Notes on a Conversation: Nadine Nakanishi and Nick Butcher (Sonnenzimmer)

February 23, 2011 · Print This Article

Guest post by Julia V. Hendrickson

Notes on a Conversation.

With—Nadine Nakanishi & Nick Butcher of Sonnenzimmer
In—the Sonnenzimmer studio, 3605 N. Damen (rear)
Commenced—on Monday, February 14th, 2011, 6:30–7:30pm

“From the fine art world, we’re not fine art enough, and from the design world, we’re too fine art, so we’re always in this in-between of not being enough art, and not being enough design. The beauty of that is that we can say ‘graphic art’ because we like images, and graphic art you have to produce. You produce it in a way that has economic and functional [reasons] behind it, otherwise it wouldn’t be graphic art. Graphic art is creating images under an economic framework that has to do with the process, the tools, the money you have, and what it’s for. We wanted to describe that somehow.”

— Nadine Nakanishi

This past fall I ran into Nadine Nakanishi and Nick Butcher in the hallway outside of the Post Family headquarters on Hubbard Street. Peculiarly, they had with them a chair, an apple, a camera, and a long beam of wood. Mystified then, I was to realize months later that they had just finished the photo shoot for Field Integration, Nadine’s second artist book, which will be released this Friday, February 25th.

I met Nadine and Nick, also known collectively as Sonnenzimmer, a little over a year ago at my first Chicago Printers Guild meeting. From the outset I was struck by the power of Nadine’s passionate conviction, and by Nick’s welcoming, reasoned demeanor. Since then I have followed their tireless creative progress, and I have been astounded time and again by work that is always thoughtful and sincere.

Nadine and Nick are collaborators who exist wholly in a collaborative Chicago print community. The enthusiasm they have for art, typography, and design is contagious, and utilizing that enthusiasm they are able to connect with a wide range of creative talent in the city. Field Integration is a microcosm of such connections, with a preface by Fred Sasaki (associate editor of Poetry magazine) and editorial assistance from Jonathan Messinger (book editor for Time Out Chicago and publisher at Featherproof Books). Scott Thomas (of the Post Family and Designing Obama) hosted the photo shoot in his new office space, and the book itself was offset printed in Chicago at Mission Press, with a screen printed cover and inserts from Sonnenzimmer’s press on the North Side.

Field Integration (2010) is a companion book to Nakanishi’s first publication, Formal Additive Programs (2009). Both artist books were partially funded by the Community Arts Assistance Program (CAAP) grant from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. After constant rejections from the grant community in her native Switzerland for “not being Swiss enough,” Nadine now has a lot of enthusiasm about the role of the CAAP grant in the city. Her advice when applying is to pay attention to deadlines far in advance (the deadline for 2011 grants was January 31st), and to take advantage of the public grant review sessions that happen in the spring. She also encourages artists to seriously think about the best finance possibilities for creating new work that will extend beyond the project and provide momentum for a career as an artist.

Formal Additive Programs certainly brought Sonnenzimmer’s momentum to the table. The book is a beautifully simple and concise collection of eighteen instructions, simple pieces of advice to follow step-by-step throughout the design process. Field Integration transforms the functional design advice into something more philosophical: a treatise on process and experiment in relation to images, design, and Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging.

The book unfolds in more complexity upon every re-reading. Field Integration is very much an artist book, for the texts and the images could not communicate as powerfully alone. The main essay offers Sonnenzimmer’s thoughts on philosophy and history, exploring the tenets of Ikebana, and focusing on balance in nature as a new way to consider design. There is a beautiful, haunting undercurrent from Fred Sasaki’s appropriated lines on Ikebana and the WWII Heart Mountain Japanese internment camps. It is a part of American history that Nadine notes, “has not really been digested yet.”

Paired with the text are black and white photographic still life arrangements, playful interpretations of the fundamental forms of Ikebana: the point, the line, and the plane. An electrical wire in the background grounds the arrangements, and serves as the balancing horizon line. Informed by the photographs, judiciously restrained splashes of color appear in small painted sketches and in the screenprinted inserts.

I see Sonnenzimmer’s books as manifestos on their unique design and production process, and that alone presents an interesting archival project for the Chicago art community. With Field Integration, Nadine and Nick present a tactile, functional object that includes the how, the why, and the what of their business. It is a practical form of self-promotion, and a holistic way of communicating who they are as creative people.  Would that we each could find such a voice.

Sonnenzimmer is holding a book release party for “Field Integration” on Friday, February 25th from 7:30-9:30pm at the Elastic Arts Foundation (2830 N. Milwaukee Ave., 2nd floor). The release includes readings from contributors Fred Sasaki and Jonathan Messinger; photographic interpretations by Martha Williams and Jeremy Bolen; and music by Geoff Farina. The event is free.

