“With photography, you start with the chaotic world around you,” began Andrew O’Brien in his presentation on his art show titled Curtain Wall. O’Brien’s work is currently on display in the Kresge Library art gallery, and on the evening of October 25, he discussed the ideas and interests that drove him to take these photos.
The photographs hanging in the gallery are reflections on reflections, all taken in a building full of gold windows. This building used to be a Blue Cross in downtown Chattanooga, but it is now The Westin Hotel. O’Brien’s chief interest in it was how it interacted with the landscape. The glass is gold with a greenish tinge, affecting both the inside of the building and the outside. The building itself is incredibly impersonal from an outsider’s perspective. Anyone looking in sees merely their own reflection and cannot return the gaze of anyone looking out.
In exploring the relationship between the architecture and the landscape, O’Brien says it “magnifies, refracts, distorts,” sucking in the landscape while simultaneously pushing itself out onto it.
O’Brien’s initial attraction to the building stemmed from his affinity for creating things out of his immediate surroundings. “I don’t normally seek out exotic subjects. I like when you can find strange [things] in the places you drive by everyday.”
O’Brien took all of the photos on one day, going into the abandoned building and photographing things of interest. For him, it was a weird and somewhat eerie experience. “One day, wandering around, feeling like I was the last person on earth,” he said in reference to the experience. The architecture of this particular building made him feel like he was “walking into a spaceship.”
The architect, John Portman, is the same person who designs hotels like the Marriott. Portman’s designs often utilize hollow cores, which form huge atriums and make the buildings inward functioning instead of outward functioning. The gold building was designed in a similar way, which makes walking into it an otherworldly experience.
O’Brien’s photos reflect this inward focus, but they also hold it in tension with the more mundane aspects of the building. Several of the photographs feature common blinds and their chain pulls. “I got really seduced by those blinds,” O’Brien remarked. The blinds provide a strong sense of verticality in the photographs, placing the viewer in a specific spot in space and time.
However, not all of the photographs are that focused. Some are disorienting, not allowing the viewer to place them. For example, one of the photographs is composed of a huge, hazy, black thing that takes up almost all of the space within the frame. It looks almost like an elevator shaft, but the composition of the photo throws the viewer off and leaves them wondering what it really is.
Another example is the photograph that was featured on the postcards sent to students’ mailboxes inviting them to the show. The way the reflections work in the photographs is an enigma, as it is hard to tell whether the windows are reflecting onto the landscape outside, or the landscape is being viewed through the window and the windows on the other side are reflecting back onto it. Because of their multi-layered nature, the photographs can be somewhat bewildering. “You let us in on the trick sometimes, and then you’re like, ‘But what if you don’t know?’” remarked Dr. Elissa Weichbrodt during the artist interview.
The name of this exhibit lends to the intrigue of the entire show. Curtain Wall is a verbal tension between two ideas - the word “curtain” represents an opening and the word “wall” represents an obstruction. O’Brien’s photographs beautifully reflect the tension of these ideas, communicating to the viewer that there is beauty in the mundane, but also in the otherworldly.