Here,Still (Unmoored) | a conversation with George Nobechi

Rembrandt and Sam Abell travel with us as we look at George Nobechi’s photographs. In George’s case the darkening of the shapes, for looking at shapes and their relation to one another is ultimately, subconsciously what we do after identifying or attempting to identify the content, doesn’t add mystery, it adds weight and presence.

Many of George’s photographs take the commonplace and paint it with darkness and black and consequently our photographic mind is expecting contrast and explosions of light but what we get instead is calm. His work is ironic in that we instinctively expect a variety of penumbras, yet the shapes sit next to each other, distinct, the placing of one fully made thought on top of another.

Windows are ancient, ubiquitous architectural elements. They existed before there was a word for them in the shelter/architectural lexicon. Early man looked out from the cave or wikiup or igloo through an opening in the various kinds of shelter — a liminal space between safety, warmth, family and everything else. A known world existed on both sides of the opening but not at the same time. One is either on one side or the other. Each distinct. Each carrying its unique sensations.

George’s windows do carry both worlds simultaneously. His images allow us to be both looking out and looking in. We are not confused or influenced by changes in temperature, wind or rain.

So, inhabiting the space between the two worlds – we chose and then, chose again.

 

Kevin:  First, thanks so much for giving us the opportunity to have your work in the gallery. So, there have been numerous visitors to the gallery comment on the duality of your images. George, the obvious question would be – does that have something to do with your dual heritage and life both in the States and Japan, or is that too easy?

George: Thank you, Kevin and Amanda, for giving me the opportunity to exhibit with you as well. The duality that comes from my dual heritage is an omnipresent breadcrumb in my work. It is probably the most readily identifiable element, just as the most readily identifiable adjectives may be quiet, or dark. But as you’ve alluded, it runs deeper than that starting point. In Asian garden architecture, one of the key tools of design is the borrowed landscape where what is beyond the confines of the garden becomes an integrated part of the scenery. Your garden doesn’t end with the physical confines of your wall, but continues on visually with the landscape beyond.

In this body of work, I have applied a similar sense of two worlds that comes from the scenes within the interior spaces and the landscapes beyond the window. This brings forth the sense of duality of which you and your viewers speak.

But there is also more to it than simply being of two cultures, but this body of work also speaks to a time when I was between two worlds: when I left finance and as I discovered myself as a photographer. While the scenes in these photographs are calm, quiet, still, there is also a tension and uneasiness that comes from straddling the line between the two worlds. I chose windows to express this tension in a way that a door does not. A door invites us to open it and step forth into the next space. A window, instead, leaves us with a certain sense of distance and disconnection – a sense of being so close to a scene, but not physically being part of it, and that is a crucial component to the duality that people may feel. We are both comforted and made to feel tense. But it is my hope that this duality is also what keeps people coming back to view the photographs over and over—that you can’t take it all in and memorize them in one viewing, and that you won’t tire of them, even if they make you feel mixed emotions.

 

Kevin: Distance and alienation are omnipresent themes, motifs in art. Japanese art has a simplicity, a quietness that can mask a complicated aesthetic — the quiet celebration of beauty for beauty’s sake while also a screen for emotions and conflict. This theme is present in the Japanese authors, Kawabata and Mishima.  Can we get a bit deeper into how your life in Japan has influenced your work?

George: Ooh, you’ve gone very dark there with your choices of authors, Kevin, albeit they are two of the few with the most international notoriety. I’m not as big on Mishima, but Kawabata still haunts me (from my studies in school). I would also recommend looking into Kenji Miyazawa for a Japanese take on magical realism — he’s an enormous influence on my work, and also Natsume Soseki for something a little bit lighter in fare. And then you have the dark authors like Oe, Dazai, and so on.

