New perspectives on painting from the former designer-turned-artist.Read more
Words Laura Bannister
Artworks courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery
This is the third instalment in a special, four-part interview series featuring contemporary Australian artists selected by Museum, supported by Calvin Klein. Here, we speak with Sydney painter and sculptor Jonny Niesche, who is represented by Sarah Cottier Gallery in Sydney, Station Gallery in Melbourne and Zeller van Almsick in Vienna.
When I think of Jonny Niesche’s enormous, prismatic, oft-stupefacient paintings, with their pop-spiritual sensibility—especially those he has exhibited in the last year, in galleries across Sydney and Vienna and London—I think of something Jasper Johns said about the deeply meditative act of looking at paintings. “Whether one uses objects or doesn’t use objects, or whatever form painting takes, you end up with your thought. Experience might be a better word, since all experience isn’t thought.”
When I called Niesche for this interview, he had just returned to Sydney from a 10-day stint in London, where he’d been installing Cracked actor, a solo show at Peter von Kant that runs until 17 November. He had recently moved into a new studio with three other artists and was thrilled about the prospect of making new work. He was thinking about ideas that have been crystallising since his studies in Vienna in 2012: about the painting as a sculpture, about the way translucent custom-dyed fabrics and mirrors and soft gradients might function in tandem to create a shifting, time-dependent physical experience for the viewer. Below is the transcription of our conversation.
LAURA BANNISTER You emailed me recently and noted you were moving studios. Where is your new space?
JONNY NIESCHE I was in a studio called Birmingham Street Studios—I moved there about six years ago. It was run by a friend, Lara Merrett. Within the building, we took over another space … by the end there were about 26 artists, and we were looking after about half: their spaces and rent. We tried to create a critical context where we could bring curators through, we staged events for the Art Gallery of NSW. Then about three months ago someone came in and decided they wanted to rent the entire building for 10-15 years. We got notice that we had to move out. It was pretty devastating … But within three days we found another space, for myself and three of the artists who all work very tightly together.
BANNISTER Can I ask which artists?
NIESCHE Lara Merrett, John Nicholson and Lucas Davidson. I did my Masters with Lucas at Sydney College of the Arts; he does amazing video work. John Nicholson shows at Sarah Cottier with me. Lara shows at Jan Murphy, and did some great work recently at Sydney Contemporary … Within three days we found a space that was actually close to my home—a New York loft-style space in Stanmore. It took a lot of work. We had to demolish the interior, build walls, clad the entire interior walls and paint the whole thing. The electricals were insane, they were live wires hanging from the ceiling. I think it was a movie/prop place before—they had ramps set up for cars, it was covered in oil, machinery, ripped up floors and broken floorboards. We got a six-year lease. It was worth dishing out the last of our savings to try and set it up and get the infrastructure right so we can get making.
BANNISTER Are you someone who entertains in your studio as well? Are there ever people around when you’re working?
NIESCHE None of the studios have a door. There’s just a wide, open entrance into each. We wander in and out of each other’s studios—for a chat, for work, for criticism. It’s a really nurturing, trusting environment for us to work in, where you can say what you really think about someone else’s work.
BANNISTER I’ve seen photographs of artist books stacked in your previous studio: volumes on Frank Stella and Sterling Ruby and Barnett Newman. Are these important to have at close quarters when you’re painting? What books do you always return to?
NIESCHE It’s imperative; I have to have them. The other guys have their books on a shelf outside their studios, in a sort of shared area, but I’m really funny about my books. They’re right within arm’s reach. I don’t like to lend them out unless I really trust the person. I never know which I’ll need. If I have a thought I want to investigate, I want to be able to grab the book, look at it and respond to that. There are many books I always go back to. One is The Five Senses by Michelle Serres. There’s another on phenomena that talks to the light and space movement in California, which has had a big impact on my work, with Turrell and Larry Bell and De Wain Valentine and Robert Irwin and those guys. And then [I spend a lot of time with books on] classics: Noland, Arp, Judd. There’s a nice book I keep going back to, Support Surfaces, on a bunch of French artists around Nice in the late 60s. And I’m currently reading the new Seth Price book.
I’m not funny about keeping my books in perfect nick—I love a book that is used and worn. I underline and scribble all over them, no matter how good or expensive they are. I don’t intend to sell them or retain their value in any way.
BANNISTER In your studio, do you build your canvasses?