You can watch a short documentary on the making of Field Integration here:

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ABOUT:

Julia V. Hendrickson is a native of eastern Ohio who lives and works as a visual artist, writer, and curator in Chicago, Illinois. In 2008 she graduated with a B.A. in Studio Art and a minor in English from The College of Wooster (Wooster, Ohio). Julia is currently the gallery manager at Corbett vs. Dempsey, as well as the office manager and design assistant for Ork Posters. She is a teaching assistant at the Marwen Foundation, an active member of the Chicago Printers Guild, and has taught at Spudnik Press. A freelance art critic and writer for Newcity, Julia also keeps a blog called The Enthusiast, a documentation of the daily things that inspire, intrigue, and inform. She is currently exhibiting at Anchor Graphics (Columbia College Chicago) in a solo show titled FANTASTIC STANZAS, on view through March 26th.




About this series of interviews…

January 11, 2011 · Print This Article

I am about halfway through a two-week period of guest blogging on the Art21 site. It’s been fantastic. Suddenly I had an opportunity to engage 11 artists in conversation, asking them questions I’ve always wondered about. I began to see the possibility of an arc in the interviews. On the one hand each interview is independent, on the other there is a thread of interest that flows through each post­. I thought I could think through the progression here.

For the last couple years I’ve had a growing interest in celebrity culture. Not simply for its own sake, but rather as a particular reflection of the social structure in which we live, (i.e. post-industrial, capitalist America). Within that culture, celebrity provides a kind of apex or pinnacle of success. At one point, Young Joon Kwak equated them with the Greek Gods—as though Marylyn Monroe serves a parallel, cultural purpose in America as Hera did in Greece. At the very least celebrity provides a model for success and recognition, a model that translates into other fields, particularly in the arts, where tokens of legitimacy are rather slippery to grasp. As people working in a field with no direct use-value, the translated monetary/cultural value of a given object is highly subjective—something steeped in the momentum of the contemporary art dialectic. One way, then, to attain a sense of success is to become the famous Picasso, to be inducted into the Western Art canon. Or, the more immediate rock star artist option like, say, a Dash Snow type. Or, the shorter-lived 5 minutes of fame…”Even if you’re a flash-in-the-pan artist,” I remember a professor telling a class, “even if you just get famous for 5 seconds, at least you were famous. At least that one [painting] mattered. It’s better than nothing.” It’s the “nothing” that I’m interested in: the undefined, highly personal (and maybe less legitimate?) way of recognizing value in one’s work. Because I can’t define that “nothing” alternative, I’ve spent some time thinking through it’s dominant reflection: this whole Famous thing.

In lieu of those thoughts, I asked a series of artists to talk to me about their practices. I began with photographers Melanie Schiff and Jason Lazarus, asking about the gaze of the camera and how photographs memorialize events, or create opportunities to personalize mainstream culture. I then spoke to Young Joon Kwak, about his strategies of assemblage as a means to avoid commodification (oddly enough, he was also a finalist in the infamous SJP artist-reality-TV show), and Irina Botea about reenactment, revolution and film. That first segment of my guest-blogging was about the camera, in some way, or about our relationship to the camera.

My subsequent conversation with Anne Elizabeth Moore functions like a bridge—her interest in branding, for instance, crosses various mediums, even resisting the traditional “artist” label. She is a publisher, she is an educator and she also happens to make objects. All of her work is about self-empowerment in a context where that empowerment is difficult (if not, some might argue, impossible). Following Anne, I spoke with Brandon Alvendia who, like Moore, investigates self-publishing strategies. That is only one arm of his practice, however and working in different mediums, he locates “the art” primarily in himself. With Deb Sokolow, I asked about the characteristic second person pronoun throughout her work—here I feel like the interview-gaze shifts from Alvendia’s “I” to Sokolow’s, perhaps more aggressive “You.” (Agressive in so far as the audience becomes complicit with her work by reading/engaging in it.) At this point, the interviews start to shift towards an investigation of structure. Tsherin Sherpa talks about his relationship to the history and rigor of Tibetan religious painting, and what it means to step outside of that. He offers interesting reflection on the self, how he negotiates it. Here too, in some way I was surprised that the conversation became about the “self.” That theme is predominant in these interviews, and though I hadn’t anticipated it, it makes sense. After speaking to him, I interviewed Hiro Sakaguchi, Nadine Nakanishi and Ellen Rothenberg—artists working in very different ways, I was nonetheless especially interested in talking to them about the structure of their work and the places they work within. Hiro works in a museum, paints and teaches, occupying many different scales at once. Nadine boast a pragmatic optimism, running a print shop, participating in a printer’s guild and making her own work. Ellen takes advantage of overlooked portions of structure, in order to co-opt them for her own use. In all instances, the structure is both advantageous (in so far as it creates a context within which to work) and somewhat overbearing, insofar as it establishes standards and taboos. Ultimately I realized my thoughts about celebrity are really questions about structure.

Celebrity is a standard that reflects a structure, or style of thinking. The nothing, is the uncharted wilderness around that structure. Yet, that uncharted “wilderness” is actually more real and more vibrant. It is a more familiar context, and in taking time to better consider it, I realize that the fairy tale “fame” is actually the curious mistake. Because this whole gamut isn’t really about fame, it’s actually about doing good work, and thinking about the world with critical openness.