I find that while I may have a Western mindset – individualism, independent thought and so on (although these are both very much stereotypes), I have a more Japanese heart. That is revealed in the way I look at things. For example: mono-no-aware is at the heart of everything artistic – the nature of impermanence and the idea that a photograph might try to access “forever.” But even in two-dimensional space, with time seemingly frozen by a click of the shutter, our relationship with the photograph changes over time. The things we feel now from looking out of windows at the world have evolved, for example, since we all became confined to our spaces at the start of the pandemic.

Artists in both the West and East have tried to express this sense of impermanence. But the Japanese culture is intensely inward-looking, more so than Western culture. And that allows us to consider the most mundane and common of things to be potential subjects for our work. I am no different in that regard.

There is another concept: “ichi-go, ichi-e” – which roughly translates to one life, one meeting. The idea is that every encounter with another should be treated with the respect and appreciation that is afforded to something that happens only once in one’s lifetime. And if you think about it, that is true. If I met you for coffee today and we talked about something of interest to both of us, and we met again for coffee tomorrow, aside from a possible feeling of deja vu, each meeting would indeed be for that time only. We may talk about different subjects, or the same ones, but while in different moods or while having considered the perspective of the other person from the day before. Photographers, of course, are already on to this, even if it is only in our subconscious minds. The act of clicking the shutter is an act of trying to memorialize that one precious moment.

 

Kevin:  Ha, ha, well it was over forty years ago I read those authors — I will take your recommendations. George, indulge me this question. It’s a bit off the trail, but maybe not. Looking at your work brought up long ago discussions.

Much of your imagery has kinship with the paintings of Rembrandt in that you both create a questioning, one could say a celebration, of negative space with black in your work.

I studied Architecture and Landscape Architecture as a young man.  It was never said that we should consider the other structures or landscapes around our designs, albeit hypothetical exercises. At some point I read a book titled, “The Tao of Architecture,” which posited that negative space is as important as positive space. This was most definitely mind expanding artistically.

I later learned of the Japanese concept of Ma — the recognition of negative space or simply space.  Could you tell us if and how the consideration of negative space has informed your work? Did your apprenticeship with the great Sam Abell have influence in that direction also?

George: Well, I want to first say thank you for mentioning me in the same breath as Rembrandt, but of course I don’t see my work in that class. I want to make that much clear. And I wouldn’t necessarily have thought to count him among my influences. Hokusai, yes. Vermeer also. Hopper, and even Rothko; however, yes, I see where you are going with that. I did have a chance to view “The Night Watch” in Amsterdam in 2015 when I first began to make this body of work and perhaps some of that had crept in somewhere along the way.

More on the role of darkness in a moment, but first with respect to “ma” and negative space. “Ma” means several things: room (as in a room), pause (as in between musical notes), and other things. The kanji or Chinese character for it is represented by the character for the “sun” found in between the character for “gate.” It’s interesting to think about those roots. If you ever come to Japan you will see this practice in action in the architecture, garden and landscape design and virtually everywhere you see. You will also see it in the minimalist art styles that are pervasive in this country.

However, if you look at my work, particularly this series, you will see that many of the images are filled with details right to the corners of the frames. That could be my Western half revealing itself, at odds with the Eastern, and there is your duality again, but the way I see it, the clutter of the interior spaces represents the clutter in our minds…the sort of “baggage” of sorts we carry with us as we age and go through life…memories, both good and bad, thoughts, both basic and refined. And then outside there is a sense of purity.

Now back to the darkness- well, that is part of the vignette that exists in our minds. What’s in front of us is clear enough, but the periphery is in shadow, as if memory were a circle and expanded out from the center, rather than linear. The details fade into shadow toward the edges. No, these images aren’t HDR and the shadows are left as close to how our eyes would perceive that space because I want everything to be real. The shadows, the blacks, they take on a presence and give weight to the images, and so I consider it to be a little different from “ma” in this case.