NIESCHE Yes—to the millimetre. I have done for about seven years now. I don’t know if you’ve seen my work in the flesh, but there’s not a lot of paint being used. I build a substrate [to hold the mirror] and then stretch transparent fabrics over them, sometimes painting directly onto mirror. I do get my metalwork made. I can’t do that. I’m scared that if I go too far down that track—learning how to weld—I’ll lose touch with all the things I’m doing at the same time. It would take years for me to get my skills to the level I’d want them to be at. It’s easier to outsource that.
BANNISTER You mentioned you use a very small amount of paint. I am interested in what you’ve been wrestling with lately; the microscopic decision-making and infinitesimal negotiations that occur as you’re making a large-scale painting.
NIESCHE The last thing I made for the show in London was a three-part screen. I’d never made one before, but I knew how I wanted it to look and to operate. There were a lot of precise choices to make, you know, what kind of hinge do I need? How long do I need it? OK, I need a bespoke piano hinge made to 1.8 metres, 1.2 millimetres deep. It came without holes in it. I had to learn how to drill press and countersink, and how I’d slip that in the side of the substrate, to be completely hidden by mirrors. It becomes problem-solving. I know exactly how I want a piece to look and function, so it can be frustrating: I’ll go over and over and over something until I find a way to do it.
BANNISTER I imagine you’re constantly dealing with new suppliers.
NIESCHE Yes. And you don’t know if they’re going to deliver on time. Usually, the prototype is the exhibited end for me [laughs], which is really scary as well.
I’m specific about colour and the gradient. For the screen, the gradient colours were based on David Bowie’s makeup on his Aladdin Sane album. I used digital samples of the makeup and went through endless tests of printing to get the colours and gradient right … My experiential relationship to colour stems from being dragged, as a kid, around the cosmetic department with my mum. I secretly loved cosmetics: the colours, the mirrors, the surfaces. It was the late 70s, early 80s. It’s had a really profound influence on the way I make work.
BANNISTER Can you explain your relationship to Vienna as a sort of art metropolis and the place where you first met Heimo Zobernig? Are there other cities you have similar connections to? For instance, you spent quite some time in New York, playing for hardcore bands.
NIESCHE I went back to Vienna this year, actually—I had an exhibition there. I was studying at Sydney College of the Arts. It was 2010. A friend who was also studying there, Marita Fraser, came back from Vienna … she was studying with Heimo. They spoke about Vienna a lot. It sounded so different from Sydney. I was at a point where I wanted to expand my horizons. Part of the program allowed an exchange scholarship—I was fortunate enough to get one and studied in Vienna at the Academy of Fine Arts. At the time I was still doing figurative painting and playing a little with objects; I was all over the shop.
Leading up to that point I’d really liked Daniel Richter’s abstract painting. I wanted to study with him. But it seemed that Heimo put me in his class. I ended up going to Vienna, terrified that I was in a sculpture class, and incredibly out of my depth. I didn’t really know who Heimo was—didn’t understand his practice. I was a little interested in minimalism at that point … Studying with Heimo was an eye-opener. It started the critical dialogue [I have now with other artists] where you say what you think. His whole class was very straightforward in their opinions—not to be mean or brutal, but in a very Austrian or Germanic way, they’d get to the point. He helped give me focus and direction. He said that my work looked like a blog: certain works were good or interesting, others were stupid and didn’t relate to the others. I had to find out what was at the core of my practice, what made it function. I went back to Australia pretty confused, and excited.
Vienna is a small city, with so many great artists. The academy has about ten academic-artists who draw students in from across Europe. At the time I was there it wasn’t such a commercial scene. That’s only starting to happen now. There are galleries moving across from Germany. I met some of them at Frieze, and we talked about the vibrancy of the new commercial galleries opening up.
BANNISTER Tell me about Love-light, your show at Sarah Cottier earlier this year. I was sad to be overseas and miss it. I’m not sure I’d seen you work with sculptures like Love Knuckle before—I was only familiar with slim, super-tall, gentle zigzag pieces you’ve been making for some time, but this felt very different. Can you tell me more about it?
NIESCHE The angular sculptures in the past came out of the structure of the painting. I always made my own stretchers, and I had the wood lying against the wall. I ended up stretching canvas around it and covering it in a gradient of glitter. I photographed it. At some point, I was looking for that photograph on my computer, and the buffering image made it zigzag. It became pixellated in a funny way; it was a glitch. I took a screenshot, and made an object from the glitch.
With Love Knuckle and for the whole Sarah Cottier show, I looked to the softness of old pornography, where you had negligee colours, soft ephemeral lighting you find in that era of photography. I wanted to talk about the body in some way, creating curves by hand that would relate to the body and its shapes.
I ended up getting one of the thin metal strips you wrap the electrical wire around. I sat at my desk and manipulated it with my fingers. I’d run it over the curves on the end of my desk until I created something that was a bit like a reclining figure. It was, in a way, based on Hans Arp, the notion of the body, the figure …
BANNISTER It could be the undulations between knuckles, or it could be an entire body.
NIESCHE Exactly. It could even be the mother with child.
BANNISTER In an old interview you speak about looking at one of your abstracted glitter paintings and having a conversation with it. You mention it got you thinking, “How can I get beyond the flat plane of a painting and make it more performative and ever-changing, to renew the experience every time one looks at it?” Has it become easier to access that space, on a technical level, beyond the flat plane?
NIESCHE I choose the materials to be able to explore that, [such as] transparent fabric that changes all the time … I remember being in my studio, and moving and the glitter moved. I moved again, the glitter moved. I thought, ‘This is the visual dialogue I want to have with painting’. More of a physiological, or embodied experience. That was the starting point at the core of my practice. How do I create that dialogue with the viewer, the space itself and the object? Within the triangle of those three is this shared experience that can only happen when all three are present.
In my old studio, the light would come through the ceiling. It would reflect on the top of the painting where there’s mirror, and create sharp angles. As the light would get softer the angles would dissipate. They’d be little soft glows, little spikes of reflection. Underneath you’d get the opposite shadow, the negative of it.
BANNISTER I was guessing that wish to engage with the eye from all directions is directly related to the way you suspend big paintings from the middle of the room—with their mirrored edges, backs, with their explicit three-dimensionality—like you did in Vienna this year for Splitting Image …
NIESCHE Very much so. It was also a way of trying to expand the gallery space. I’d set up mirrors on the floor, against the wall, thinking of looking beyond the wall. You’re looking back inside [the space you’re standing in] but it’s also a trapdoor into another space. The spinning painting with the mirror on the back would reflect the space and the viewer. As it would get cooler or warmer the metal cord it was on would expand or contract, make it spin on its own. It fractures the space. You can see forwards and backwards at the same time—it’s like driving a car.
BANNISTER I still don’t drive.
NIESCHE You know, when I was in London someone told me all the great artists could never drive [laughs]. I can’t remember the examples—I think Damien Hirst was one.
BANNISTER It depends on who you perceive to be a great artist, I suppose
NIESCHE Definitely. I was raising an eyebrow [at the theory].
BANNISTER I think I know the answer to this, but are you interested in printmaking, or print-like production methods? I was reading an interview with Anoka Faruquee by Michelle Grabner for BOMB recently, and they talked about the fears it can elicit in a very real way. These methods always bring a philosophical discussion about originality and invention, about the cultural value of such things. But the print studio can also be precise and dependable, yielding the pleasures of simple mechanics.
NIESCHE Even though my paintings are very much prints in a way now, I always look at painting through the historical lens of painting. Each print is unique. Each print is a painting. When I’m going to make a big painting, I’ll get so many prints done. You never know how it’s going to translate from the screen to the print. For Love Light I did at least 150 prints. I’d do 10-15 studies. In a way, these are all paintings to me …
When I was in Vienna in 2015 with a friend, Alexander Jackson Wyatt—a great Australian artist who also studies with Heimo—I was looking at the fractured sculptures, the cadence loops I’ve made. They’re those thin, zigzag sculptures that lean against the wall. I wanted to make a book about them, playing with the printing process to explore this idea of fracture. We made a risograph book. I think we did 100 books. There’s some at Printed Matter in New York. It’s called Loop Loop. The idea was to slightly fuck up the printing to ensure every book was unique, slightly distorted. We did some slightly sloppy cutting. When you flip the book open, things are intentionally wonky.
BANNISTER I must ask a question about clothes. What kind of garments do you wear when you work?
NIESCHE I wear light sweatpants and a comfortable t-shirt. Nothing baggy. I don’t like anything in the way. I have three pairs of the same sneakers, sort of old school runners.
BANNISTER When you hear the words Calvin Klein, who is the first person that comes to mind?
NIESCHE Kate Moss. And also, when I was living in New York a friend of mine was a Calvin Klein Underwear model. His name was Robert Mulligan. I never saw anything he did—I think it was years later that I met him.