Perception plays, vision vibrates, and sight shimmers; Australian artist Jonny Niesche certainly has discovered his niche. Based in Sydney, Jonny uses paint and sculpture to challenge the viewer’s experience with space and colour. But don’t let the minimalism fool you; the pieces are created with a varied and experimental use of technology and materials, designed to induce meditative moments, to stop you in your tracks and think. We sit down with him to talk everything from Debbie Harry, tackiness, and illusions.
So Jonny, could you briefly talk about yourself and how you came to be an artist?
I arrived very late to the game. I was living in New York and playing in hardcore bands, making experimental music until I was 30. Then, I came back to Sydney, unsure of what to do next. I renovated my parents’ house to help them sell it – once sold; I did a painting off the cuff on the ‘for sale’ sign. That was it for me. I was hooked. Two years later, I enrolled at art school as a mature student.
Like many artists, going through art education teaches you traditional skills – such as how to draw and paint things realistically. At what point did you realise you were moving towards abstraction?
I was at a point when I was painting very realistically and the work itself was becoming too tight and closed-off. I tried using syringes and odd instruments to paint with, but this was only satisfying to an extent. I found that the more I emptied out figuration, the more possibilities there were. By reducing the work to colour, form, material and surface, and by limiting your choices, actually makes you focus on very specific elements and opens up new ideas and ways of thinking about making.
Which artists inspired you as you developed your artistic voice?
Ahh, there are so many! I even called one of my exhibitions Too Many Heroes, as there are so many artists whose work excites me. I am very interested in the era of the High Modern, The American Light and Space artists, and The Zero artists from the ‘50s. To name a few: Donald Judd, John McCracken, Larry Bell, Anne Truitt, Carmen Hererra, Robert Irwin, Robert Morris, Heinz Mack, Lucio Fontana, Otto Peine, and James Turell. Later, Isa Genzken, Martin Kippenberger, Ugo Rondinone, Pamela Rosenkrantz… I could go on, but I think this gives you the idea.
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'Mutual Vibration' in Nice One Picasso at Sydney College of the Arts. Photo: Ashley Barber 2017.
Your recent gradient pieces are beautiful, and I can imagine seeing them almost vibrate in a gallery space. You also play a lot with light, perspective, and colour. Are you trying to induce an optical illusion on the viewer?
I’m not trying to create an optical illusion as much as I’m trying to manipulate aesthetic experiences. The viewers’ perception is challenged, which hopefully slows down the viewing experience. Heinz Mack, who coined the term ‘total vibration’, inspired me. This is where the reverberation between the viewer and the colour is at its maximum output.
You use computers to digitally generate colour samples, taking colours directly from real-life objects such as in Picture This, where you created the works entirely from images of Debbie Harry. Does technology play a big role in your work, and will your work advance as technology does?
Technology is one of the many tools I have in my ‘paint box’. My work plays back and forth in a conversation through processes, and experimenting with technology is only one element. The technology I use is a decade old. I don’t rely on new developments to determine direction or ideas. There are some classic examples of artists who were on the cusp of technology, and decades later, their work looks historic and is tied to that era of technology.
I also like it when a program struggles to perform my request or action; the accidents are great and absorbed into the process. I’m interested in the way a work changes as it’s translated through different media. Translating back and forth from digital image to object, and vice versa.
Do you always intend on your gradient artworks having a cohesive or aesthetically attractive colour palette, or do you also thrive on the ‘ugly’ combinations?
I always try to push the boundaries of taste. I also try to make whatever generates the strong primal gut feeling within me. What is beautiful to one person can be revolting to another. This was well described by Martin Herbert in a recent text about my work. He said that there was a certain guilt associated with liking it; “Taste is a wild card in art. Niesche’s work contains elements that, individually, might easily be considered tacky right now: gradients, gold, twirling sculptures, ‘the spiritual’, sunsets. Collectively deployed, they say he knows and doesn’t particularly care. Being cool is not cool; being cool is a historical category that is intimately allied with not letting your guard down, not being emotionally open.”
“I’m not trying to create an optical illusion as much as I’m trying to manipulate aesthetic experiences.”
Also, in the Picture This exhibition, you used a lot of glitter and mirrors as you were inspired by your infatuation with Debbie Harry and memories of being dragged around the cosmetics department. Were you exploring ideas of vanity and femininity in these works by inviting the viewers to look at themselves, and even to take selfies?
I was initially interested in glam culture: the sheen, the cosmetics, the posturing and attitude. Its androgynous nature and its performative quality. In terms of transparency and reflection, I was looking at artists like Dan Graham, whose pavilions had a shared experience and perception among the viewers. In these pieces, you look at the space and other viewers through the work. Perception is affected by its shape and form, and you access the space only via a particular pathway. It’s also perceptually challenging. I was also intrigued by a Bruce Nauman anecdote, whereby you are looking into a shop window and at some point during this desire-like situation, you are apprehended by your own reflection. It is these elements that dictated the materials. In all honesty, the materials chose me.
Are you a bit of a magpie for shiny things?
Yes. Not all shiny things though. I read recently that our interest in glitter and shiny things that sparkle could actually have its roots long in our past whereby the need for survival in the bush was hardwired to recognise the sparkle on the surface of water. I like this very much as for me it is a primal urge.
What material or medium is your favourite to work with overall?
I don’t have a favourite. It is in combinations of elements that I get excited.
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'En dehors (scarlet to choral), 2018. Photo: Ashley Barber.
Your paintings seem to move away from what is traditionally considered as painting, as you combine 2D with 3D. Do you define your works as either painting or sculpture, or is it more of a fluid definition?
I’m interested in the historical point where John McCracken leant a painting/plank against the wall. It took up the position of neither painting nor sculpture, but straddled the two. I attempt to make work that emphasizes illusion as much as it emphasizes its objecthood. It is this tension between oppositions that drives and excites me. I did study painting though, so you could say that I am looking through the historical lens of painting when I make.
You’ve mentioned before that the works made for Splitting Image were inspired by your time living in Vienna, and by a statue of Strauss in the park near where you lived. After exhibiting in gallery spaces, do you think it’s a natural progression to move outside and perhaps create public art yourself?
Absolutely. Opportunities have been in place, but being so busy last year I needed the time to think about what would be interesting or exciting for me to make. This year, it is on the cards.
And lastly, for many of your works you delve into your past and visualise your memories. Is this theme what will reoccur in your future work?
Absolutely. Even without thinking about it, every decision we ever make in life is based on all of our experiences. It is impossible for me not to. I do not necessarily visualize my past but a ‘feeling’ associated with a time or event, from the past or the present.
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'but still I wait' collaboration with Brendan Van Hek at Sarah Cottier Gallery in Chrom, 2018. Photo: Ashley Barber.
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Installation view of 'throb' at Zeller Van Almsick, 2018. Photo: Peter Mochi.
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Installation view of 'throb' at Zeller Vam Almsick 2018.Photo: Peter Mochi.
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'Where to sould and the world commingle', 2018 in Moving Picture at STation Gallery. Photo: Christo Crocker.
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'Moving picture' installation view at Station 2018, Photo: Christo Crocker.
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'Picture this' Installation view at Station Gallery 2016. Photo: Jack Willet.
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'Love-light' installation view at Sarah Cottier Gallery 2017 Photo: Ashley Barber.
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'Love-light' installation view at Sarah Cottier Gallery 2017 Photo: Ashley Barber.