Unspoken Dialogue is a powerful, original concept. Two fine-art photographers, Donna Varner and Jean-Marie Côte, created 60 striking visions in black-and-white. Each one was inspired by the work of the other artist. Nineteen of those calls and responses hang now in the Walter Greer Gallery at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina. The exhibit runs through March 30.
The impact is unforgettable. Perhaps because Ms. Varner and Mr. Côte are a couple, partners in life as well as in art, the language on which this dialogue is based appears subtle but clear. Their only ground rules were to work in black and white and to encompass strong design elements.
Beyond that, it is fascinating to ask ourselves what it is about one of these photos that inspired another. Sometimes it was the play of light. Sometimes it was the sense of line. The inspiration is never obvious.
For example, in Vignette 6 Ms. Varner captures a complex arrangement of
rectangular parking spaces, vertical pillars and a highway overpass that begins to curve in the distance like Einstein’s view of time. Mr. Côte created Noir 480 in response. What do martini glasses have to do with highways? Pure design and the role of light. Straight lines and curves. Maybe more of what these photos have in common is really in the heart rather than in the print. The devotion to art and the passion to create. As I said, the language of Dialogue is subtle.
The artists’ faith in finding common ground is particularly remarkable when we consider their vastly different styles. Ms. Varner sees things in life that the rest of us miss. Or maybe we’re affected by it and don’t know why. She has a poet’s capacity to take it in, and to present it to the rest of us so that then we can see. Mr. Côte takes pains to construct meticulous arrangements of familiar objects, and place them in a different world, where light and dark are solid, palpable components. A vase appears to sit in deep space, among the stars, where light is everything or nothing.
Together their works take on a third life, through contrast and the perspective they shed on each other. So Unspoken Dialogue wraps us in a place that takes time to appreciate. This is an exhibit for the slow stroll. In fact, I’m going back.
The Art League of Hilton Head Island offers a chance to hear the artists talk about their work and this exhibit at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 19, in the League’s Art Academy at 106 Cordillo Parkway in Hilton Head. As part of the Art League’s series of Gallery Walks and Talks, this one is particularly inviting.
A sense of mystery stays with you after seeing the other-worldly compositions of Jean-Marie Côte, and the amazing discernment of art in life captured by Donna Varner. We are in a sense left to make of it what we will.
Even the titles of the work are left open. Each of Ms. Varner’s photos is a numbered “Vignette,” and each of Mr. Côte’s photos is “Noir,” followed by a number. Without even so much as a title to define the photo for us, we are brought into the work as participants.
Unspoken Dialogue calls to mind what was until now the most unforgettable art exhibit for me. Ten years ago a show called Matisse Picasso at the Tate Modern in London juxtaposed the works of these two influential artists. Matisse Picasso seemed to explain the course of modern art through the relationship between two apparently different approaches. The one more cerebral and interior; the other more physical and sensational – the connection had never occurred to me until that exhibit, and I think I was not alone.
In the same way, Unspoken Dialogue empowers us to see more, to understand more, even if what we understand as a result is difficult to describe. I personally urge you not to miss this remarkable exhibit, now through March 30 at the Walter Greer Gallery in the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina.