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A Punch-the-Clock Kind of Art Making: An Interview with Garry Noland

Born in Rapid City, South Dakota and raised in nearby Independence, Missouri, Garry Noland is somewhat of an art-veteran of Kansas City. He attended the University of Missouri, Kansas City in 1978 and has been working here ever since. Noland’s recent body of work includes paintings made exclusively from different kinds of tapes and contact papers as well as ramp shaped sculptures made of tape-wrapped National Geographic Magazines. I sat down with Noland to discuss his history as an artist, the importance of using traditionally non-art materials, and his particular brand of blue-collar making.

Noland is in his second year of residency at The Studios, Inc, a warehouse building converted into generous studio spaces awarded to mid-career artists. His work has been shown at The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art (Omaha, NE), City Arts Project (Kansas City, MO), and School 33 Art Center (Baltimore, MD). Several venues will feature Noland in 2013 including The Indianapolis Art Center, The Epsten Gallery at the Kansas City Jewish Museum of Art (Overland Park, KS), and the gallery at The Studios, Inc. His work is included in New American Paintings #101 and he will be represented in PatternBase, a survey of surface designers and textile artists published later this year.


Cripples (studio installation), 2010-Ongoing, Tape on tape or paper, 105″ x 230.” Image courtesy of the artist.


Matt Jacobs: You studied art history in college. How did you come around to fine art? What made you come over to the other side of the fence?

Garry Noland: I think I’ve always been on this side of the fence. That’s one of the things I wanted to talk about, was the actual making of objects, even the objects I made as a kid. All the way from spending my lawn mowing money on watercolors and paper up at the local art store in Independence to building stone-wall sculptures in the back yard with all the flat rock we had out there.

We also had a deposit of clay in the backyard. I went and dug that up. I was maybe fourteen and started making pinch pots and pots that were coiled. I would dig a pit in the back yard, start a fire, and put the clay in there. Anyway, the anecdotal part of that is that my little foray into those ceramic arts, not really knowing what I was doing, I think actually got me my first girlfriend. [Laughs]

I think I chose art history because at the time I don’t think I had the nerve or bravery to be a visual artist. [Art History] seemed like a way to be in it, but not all the way in.

I decided to become a visual artist my last semester at UMKC [1978]. We were in a senior seminar about Spanish Baroque Art and I had seen this particular image before by Goya [Saturn Devouring One of His Sons]  but something about seeing it then at that particular time… it hit me in the side of my face: I had to be an artist. So I started making art in the basement of the house.

Saturn Devouring One of His Sons, Francisco de Goya, 1821-1823. Image courtesy of http://www.museodelprado.es

MJ: In your artist statement you reference quilt and rug making with your grandmother. Is this what led you to pattern and the hand made?

GN: I don’t know if that led to the pattern work so much. They used pattern, but what I learned from them was the dedication they had to their skill set. It was continuous. My maternal great grandmother made rugs. My paternal grandmother made the quilts, so I had it on both sides of the family. More than anything I think I learned some sensitivities from them. Some ways of looking at the environment and being able to apply that vision to the materials we have at hand. In my instance that’s rolls of tape and paper, in hers it was the textiles. I don’t think it’s all that much different. I feel like I’m working right in line with them.

MJ: Do you think there’s accessibility to pattern through the domestic?

GN: I think it goes even beyond the domestic, not to diminish the domestic, but I think pattern is something all of us see everyday. We act out in patterns. We have it in our home. We have it on our clothes. Pattern is something we acknowledge and recognize but I don’t think most of us think about pattern. About how it really is an echo of our life cycles, and each time we play the pattern that’s part our diary for that day. It’s a way to mark time, document labor, and approach beauty.

MJ: You use many different kinds of patterns ranging from simple striping and checkerboard, to synthetic wood grain and Scandinavian feeling geometry in your work. Are these patterns subconscious and process-driven or do they come from culture?

