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Interview with Jonny Niesche

Jonny Niesche’s fascination with colors, mirrors and glitter began back in his childhood in the early 1980s when he and his mother visited the cosmetics section of a department store in Sydney. His geometrically abstract works created from 2013 to 2018 are documented in his recently published monograph “Cracked Actor”. Niesche works with flat, polished, mirrored surfaces, welded steel fittings, fabrics in soft pastel tones, and creates meditative image-objects in which sculptural and pictorial tendencies are combined. Some of his spectacular and seductive sculptures can still be seen at Zeller van Almsick, Vienna until January 26, 2019. The following interview was held by Shana Chandra for Wanted Magazine, thanks a lot!

You were born in Sydney and you studied in Sydney, how has the city influenced your work? I spent a decade in New York, which were quite formative times. I wasn’t initially an artist. I left school, did a bit of university, didn’t like it, left it and fell in love with playing music. I did a lot of experimental music, and decided I wanted to be in a rock band. So, I went to New York for a couple of months, and I ended up staying ten years, and playing music the whole time there. And then I came back around 2000 to Sydney and had not made art since high school. 

What brought you back into the art? It’s a weird thing. I came back to New York after doing music for so long and didn’t want to continue down this road. In the meantime, my parents wanted to sell their house, so I renovated it for them and polished the floorboards and rendered the walls and fixed it up. Then I sold it for them and pulled the For-Sale sign inside and ended up deciding that off the cuff, I wanted to do a painting on the sign. It was really fun. And then I did another one and another one. That same year I got some works into a gallery and they had a bit of success with those. Then I got offered a solo show with them. From there I figured that if I wanted to be a serious artist and have longevity, then I really needed to go and study and learn more about where I might fit in within the art world. Or what I might have to say, or how I can add to it in some way, as opposed to just making more pictures. So, I started as a mature age student. I was the old bloke. 

Jonny Niesche, Installation View “throb”, 2018 © Courtesy of the Artist and Zeller van Almsick, Photo: Peter Mochi

Jonny Niesche, Installation View “throb”, 2018 © Courtesy of the Artist and Zeller van Almsick, Photo: Peter Mochi

Tell me a little about your rock band in New York? I’d been doing electronic music in Sydney for years, and a lot of very early sampling in the early 1990’s. Then I went over there and decided “Stuff this, I’m going to join a rock band”. So, I put a guitar on my back that I could hardly play and went to New York and auditioned for a couple of bands, and met people. I ended up playing with some great people and accidentally fell into the Hardcore scene, which I didn’t really listen to at the time. Then suddenly I was playing with the guitarist from Helmut and the bass player from Bad Brains. So, I lumped in with a bunch of musicians which were some of the Hardcore Royalty of New York, and I was up there screaming at the front and writing the music for them. 

Has your music background informed your work in any way? A hell of lot. Without trying to sound cheesy, it’s the point at which you lose yourself in something, in a creative state. It’s almost like meditation, you disappear into something. I find making art and painting the same thing. It’s meditation really. The real reason to make these paintings initially was to create a space for contemplation. To create some kind of spatial experience that you can disappear into, and escape the noise of the everyday. A lot of people can’t work out what’s happening on the surface of the painting it kind apprehends them and they think “I don’t understand this, I don’t know what’s happening here”. At that point, you open up to the experience a bit more. It’s a quasi-spiritual experience. Hopefully in some way it’s a bit like the experience of the abstract paintings from the great New York artists like Newman and Rothko. The light and space artists from Los Angeles are very influential, the experience of light and colour become almost transcendental in some way. 

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Jonny Niesche, “But, how does it make you feel?”, 2018 © Courtesy of the Artist

It’s funny that you say that, because looking at your paintings, there is such an energy to them. It’s almost like they vibrate. And in a way, they remind me Christina Lonsdale’s photography of people’s auras which have these bright colours merging and buzzing. Yet at the same time there is a strong feel of technology emanating from your paintings too. The things that I wanted from the paintings and the one thing that really informed my work was, I didn’t want my paintings to be static, two dimensional images. I wanted them to be responsive to the viewer and the viewer to be responsive to them, and responsive to the environment in which they’re exhibited. So, it becomes a bit or like a performance or an event. There are mirrors on the sides of some of the paintings and as the sunlight comes across the room, it sends shards of light across it. So, you see different effects of light in different aspects as you move around the paintings. A lot of them are made with Voile which is a transparent fabric, I use dye sublimation printing process to soak colour right through the fabric. If you stand directly in front of it it’s very soft, and as you move around and look from the sides it becomes really saturated. Depending on where you stand in the room or the space, and what’s happening in the light and the ambience in the room, they change a lot. They’re meant to be more dynamic in that sense. 

