void of people. In a conversation about this absence in his images, he has commented that formal gardens are not so much for bodies as for eyes. Of course, any spatial experience of place necessitates a mobile subject, but what Wright refers to here is that the picturesque design of the gardens is one that puts the body entirely in service to the eye.

As Giuliana Bruno has noted, the formal garden is "... an object of mediated views, where views are the desirable objective, the garden is an image--a culturally constructed visual space. A product of imaging, the picturesque garden is sequentially assembled and deployed for viewing as an actual spatio-visual apparatus." Understood in this context, one might imagine Gairloch Gardens less a free space to roam in than a space where the vistas themselves compel us to move and experience in certain ways. Compel us to see, for example, the view of a pond with a quaint bridge, then a view of the pond from that bridge, from which we might see the rose garden we will visit next, or the bench at lakeside which doubtless promises a great scene.

Although the design of Gairloch Gardens is not overtly prescriptive of their use, Home and Garden investigates a kind of sensory discipline involved in enjoying such civic spaces. Bringing to the project a long-time interest in the construction of visual perception in relation to technology and representational strategies, Wright recognized that the organization and experience of the Gairloch environment was itself a representation, a multifarious image asking to be seen in particular ways. Through on-site research for Home and Garden, he investigated the narratives of attention and looking that are written into the very landscape of Gairloch and further played out through various technologies of representation.

Wright’s Aided Drawing series is the outcome of his performance of the 19th century artist working en plein-air. Going so far as to don the wide-brimmed straw hat, he took the studio out to the garden to begin his detailed studies. The idea of going on-site to sketch is typically understood as a way to force oneself to notice details of an environment that might otherwise go unexperienced and unseen. It seemed appropriate to this work for Wright to employ the aid of a camera lucida, a 19th century drawing tool essentially used as a way to ‘trace’ the image of an object in front of one. To use the apparatus one sets the angle and height of a prism, mounted on a table top stand in such a way that light reflects into the eye simultaneously from both the object and the paper to be drawn on. By aligning the eye with the prism just right, one experiences the illusion of seeing the image on the paper below and can draw its contours. Ironically, the practice of using the camera lucida is so particular that, much like using a piece of tracing paper over an image, the artist spends little time actually experiencing the look of an object, but rather focuses all attention on the discipline of coordinating the proper relation between eye, camera lucida, object, and hand holding pencil to paper. 

As the prism of the camera lucida creates a soft focus edge it reinforced Wright’s understanding of the Gardens as a series of vignettes. The dissolve of the frame in the reflected image forced him carefully to compose what becomes central in the picture. The extensive foliage at Gairloch would prove difficult to read through this technology and Wright had to select subject matter that was clear and stable, so as not to resort to creating idealized forms. Thus the drawings diagram the exterior architectural forms of Gairloch Gallery, with its linearity capturing the appropriate amount of light contrast for its structure to be studied closely. Rather than leave the drawings simply as evidence of the artist’s work in the field, Wright skews the image by doubling it in places, creating an effect that unravels the unadulterated picturesque to highlight the image’s aided construction.

Perhaps overwhelmed at the task of representing the vastness and immensity of visual information at the Gairloch property, much of the work in Home and Garden was produced in the dark of night. Illuminating the garden with large theatrical lights, the series of colour photographs, Illuminated Landscapes, is the result of Wright setting up a kind of portrait studio for the smaller vignettes in the garden. In these images backgrounds disappear, space is flattened and condensed, and subjects seem to float to the surface. In one landscape, Pond #1, he leaves visible the device that enables the creation of such scenes--the light stands that direct our looking. Wright’s photographs reprogramme the activity of the eye in such a landscape, preventing us from distraction, imposing a particular kind of dramatic attention. Having had the scene narrowed and focused for us we teeter back and forth on the edge between the sublime and the tableau.

The video and sound installation Lighthouse was similarly produced after the sun went down on Gairloch. Employing the location of the nine benches throughout the Gardens, Wright mounted a video camera and light onto a slow panning unit, taking stock of what might be seen from the given lookout points for panoramic vistas. In these same locations he recorded the ambient sounds of the garden at night.

Presented as it is in the exhibition, Lighthouse creates a complex environment in which sound and image function with a duality characteristic of Home and Garden. Playing to our desire for unfettered immersion in the natural environment, Wright presents the ambient garden noise as surround sound. In support of this recreated experience, the projected panoramas have the illuminating effect of a spotlight, a visual aid to help one see what might otherwise go unseen, as though the light of the projector allowed one to see beyond the walls of the gallery. Simultaneously, Wright’s installation might be experienced in another way. The projection unit used in Lighthouse pans with the same restricted range of motion with which the video was recorded, mimicking the field of vision determined by sitting on a bench. With the frame of the projected image moving across the visible interior of the gallery, it becomes clear that the projection is not just light, but organized light, and a predetermined image comes to the fore. As the walls of the gallery that act as a permeable membrane to the outside world suddenly go opaque, the immersive sound environment of Lighthouse becomes as partial as its images, and the curtains are pulled back on Oz.

While the beauty of Gairloch is everywhere present in Home and Garden, playing to our need and desire for ideal spaces of freedom and wonder, there is always a quiet troubling in Wright’s images. In many ways, Home and Garden embodies a similar sense of tension to that which I felt in the Halifax Public Gardens. In relation to our idealizations of both nature and art, Wright creates a productive tension between moments of awe-inspiring enchantment and an awareness of the cultural screens that programme the way we see. This is not a cynical place to be. The ability to look critically at one’s own practices of looking is a hopeful project moving towards disrupting a passive consumption of the world as an experience already created for us. Although it is not a place of blissful naïveté, Wright’s home and garden is a special place to be, somewhere between the actuality of our present moment and an active sense of wonder.

Kim Simon