Passages: Andrew Wright & Lisa Klapstock
Cambridge Library & Galleries , Catalog Essay
May 12 - June 30l 2007
By Ivan Jurakic

Landscape as a genre is predicated on representations of the natural world as an untrammeled, awe-inspiring wilderness. As such, it can be understood as an extension of the sublime, which has traditionally been used to describe that which inspires awe due to its magnitude or transcendent beauty. Thus the sublime is evoked by the vastness of the Grand Canyon or the thundering cascade of Niagara Falls, iconic natural attractions that have long since become photo ops. In the 19th century, the romantic sublime was strongly associated with the painting style of the Hudson River School, and artists like Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), who depicted the west as an allegorical Eden. Ultimately, this style of representation played a role in helping to promote an ideology of western expansion and territorial acquisition that remains firmly entrenched in our culture; a belief in mankind’s moral right to dominion over the natural world.

Passages pairs the artwork of Lisa Klapstock and Andrew Wright. Both artists explore the landscape in ways that upend historically prescribed expectations. Each artist’s practice is based on their direct engagement and response to place using lens-based media. As such, their explorations are grounded in artmaking strategies that relate to both Minimalism and Conceptualism, and touch upon a range of related concerns: site-specificity, process, performative gestures, the use of time-based media and furthermore a sensitivity to the environment. Although their art may evoke aspects of the romantic sublime, their methodology serves to deflate the heavy handed moral dimension associated with it.

Lisa Klapstock perceptually upsets our visual expectations. Ambiguous Landscapes, an ambitious series of large format C-prints and single-channel videos serve as discrete documents of the artist’s engagement with sites across Canada and Europe – respectively, Zeeland, Helsinki, Kamloops, Banff and Toronto. Capitalizing on the optical limitations of the analog camera, the artist explores the subtle perceptual gaps between these actual places and their subsequent interpretation through the cameras lens. By staging each image as part of a precise, formal whole, what she calls dislocated diptychs, Klapstock folds her interdisciplinary interests in site, performance and time-based media into a set of powerfully evocative images.

Klapstock assumes the role of artist-explorer documenting her deliberate movement through a series of carefully selected outdoor locations. Her approach extrapolates on British environmental artist Richard Long’s walks through remote places around the world. Whereas Long does not include himself in his images and uses photography as a means to objectively document the sites he has walked, Klapstock subjectively casts herself as a central figure in each landscape, suggesting a sequence of deliberately staged tableaux. Kamloops, Helsinki, and Zeeland capture the artist’s ephemeral footprint in each place, and her appearance constitutes a vital component in deciphering each setting. Note the varying shades and lengths of coats worn. Each garment has been carefully selected to compliment its respective environment. Furthermore, the still images are juxtaposed in tandem with their video counterparts. This combination suggests a conceptual circuit, a formal interplay between place and persona. 

While the colour and details are strikingly clear in each image, Klapstock pushes the optical limits of the 4x5 camera to purposefully increase the compositional flattening common to photography. In Helsinki, the perspective is so radically flattened, that what at first appears to be a wall is only revealed as a set of stone steps once the artist quietly asserts her presence within the frame of the composition. The absence of shadows, achieved by shooting at a precise time of day with the sun in position overhead, makes the image optically confusing. The foreshortening in Zeeland similarly confounds our sense of distance as the artist walks across a dike, a paved embankment that one may at first assume to be an airport runway tarmac. In Kamloops, it is impossible to interpret how large or steep the shrub-covered hillside is until you see the artist’s slow diagonal ascent in the accompanying video. Each image forms part of a perceptual puzzle achieved through rigorous trial and error. Imagine the artist in the field patiently waiting day after day for optimal lighting and weather conditions to get the perfect shot. Klapstock’s approach is the antithesis of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ideal of the decisive moment. These photographs are not about “Things-As-They-Are”, each is meticulously organized to achieve a level of compositional perfection that only looks effortless.

By contrast, Andrew Wright prefers to stay behind the scenes using a wide range of lens-based technologies to examine and respond to natural surroundings. The artist achieved his elegant series of Skies by turning his studio into a camera obscura. Precursor to the camera, the camera obscura is a rudimentary optical device that allows light to pass through a hole in a darkened chamber and strike a flat surface to project an upside-down image of its subject. By making an aperture in the roof of his studio, adding a lens and shutter, Wright effectively transformed his entire workspace into a large format pinhole camera, creating the means by which to document  random cloud formations far above his Waterloo home. These unique silver gelatin prints capture the sky as an ephemeral, fleeting phenomena, a kind of ethereal nothingness. This insubstantial quality is further exaggerated within the gallery, where the sequence of skies is seem in the context of the white cube of the space, suggesting a grand minimalist panorama.

Wright is a conceptual problem solver and uses photography as a perceptual tool to explore his surroundings. Whereas Klapstock’s practice is predicated on precision, Wright is infatuated with instigating conditions that allow him to relinquish control. In both Skies and the recent Untitled Rocket Launch I, II and VII videos, the artist conducts visual experiments that he has very little control over, situations that inevitably lead to random and unpredictable imagery. However, this lack of control is not predicated on a lack of discipline on the part of the artist. On the contrary, Wright approaches his artmaking as a form of science project. Starting with an initial observation, he methodically works his way through hypothesis, experiment, analysis and conclusion.

Inevitably, the artist comes to a perceptual resolution through each trial he instigates, whether setting out to record clouds above his studio or firing a homemade rocket roughly 450 meters into the air and recording its descent using a RH remote camera lodged in the projectile’s nosecone. In the latter, the resulting video projection captures an uncommon view of the landscape as it circles towards us. The grainy, vertiginous imagery is disorienting until the rocket-camera finally comes to rest on a windblown patch of grass. Not unlike the theories of composer John Cage (1912-1992) who used chance as a central strategy in his music, happenings and writing, Wright purposefully composes situations that allow him to divest authorial control as a means of provoking unexpected results. Lens-based media provides him with the methodology to pursue his conceptual experiments using both old (pinhole photography) and new (surveillance video) technologies to examine nature as an ever-changing, spontaneous phenomena.

The image-making strategies employed instill these landscapes with an innate sense of discovery. Each artist explores the land (or sky) as a lived experience as opposed to an idealized transcendent geography. Their work remains firmly grounded in the here and now, and ultimately, their passages represent a personal journey from one place, condition, or stage to another. Both Lisa Klapstock and Andrew Wright use the camera as a means to map intangible pathways as they navigate from one horizon to the next.

Ivan Jurakic is the Director / Curator of the University of Waterloo Art Gallery