Noland’s studio. Image courtesy of the author.

GN: Well this kind of Op Art pattern that I use in a lot of the work are the same patterns I drew as a kid in my notebooks at school. It was just another thing to do: get out the ballpoint pen and start drawing lines and filling in every other block and you end up with a design.

Everything else comes along serendipitously. The Scandinavian or Folkloric patterns are a way to find balance between the different parts of the work. I’m really interested in balance, but also in asymmetry. Balance is possible to find in an asymmetric way. What I’m after is for one thing maybe pretty? Decorative? Something that works with the rest of the design, there’s a practical element in it.

MJ: Practical in an aesthetic sense?

GN: In an aesthetic sense, but also in a sense of getting the work done […] I feel like each one of my pieces should be like the last line in a poem. Something that sums up the poem up to that part, but is looking forward to the next poem.

MJ: It’s almost like a cliffhanger? It wraps things up but also leaves you wanting more.

GN: It makes me want more! Whether or not the viewer gets that out of it or not is sort of unimportant to me. I’m doing this for myself.

I get some criticism over using the tapes, but it’s so unimportant to me. I can’t emphasize how unimportant the use of these materials, or any other process I use is. In one sense, I’m my own patron in that respect. I’m working for the studio.

MJ: If it’s unimportant that they’re made of tape and reference the slew of things which that material does, how did you come to using it?

GN: Here’s the deal with the tape: I was doing paintings on National Geographic magazines and I would have stacks of magazines piled up – not unlike the stonewalls that I built as a kid- they were stacked up in the middle of the floor. I started to notice the gaps between the magazines and it made me think of Morse code. This was a language I knew from Boy Scouts. So I was trying to figure out ways to paint these magazines to make them black and white. It turned out to be much easier, and less toxic, to wrap them with tape.

MJ: That starts to explain how these sculptures came to be. Did the wall pieces then come out of the wrapped magazine sculptures? Was there an abandoning of the magazine as a base for the tape?

Noland’s studio. Image courtesy of the author.

GN: I think that’s probably true. What the wall pieces have in common with the tape wrapped sculpture and the Morse code pieces is their modularity and repetition. Sort of like a punching-the-clock kind of art making. Just get in there and get it done.

With these larger floor pieces, I would have scraps of tape all over. When I’d clean up I’d pull up strips of tape with wood grain and debris on them and I’d throw them away, but I made a notation in a notebook, “investigate this.” Later I was talking with a friend of mine, Jessica Rogers, and while looking through the sketchbook I came across this entry and went, “Oh, I forgot I wrote this: deal with tape on the floor.” And she goes, “Well let’s do it!” So we put a giant swath of tape on the floor, and pulled it up and it looked fucking amazing!

It was amazing to me to be able to plan something, the colors, what direction to put it in, but then not know exactly how it’s going to come out. It has my plan in it, but it has something that’s totally random on top of that. I think that’s where a lot of the good things happen in this most recent work: that overlay of different kinds of experience.

MJ: You’re also putting restrictions on a process, and limitations on creativity. That’s something John Baldessari talks about: putting a corral around an idea so that it can really flourish. You’re subjecting this material you know how to use to chance and seeing what comes of it. We’ve talked a little bit about those as being more like printmaking.

GN: They are like mono prints and like collagraphs too. I like that idea of subjecting to chance because if you consciously decide to subject something to chance it’s not really chance.

MJ: Exactly!

GN: There’s sort of an irony in that. But what I wanted to do was not be afraid of the things that look like fuck-ups. There’s a line in one of the Leonard Cohen songs where he’s talking about the crack in the Liberty Bell, and he says, “that’s how the light gets in.” You see, if it weren’t for that flaw not only would that not allow the light to get in but we’d be robbed of that metaphor. I think of that line every once in awhile. Accept that crack, you know? Because that’s how we learn things.

MJ: I think that’s also a way to let the viewers into the work. You’re not making perfect things; you’re making things with flaws in them, just as we all have flaws in us.