As for the Sam Abell influence, well, he might just have a famous window photograph or two, certainly (wink! – look up “Sam Abell pears” if you don’t know what I mean). Although in that photograph he has placed pears to make a poetic “still life linked to a landscape,” and all my photographs in this series are found spaces. But speaking of spaces, Sam does make use of space very well, especially when there is not much available: he creates the illusion of space and he layers his images, which is something I learned from him. In this series, I’ve made still scenes of everyday life linked to the landscape beyond the window because of that longing we all feel to go outside and be participants in life, but so often the dark thoughts, memories, and the presence of people also weigh equally against the life that is on display in front of us. And that inner space becomes a comforting cloak in which to wrap ourselves, warm and dark, and finally, we look toward where the light comes in—from the window, of course.

 

Kevin: George thanks for traveling along with me in this discussion. Do you have anything you would like to add in parting?

George: I would just say, in parting, thank you for the warm hospitality and for all that you and Amanda do for the photographic community.

 

To see more of George’s work https://www.georgenobechi.com/select-works

 

Touchstones | a visual conversation between Dawn Surratt and Sal Taylor Kydd

Touchstones | a visual conversation between Dawn Surratt and Sal Taylor Kydd came down in the Gallery recently.  We hated to see it go. It was a true joy having this creative conversation between these collaborators and friends in the gallery over the past month. The images are simple, soft, understated — referencing childhood, past experience and longing.

They have created diptychs and both have written poems to go along with each set of images. They chose a call and response process for their image making, akin to African American gospel music – one making an image and sending it to the other to elicit a visual response. Combined with the poems it is a very compelling and moving choice.

In addition to the beautiful photographs, they chose a unique way to present the images. They are printed on a Japanese paper and mounted on the wall without matting or framing. The poems are printed on thin silk and attached to the wall with pins used to mount insect specimens in museums. Consequently, the poems become ethereal living things — moving as the viewer passes, slightly fluttering in the breeze created by the gallery visitor or the heating system fan.

Each day walking through the exhibit I tried to come up with a single word that best defined the work. The word that finally came to me was Elegiac. It seemed to me that there was something of an elegy in the quiet exchange between the poems and photographs. Not sure that I absolutely knew the true definition of elegy, I went to google and found:  elegy; a poem of serious reflection.

Reading their bios and statement about the work explains more of the feeling I got from the words and photographs — Sal speaks of memory and Dawn tells of her experience as a social worker in a Hospice setting. The genesis of the project was the time we have all spent in isolation over the past two years. Walking amongst the work there is little question that the collaboration is about empathy, connection and loss.

I have a question I would like to ask them: So, are the poems and images elegies or are they omens, harbingers or antecedents of elegies or something completely different?

Sal:  I have to admit I was not spurred by creativity at the onset of the pandemic. Like many of us I felt like a deer in the headlights, uncertain and overwhelmed, not knowing which way to go. Working on Touchstones was a real lifeline. It gave me a goal each week as well as something to look forward to at a time it felt that was really missing. When I look back on the poems written during that time, they were all, in one way or another, returning to themes I explore in my work as a whole, family, legacy, memory, love. My response to the pandemic and the ongoing threat of the climate crisis did surface now and then, but it was more that this unique time allowed me to explore my recurring themes on a deeper level. An elegy implies a mourning, in that sense my poems aren’t elegies for something lost, I see them rather as songs that keen in the night, calling for the dawn.

Dawn:  The poems I wrote were direct reflections of the range of emotional responses I had to the changing world around me. Because the world has been so volatile in the last couple of years, the poems may seem more like elegies, but they were not consciously written as such. At the time of their writing, I had not yet experienced a loss of a family member due to the pandemic. I am quite certain that if I were writing poems for the project now, my poems would feel differently. My hope is that there is always a balance in the messages of the poems that reflects the wide range of feelings that I experienced while moving through change and transformation.

Kevin:  Tragedies and upheavals always instigate change. You both have mentioned how current events have had an impact on your art. How or will having lived and worked through the pandemic change your art practice going forward?  I have experienced and read conversations with artists questioning the relevance of art in our troubled world – facing climate change, etc. Thoughts? 

