Many years ago when curator Stephen Kobasa and his wife Anne Somsel were on their honeymoon in Nova Scotia and Maine, their route took them one night up to a bridge engulfed in fog.
“What if the bridge ends where the fog begins?” they asked each other.
After a moment of hesitation the newlyweds drove forward into the fog; they found the bridge did not end. Just beyond it was the bed and breakfast they had been seeking, its little light barely illuminated in the murky atmosphere.
“It was our willingness to venture together” into the fog that made the inn seem as if it had been placed there “just for us,” Kobasa said.
It’s precisely that relationship to the known and the unknown and — to paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld from the Iraq war era — the known unknowns as well as the unknown unknowns, that Kobasa would have us dive into in “Out of the Fog: Five Photographers,” the bracing new show in the third-floor gallery at the Institute Library on Chapel Street.
The exhibition runs through the middle of January.
Kobasa recalled that bridge-crossing experience with Somsel, a much-loved head of public health nursing in the city until her death in August 2015, as he put finishing touches on hanging two large-format works by Marion Belanger, Rift #20 and Untitled #3.
Kobasa was the curator-in-residence at the Institute Library for more than two years, a position from which he has stepped down, although this show has been in the works for more than a year.
The new curator-in-residence, Martha Lewis, termed the veiled, opaque images that Kobasa has assembled “as much about what cannot be seen as is what is visible.”
Kobasa invited Belanger and four other photographers — Steven B. Smith, Marjorie Gillette Wolfe, Sean Kernan, and Stefan Znosko — to submit two works each through which he might illustrate and help explore what had been a recent experience of his own looking at the work of these and other photographers.
“I was seeing work that has this ‘murk’ in it,” he said by way of explaining how the theme for the show came to him.
Bring On The Murk
While Kobasa never defined the “murk,” you know what he meant: being drawn into a visual experience of uncertainty or unease through the presence of fog, mists, concealing lighting effects, and unusual juxtapositions of imagery — with the result being you don’t know fully what’s going on, and that’s good.
The “murk” demanded Kobasa’s attention in a particular way. “When you’re in the fog, you can’t be casual in your seeing,” he said.
When you’re looking at the ten images Kobasa has gathered, you find yourself putting your nose much closer to the frame and becoming more of an explorer than you might of clearer work.
Kobasa walked this reporter up close to Marjorie Gillette Wolfe‘s Wind Sock, an archival pigment print from 2015, and pointed to a tiny piece of color barely different from the enshrouding atmosphere she had captured.
“There it is,” he said, meaning the eponymous wind sock.
Ironically, in looking at art as in crossing murky bridges, “the fog makes things clearer because you have to be so attentive. It demands a kind of patience,” Kobasa said.
Kobasa has paired each photographer’s work so that each artist’s two contributions to the show have their conversation with each other, as well as the twinned pairs having conversation across the room.
So a kind of clarity emerges from this one-room show, in which the images are set off by dramatic black framing and hung in a the high space of the gallery against white walls, with grey-white, light-protective shading.
As you walk around taking in the ambiguous, liminal compositions, you are surrounded by the clear-as-a-bell message that whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we all live our lives in the murk, no matter if you define that as uncertainty, unease, or the fundamental state of never being ever to get outside your own vision of things.
Ultimate clarity seems unattainable for the simple reason that we filter everything through the complex lens we call ourselves.
As I looked I remembered a recent chat with an ophthalmologist, who in fitting me with new prescriptions said that more than 30 percent of all the information we humans take in comes through the eye and the optical nerve complex.
Such ruminations might seem a little far afield, especially from Sean Kernan’s “Tear Gas, Derry, Northern Ireland,” arguably the least murky, most photo-journalistic image in the show, but perhaps that’s because it’s the only one to have a human being in it.
Given the title of the work, you also pretty much have an idea of what the small figure is running from, for it evokes not the fog of war, but war itself, with its attendant panic, flight, and fear.
Likewise, Stefan Znosko’s two unframed and untitled images of a tidal shoreline, at different times of day, seem to suggest moodiness, or moods perhaps of darkness rather than epistemological unease — where am I? what has just happened? is something about to blow or has it done so already? — that makes the other works more disorientingly engaging.
By design, none of the works has a title next to it or any other explanatory material “because I don’t want them to obscure the encounter with the image,” Kobasa said. If you want information on title, artist, or medium, you must look at the gallery card that contains that info.
“The ideal visitor simply looks,” Kobasa said.
If Kobasa sounds a bit like a scold of others’ exhibition practices or a stern teacher, that’s far from the truth. He simply has wanted to raise a question of deep interest to him — and that’s what a curator has to have or there’s not much of a show — and explore it in one room, with a small number of works, concisely.
Or as he put it: “A little fog goes a long way.”
The show remains on the wall through Jan. 15 and is viewable during library hours: Monday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and on Saturday 11 a.m. through 2 p.m.