GN: I think that has something to do with the tape too. It’s a pretty common material, it’s not something you get in an art supply store that has it’s own intimidation factor. It’s a democratic thing. It’s a blue-collar way of working.

MJ: I want to talk a bit about craft. Do you think this work has a relationship to craft and maybe even craft culture?

GN: I do. I’m glad about that. I have a respect, like I said, about how hard other artists work. I think one of the issues my work has to some parts of the audience is that it looks “crafty.” That’s their problem. It shows me what they’re limitations are. I embrace that craft making tradition. I’ve wondered in the past whether I should just give into it and be a textile artist and not make something that aspires to painting.

MJ: What pulls you back to making fine art objects?

GN: That’s a good question. Maybe it has something to do with ego? I’m amazed by the paintings and sculptures of the old masters. Rightly or wrongly, or maybe deservedly or undeservedly, I want to aspire to those same things they aspired to. I think fine artists, in some ways, are more about a personal, intellectual, and emotional narrative. Maybe the crafts are less so?

I do agree that I’m employing some craft techniques in the work. Also the fact that I’m not using a fine art material. If I were making these with painted and collaged papers then I don’t think we’d be having this discussion. Then they would be just abstract geometrics or slightly more rigorous color field kind of paintings. Because they employ that blue collar, non-art material it shifts the space they’re in. I don’t think that causes me distress, I kind of embrace the fact that they’re in both camps. The same way that I employ some feminine aspects of my personality in these things.

Noland in his studio. Image courtesy of the author.

MJ: So we’re sitting here with the second copy of New American Paintings you’ve been in?

GN: First.

MJ: First, really? I thought you were in the last one too.

GN: No. It’s the first time I entered too!

MJ: Good for you, congratulations.

GN: You know, I’m the oldest motherfucker in there! [Laughs]

MJ: You’re clearly in the world of painting, or at least have one foot in that world. Do you think about what these things are in terms of painting or image making?

GN: I consider them to be paintings. I don’t know why you would have to be considered to that particular plastic medium to be a painting or not. I make these three dimensional objects too, not as often, but I think about the three dimensional implications in the two dimensional work. […] There are lots of ways to skin a cat. I find it easier to cogitate about two dimensional things when I’m working more actively in something that’s three dimensional. A part of me can relax and think about that in a non-aggressive way, and then I can think about sculptural issues when I’m laboriously applying the tape.

I want the audience to be engaged with the work beyond the optical and intellectualization of the surface. I want them to have a more corporeal or physically active recognition of how these two dimensional surfaces are put together. The so-called “background” of these pieces are uncertain, textured, wavy, irregular, bent, folded, all of these things are put on by hand. That’s the physical component of something that is, at first glance, optical. So […] there’s a realization that there’s a physical process here, that there was actual work involved. Not really fancy work either. They’re things we all do everyday. The employing of a lot of active verbs, but they’re simple verbs: cutting, gluing, pasting. Those are the basic skills I learned in grade school. They’re common, but just because they’re common doesn’t mean they can’t be sophisticated.

MJ: For me, the process of how they’re made is so much more interesting. They do operate on an optical level, like you’re saying, but how you put them together is sort of a one, two. You see them and go, “Oh, they’re tape. He’s cutting and piecing tape together.” But I can’t get a clear image of what that’s actually like. Even though they’re irregular, there’s still a precision to them.

GN: Well there’s care. I have such a respect for the material and I have a respect for craftsmanship. I also have a respect for how hard every other artist I know works. I have to keep up with that. It’s not about pressure, but just a respect of what they’re doing. I feel like I’m part of that union, of that object making community, but also part of the human community that cares about what they’re doing. Those are the intangible things: my respect for the work that you do, for the work that is done all over this city, all over the country, and the work that’s done all over the world. To me that’s about love, respect, and doing the best that you can do.

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