Dawn:  I remember an amazing video that was made during the pandemic of a string quartet that played to an auditorium filled to the brim with plants instead of people because people were not allowed. The yearning to creatively connect with others was so strong and so powerfully depicted in this video that it moved me to tears. It made me reflect about my own relationship with my art and gain a deeper understanding about how much the arts are needed and valued. How they connect us and educate us and move us. That when we are stripped bare and the noise of the world quiets around us, that love, connection and beauty are the only things that matter.

Sal:  That is such an interesting question and one I think we all can relate to. In the face of such crises, it is the natural and important task of the artist to question and test our relevance, to ask the hard questions about why we are making the work that we do.  In the end though I believe we can only make the work we can make. There is social justice documentary work that really helps push society forward and creates real change and thank goodness we have that, it’s a necessary conversation and engagement. My work does not operate on that level, it is not documentary, but in my interrogation of ideas around the reliability of memory, how we preserve and reframe our memories in forming our identity, that’s a universal theme and one I hope people can connect to on a variety of levels. In the same way in Touchstones, we were each exploring ideas around isolation and the need for connection – I think everyone can relate to that and hopefully find some solace and connection there. That for me is ultimately why I make the work that I do, to connect with other people through the work.

Kevin:  You both speak of connection. Having placed the work on the wall and lived with it in the gallery I can say there is a seamlessness to the images and the poetry. It is impossible to know which of you was the creator. What did each of you see in the other and how did the collaboration come about?

Dawn:  I had been a great admirer of Sal’s work for quite some time before I finally had the chance to meet her in 2019 when we were in a show together in Savannah, GA.  We had several days together to get to know each other better and bounce the idea of a project around. We had a loose idea and the commitment of a collaboration by the end of that visit and then we firmed up the project after we both returned home. I can’t tell you how much I have learned from Sal and how much I appreciate her vision, her wisdom and her humor. Working on this project with her has been an absolute god send for me during some challenging times, but the gift of her friendship has been the best treasure of all.

Sal:  I echo Dawn’s sentiments completely! Dawn was my artist-crush on Instagram for some time before we met and working together in person only cemented my admiration for her work and respect for her as an artist. We called the project Touchstones, as each exchange of words and images provided a place to land, to feel anchored and connected as the turbulent waters of the pandemic and world news swirled around us. When the work is done, and the prints come down from the walls, our friendship will endure as a lasting testament to an inspirational creative journey.

 

Kevin:  Thank y’all for allowing us to exhibit the work and for your thoughtful answers to my questions.

 

To see more of their work :

Dawn Surratt https://dawnsurratt.com/
Sal Taylor Kydd http://www.saltaylorkydd.com/

To preorder a copy of their book featuring Touchstones A Passing Song    https://touchstones.bigcartel.com/

“art + science” juried by Linda Alterwitz

The “art + science” exhibition juried by Linda Alterwitz, was in the Salon gallery from March 15 to May 19, 2019.  Linda selected thirty three images from twenty three artist.  Abbey Hepner and Mike Avery’s image “Atmosphere, from the series Optogenetic Cybernetic Translations” received the Juror’s Award.  Heino Heimann’s image “18:22:20” received the Director’s Award.  Juror’s Honorable Mentions were given to Marko Umicevic’s “Terra Incognita, Untitled #01” and Christine Zuecher’s “Distant Transmissions #17”.  Director’s Honorable Mentions were given to Daniel Kariko’s “Sun Room Corner, August 26th (Owlet Moth)” and Gerardo Stübing’s “Mesoporus perforatus”.  Stuart Williams’ image “Whiskey Webs: Maker’s Mark Cask Strength” received the Visitors’ Award.

“she” juried by Joyce Tenneson

The “she” exhibition juried by Joyce Tenneson, was in the Main gallery from February 22 to April 7, 2019.  Joyce selected fifty five images from forty seven artist.  Felice Boucher’s image “Goddess Cloak” received the Juror’s Award.  Peggy Taylor Reid’s image “Strength” received the Director’s Award.  Juror’s Honorable Mentions were given to Joan Lobis Brown’s “Women of an Uncertain Age: Indomitable Baby Boomers Challenging Cultural Norms #4”, Derek Brown’s “Groupy with Hat” and Cheryl Clegg’s “Morna B., Oldest Resident of Corea, Maine”.  Director’s Honorable Mentions were given to Claudia Ruiz Gustafson’s “La Guirnalda”, David Korte’s ‘”(2018.5035): wait small fo ma sista”, Hall Puckett’s “Megan” and Steven Wilson’s “Miss Gail”.  Cheryl Clegg’s image “Yolanda at 80” received the Visitors’ Award.

“diptych” juried by Kevin Tully

The “diptych” exhibition juried by Kevin James Tully, was in the Salon gallery from January 18 to March 10, 2019.  Kevin selected thirty six  images from thirty one artist.  Julie Mixon’s images”A Seemingly Short Swim to the Other Side” and “What If…” received the Juror’s Award.  Lisa Nebenzahl’s’s image “Fall/Clouds” received the Director’s Award.  Juror’s Honorable Mentions were given to Wayne Montecalvo’s “The Wall” and Rob Whitcomb’s “Jurors Must Be”.  Director’s Honorable Mentions were given to Ray Bidegain’s “Bloom” and Lucinda Nicholas’ “Hear the Sounds of Closing Wings, of Falling Wings”.  Pat Brown’s image “Lunar” received the Visitors’ Award.

“black/white” juried by Jennifer Schlesinger

The “black/white” exhibition juried by Jennifer Schlesinger, was in the Main gallery from January 11 to February 17, 2019.  Jennifer selected fifty two images from forty five artist.  Philip Augustin’s images”Negative #17-003-03 with Photogram”, “Negative #18-008-14 with Photogram” and “Negative #18-009-14 with Photogram” received the Juror’s Award.  Sharon Covert’s image “Love is Blind” received the Director’s Award.  Juror’s Honorable Mentions were given to Susan de Witt’s “Séance”, Jerry Ranch’s “Carry That Weight” and Sandra Chen Weinstein’s “Serenade”.  Director’s Honorable Mentions were given to Ron Cooper’s “Two Friends Confront the Camera”, Robert DeRosa’s ‘”Combined Memories 6″ and Eric Kunsman’s “July 4th, Plamyra, NY”.  Liz Stubbs’ image “Chrysalis” received the Visitors’ Award.

“light” juried by Geoffrey Koslov

The “light” exhibition juried by Geoffrey Koslov, was in the Main gallery from November 23, 2018 to January 6, 2019.  Geoffrey selected fifty  images from forty three artist.  Nataly Rader’s “Woman with Red Shoes” received the Juror’s Award.  Nadide Goksun’s image “You’re So Self-Controlling” received the Director’s Award.  Juror’s Honorable Mentions were given to Laurence Chellali’s “Untitled 1”, Diane Fenster’s “Cat’s Cradle” and Eduardo Fujii’s “Regrets”.  Director’s Honorable Mentions were given to Sandy Alpert’s “Man With Briefcase”, Ray Bidegain’s ‘”Dress”, Barbara duBois’ “When You’re Thinking of Me, I’m Dreaming of You” and Jo Fields’ “At Rest”.  Eddie Erdmann’s image “Driftwood Beach No. 3” received the Visitors’ Award.

