Andrew Wright: Penumbra
University of Toronto Art Centre
May 2 - June 29, 2013
By Mark A. Cheetham

A 2013 Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival Primary Exhibiton

As the exhibition title Penumbra aptly suggests, Andrew Wright creates images that investigate half-lights, zones, and procedures where the ambiguity of what we are seeing extends to an uncertainty about how the work was created, or even if we are looking at photographs at all. Using a wide range of photographic means, he works with what light can reveal and hold open so that we may explore the edges of perception and understanding. This mid-career survey of works from 2001 – 13 includes selections from several of Wright’s series, as well as a number of studies that reflect his experimental approach to image-making.

Wright explores the potential of photographic technologies both old and new: the perennial enchantment of the camera obscura is employed in Penumbra to expose the discrepancies between the time of taking an image and the time of taking it in as a viewer, while what Wright calls “photogenic drawings” present images of clouds made with an iPhone app. From John Constable to Alfred Stieglitz to Gerhard Richter, studies of clouds are the locus classicus for artists who hope to apprehend the ephemeral visually. Wright participates in this genealogy with his own depictions of clouds but he turns the tables on our visual expectations. The large-scale series Coronae (2011) presents images of what we might imagine to be interstellar phenomena captured by the Hubble Space Telescope; we cannot easily decide whether the bursts of light recorded here are large or tiny, very close or immeasurably distant. Their portentous implications contrast sharply with the techniques Wright employed to make them. Instead of looking to the skies, he simply pricked a tiny hole in the case of a role of photographic film. A retro photochemical technology and an apparently accidental action most photographers would avoid, turn a humble film cartridge into a cosmic camera.

Most of us happily take for granted a secure sense of scale and depth of field as we navigate our everyday visual worlds. Wright suspends these certainties, not to impress or trick us, but to have us think and see with greater attention. He regularly makes images in difficult circumstances, often in remote places, or at night with a flash or strobe light, to reveal the unfamiliar aspects of objects that we might never notice in the light of day. This technique allows Wright to investigate scale in Standing Waves (2007), where shots of rushing water and ice, forced into vertical columns in the Niagara Gorge, refract a subtle yet radiant range of colour. Taking the photos in the dark while held secure but dangerously near to the edge of the rushing water, Wright shows us the waves up close and impossibly still. Despite its appar- ent stasis in the image, the water moves with violent force and magnitude; some of the ice blocks are the size of cars. These photos suggest that we cannot adequately represent or understand nature, even though we are part of it.

Wright explores two very different aspects of photography: its ability to hold on to transient phenomena so that we may observe them freely, as in Standing Waves, and its attention to more permanent objects in the world. Working with static objects in Tree Corrections (2012), he reveals the cultural conventions that have made the weather-twisted tree an icon in central Canada. By tilting his viewfinder to photograph such trees as if they were vertical, he skews the landscapes that frame them.

Wright departs from still photography’s controlling parameter of arresting motion in his video work.After Snow, parts I – III (2011) riffs on the protocols of Michael Snow’s famous film La Région Centrale (1971). While Snow mounted a 16mm film camera to a special machine that could then operate independently from any human presence, Wright employs a hand-held video camera that celebrates the acci- dents of an almost amateurish personal touch. Filmed in the Arctic but without looking for wilderness, Wright sug- gests that his short and abrupt homage “contains the visible traces of the performer, the artist as interlocutor, with lens cap and good winter boots in the periphery.”

Nox Borealis (2012) is perhaps the most surprising and difficult-to-fathom work in Penumbra. Despite the generous size of these large-format, nearly 1:1 ratio images taken in Iqaluit, we can see very little. They are almost completely black, challenging our stereotype of the “Great White North.” Equally disorienting is Wright’s decision to present these monoliths as self-supporting sculptures standing in the middle of the gallery, rather than hanging on the wall. What these works are supposed to be, show, or obscure, and how they were made, remain open questions. However we respond to such specific puzzles, all of Wright’s images extend our field of vision simply, magically, and profoundly.

Mark A. Cheetham
Professor of Art History, University of Toronto
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