You do use different mediums, glitter, mirrors, voile. How did you get into using these? I used to paint quite realistically, figuratively at one point. And my work started becoming very static, a bit tight and boring. I wanted to loosen myself up a little bit. So I started painting with syringes, to squirt the paint on so I couldn’t control it. I also started painting with glitter and seeing what that did. I also started looking at people like Dan Graham, his pavilions where you look through the object at the other people and the space itself, and it challenges perception, becomes an event in the experience with the object and the other people. I thought this is interesting and important, and how can I do this with painting? I wanted to learn screen-printing and I pulled a screen out to have a look at it, before I even learned how to do it. It was fat and wide and it stood there in the middle of the room by itself. I was looking at all the old images on the screen, and through the images at the rest of the room and I thought: “That’s magic”. Then I thought “How do I translate that into the right material?”, and I went to every printing house in Sydney and sourced the material that had just the right amount of transparency, and I found Voile. It was the only one that was right. And I’ve been to many printers since and finally found a great one, and it’s a magical substance because the print goes through both sides of the fabric. 

Jonny Niesche, Installation View “throb”, 2018 © Courtesy of the Artist and Zeller van Almsick, Photo: Peter Mochi

You use mirrors in your paintings too… These came out of the idea that when you’re looking at a shop window in a desire like situation, at some point while you’re looking at something you want or desire, you’re apprehended by your own reflection. This made me want to explore using reflection. Then I started bringing in mirrors and exploring the qualities of the Voile with different reflective surfaces. It is infinite what you can do. The works from ‘Picture This’ have a ghosting reflection of the viewer in that surface. More recently, I started playing with them and making them more reflective in that selfie kind of way, hinting at our own self-obsession. The image is housed between you and the reflection of yourself, so it kind of colours the way you see yourself in a certain way. 

You studied twice in Vienna. How did that help to progress your work? I studied with a great artist called Heimo Zobernig, and he was telling me; “Your work looks like a blog. Some of it’s good, some of it’s not good … You need to find a reason for what makes your work your work and how it operates and the parameters that define it. So, he sent me reeling back to Sydney. And I was sitting in my studio at Sydney College of the Arts late one night, in a creepy dark spot in low light, and I was doing a painting with glitter. When I moved, and the glitter sparkled, and I moved again and the glitter sparkled and every time I moved, it moved. We were having a visual dialogue and that really sparked my interest in that sense of movement and that relationship between you and the object. The painting started to become more of a responsive thing, and more of an object than just this static image. At that point, I realised that all I want to do is make work that somehow responds to you and your environment. A more physiological experience.

Tell me about the texts that read like stories that have accompanied your works. The reason the text came about for ‘Picture This’ was, I wanted to own my inspiration of colour. As a kid, I remember being dragged around fancy department stores with my Mum and going into the cosmetic department and having this blown away fascination with it. The colours of all the eyeshadows, and all the surfaces were black and mirror and shiny and it smelled nice. It was so seductive even as a little kid. I still remember the colours. Instead of the older minimalists who took their colour charts from the hardware store and had their very masculine experience, I decided that show was to own my own experience. That’s why the paintings were all titled ‘Cosmetic Calculators’ with a colour reference for each. For ‘Picture This’, I took a digital sample of Deborah Harry’s eyeshadow from the Seventies, and created a colour palette from that make up. The paintings are based on that palette, on her eyeshadow and her clothes from 1978, when she put out the song ‘Picture This’, with Blondie. I spoke to Stella Rosa McDonald who’s a friend and an excellent writer and said I want a text that is an artwork, and I want it to be playful and I want you to do whatever you want. It was a beautiful exchange of ideas. It is a playful and poetic fictonarrative that draws a lot of connections and intersections from the works and my experiences.

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Jonny Niesche, Installation View “throb”, 2018 © Courtesy of the Artist and Zeller van Almsick, Photo: Peter Mochi

Interview: Shana Chandra for Wanted Magazine, Melbourne, October 2017

Shana Chandra is a freelance writer based in Sydney, who works within the magazine and digital publishing industries world-wide. Engaging with fashion, art, design and culture, she creates critical and innovative features, alongside her editors.

Exhibition: “throb”
Zeller van Almsick, Vienna