“interiors” juried by Elizabeth Avedon

The “interiors” exhibition juried by Elizabeth Avedon, was in the Main gallery from October 5 to November 18, 2018.  Elizabeth selected fifty two images from forty five artist.  Delphine Queme’s “Cinema” received the Juror’s Award.  Kathleen Taylor’s image “Linda’s Home” received the Director’s Award.  Juror’s Honorable Mentions were given to Ray Grasse’s “Storefront”, Leslie Jean-Bart’s “Window Curtain 1” and Caren Winnall’s “Pool Hall”.  Director’s Honorable Mentions were given to Gary Beeber’s “Interior, Mike’s Truck, Dayton, Ohio”, Mark Caceres'”Ancestors”, Marcella Hackbardt’s “Second Floor Window” and Darcie Sternenberg’s “Left Behind”.

“unique: alternative processes 2018” juried by Diana Bloomfield

The “unique: alternative processes 2018” exhibition juried by Diana Bloomfield, was in the Salon gallery from September 7 to November 18, 2018.  Diana selected thirty three images from twenty four artist.  Susan de Witt’s “Kimono” received the Juror’s Selection Award.  Scott Bulger’s image “Memento Mori” received the Director’s Selection Award.  Juror’s Honorable Mentions were given to Ray Bidegains’s “Sara” and Donna Moore’s/Sara BlairMcNally’s “Diem Memoria:1”. Director’s Honorable Mention was given to Richard Hricko’s “Growth 1”.

A Body of Work

As the “Other” gallery director of A Smith Gallery my daily life is awash in photography. Not only do I frame (many times more than thirty images) and hang sometimes up to three exhibitions in a month, we live in the back of the gallery – we are woven into photography, it sends us off to sleep and greets us in the morning.  Currently there is much talk and speculation about where photography is headed.  The phrase heard ‘round the photography world is “now with cell phones everyone is a photographer.”  It may be slightly derisive, however, it’s true?  One can argue until the cows come home about what constitutes a “photographer,” unfortunately for those with their minds made up – it is a very fluid and subjective thing.

It is my observation that photography currently, that is compelling and attention getting, is divided into three categories: experimental /conceptual, narrative/storytelling and one-off unique one-of-a kind images produced using alternative, analogue processes.  And, of course, a really good photograph of any subject, taken with whichever camera and well-presented will always get its due. I think choosing the path to becoming successful/contented is not unlike an art student pondering and experimenting with what will become their oeuvre: painting, sculpture, ceramics or drawing?

The reason I am writing this is because Amanda and I do ten to fifteen reviews per month with photographers on all levels.  For me it is a wonderful, immensely fulfilling and gratifying experience every time. We get to meet sincere, committed folks from all over the world.  We are very lucky.  Over the course of the reviews, we many times get asked about the direction a photographer should go or to comment on the totality of their entries.  This can become a difficult moment. Not because their images are not good or well done but because they technically or expositionally are not kin.   Naturally, because of the calls being based on a one word theme it can be hard to pull together images from a single body of work.

As a gallerist, an artist — a painter as well as a photographer, I come from a world that values and encourages “bodies of work.”  From my experiences in school as well as with other working artists, many people chafe and rebel against the idea of constraining oneself to working within the “limitations” of a body of work. I had many reasons for resenting the suggestion that I explore a cohesive body of work, the least not being my ADD – what fun could that possibly be?

Focusing on one subject, one technique, one manner of portraying what you are seeing gives one the ability and freedom to explore and go deeper into the soul of the work.  It opens the door and allows empathy to walk on in.  It is my opinion that most compelling art is made when the artist has empathy for their subject.  It allows for some sort of, hard to explain, reciprocal thing to happen – the artist is giving something to the work and the work is giving it back.

So, my two cents, for what it’s worth, is if you are a beginning or journeyman photographer and you are not satisfied with where you are in your journey or are not sure which direction to go — pick something and explore it.  It does not have to be a particular subject.  It can be a technique.  Think about what moves you: gives you goosebumps, pisses you off, excites you, saddens you, touches you.  From my experience you don’t know if you are compatible with or connected to a way until you take it out on a date.*

Kevin Tully

*I have to give credit to Dr. Keith Kesler for the “take it out on a date” phrase.