Jim Gemake’s Eye for the Discarded

“The roots of my work are in Dada,”
Jim Gemake surveyed a portion of his inventory of found objects in his basement studio in Water Mill. Mark Segal

Jim Gemake likes to find things. For the past 50 years, whether in New York City, traveling abroad, or on the East End, he has picked up stuff from the streets, brought it home, and, if it met certain conditions, incorporated it into his art.

“I just have a curiosity about finding things,” the self-taught artist said during a recent visit to his Water Mill house. “I’m not a terribly handy person. I was always interested in the creative part of life, but I found out pretty quickly that I didn’t have a strong talent for painting or sculpture. But I did fall into this mixedmedia or, more specifically, assemblage kind of work. It was just an itch I felt very comfortable with.”

He began to scratch that itch long before he retired in 1992 from the men’s sportswear business, and he still has the first piece he made. “I found a canvas bag full of odd-shaped keys. A few months later, I was reading a New York Times supplement on Florida in which there was a beautiful color spread of different fish from the area.” He cut out the photographs of the fish, interspersed them on a panel with the keys, and called the piece “Fish Caught Off the Florida Keys.” “It was so poorly done, but the important thing was the association, and that’s what my work is about — making associations between things.”

Mr. Gemake doesn’t prowl landfills or beaches. A former marathon runner who has had four, count ’em, four hip replacements, he takes very long walks. “I walk on Route 27, and I never come back empty-handed.” He has very specific criteria: “I  look for something with an interesting shape, the right texture, and the right color. If a piece fills those conditions, I pick it up and save it. Maybe someday a psychiatrist will be able to explain why I gravitate toward the elements of rusted metal, wood, and scraps of torn paper.”

However random the materials seem, the finished works are assembled with precision, worked into elegant compositions frequently informed by Mr. Gemake’s dry wit and fondness for wordplay. One, “Pail by Comparison,” consists of two flattened metal pails, run over at different times in different places and unchanged by the artist, mounted next to each other on pieces of glass.

“An Arrow Trap Disguised as an Automatic Egg Turner” includes part of a metal egg turner found on the street, along with instructions for its use, as well as blocks of wood and several graphic arrows, one of which is “trapped” by the device. Arrow images figureprominently in his work. Brooklyn-born and a longtime resident of Manhattan, Mr. Gemake and his wife moved to Long Beach Island on the New Jersey shore after he retired. “It was a wonderful place for weekends, but living there full time was another matter. In the winter everything closes down. It’s strictly a beach community.”

Friends from New York City invited the Gemakes to the East End when they were living on Long Beach Island. “It was our first visit, and we just fell in love with the place. The diversity here was what really attracted us. Long Beach Island had beautiful beaches, but here you have ocean, bay, farmland, horses, and woods. I say to people the only thing missing are mountains, and I think East Hampton is building them.” They were also drawn to the cultural richness of the area and have lived here full time for 18 years.

The house in Water Mill has a large but unfinished basement studio that gives him the space not only to create his work but also to maintain his inventory. “If you like clutter, you’re in the right place,” he said as he led a visitor to the basement. “I tried cleaning up a little this morning, but I couldn’t work in a clean, fancy studio.” A large table was covered with scraps of paper, odd pieces of wood and metal, a saltshaker here, and a few unidentifiable things there.

“Sometimes the pieces I find are strong enough to give me an idea for a work. Other times, however, they’re what I call accent work, which I think will eventually fit into a corner of a piece. One rule I have is that I never settle. If there’s one part I’m not happy with, however small, I keep trying different things until I get it right. It’s like a puzzle, it either fits or it doesn’t.”

Mr. Gemake went to museums and galleries frequently when he lived in New York City, and, while he might be self-taught, he knows his art history. “The roots of my work are in Dada,” he said, and then launched into a discussion of the Cabaret Voltaire in Vienna, the importance of scraps of paper and found objects to the movement, and the origin of the word “Merz,” Kurt Schwitters’s synonym for his own form of Dada and, later, the name of a periodical he published from 1923 to 1932.

Russian Constructivism is another movement with which he feels a kinship. “I’m also very fascinated with foreign print, particularly Russian. I find the Cyrillic alphabet architecturally pleasing, and a lot of my work contains Russian elements.” In one, “Keeping an Eye on Russia,” an image of an eye is set among pieces of wood, scraps torn from Russian news publications, and a corner of an eye chart whose Latin alphabet fits slyly with the Cyrillic.

Mr. Gemake refers to his process as tripartite, consisting of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. “The construction part is the object in its original state. The deconstruction is when it has been on Route 27 for six months and run over by trucks and busses, and reconstruction is my job as an artist to give it new life and meaning.”

Next month the Peter Marcelle Project in Southampton will present “The Arrow in My Art,” a solo show of Mr. Gemake’s work.

Arrows figure in many of Jim Gemake’s pieces, including “Neither Here Nor There.”,left. “The Other Side of the Moon”, right, reflects his interest in texture, shape, and color.