Paul Noble's big draw
Paul Noble has been working on his epic 'Nobson Newtown' drawing project for 15 years and has one more drawing to complete. Helen Sumpter catches up with the artist as he installs his latest exhibition of the work.
When I first interviewed Paul Noble in 1998, for an exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, he was two years into a graphite drawing and text project which depicted, in intricate and almost obsessive detail, an imaginary town, the buildings and public spaces of which were all structured around the letters of a specially created, three-dimensional font. The buildings not only spelled out their own titles but also functioned as a form of tongue-in-cheek self-portrait, as the town 'Nobson Newtown' and its architecture - from the Nobspital and the Nobwaste Sewage Plant to the Lidonob and the Nob Job Club -all took on the artist's name.
After 15 years, Noble has just completed the penultimate of the 27 main drawings, this one depicting the entrance to the town and titled 'Welcome to Nobson'. At 15 feet wide and 23 feet high it's the largest of the drawings (taking two years to complete) and also forms the focal point for Noble's new exhibition based around his Nobson project, at the Gagosian Gallery. Alongside 'Welcome to Nobson' are one of the earlier drawings from 1999, of the public toilets, new smaller scale drawings which make reference to the main works and also relate to more personal events in the artist's life, plus large-scale ceramic and marble sculpture.
As a town Nobson has been described as both utopian and dystopian. Which do you think it is?
'I don't think it's either. I never intended the project to be geographically literal. I think of the drawings more as illuminations. But I think we all like to project stories onto places so that we can own them and sometimes elements of the literal do slip into the work - like the maze in “Welcome to Nobson'', for example, which is partly based on the canals in Hackney Wick, which is also the inspiration for all the plastic rubbish bags!'
Tell us more about 'Welcome to Nobson'...
'The letters of the title are in the form of two columns in the centre of the drawing. The design is partly inspired by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, in that it's a large structure with space around it, and came out of a residency I did in the West Bank city of Ramallah. There are a lot of walls and gates in this and other drawings in the show which come from thinking about the fact that whether they have access or are enclosed by a wall, the Palestinians and the Israelis are both shut in by a fear of the other and the unknown.'
Your two, 12-feet high marble sculptures look loosely figurative and are quite seductive, but are actually based on turds. Please explain…
'As cartoon characters, “the little shits” have been appearing in my drawings since before this project started. As sculptures on this scale, and on plinths, they appear almost godlike and function a bit like guardians or sentinels. We imagine ourselves to be godlike but we also return to the earth like compost or, well…shit. They are not “idea” works, they are very much physical objects with a mass.
How do the smaller drawings relate to the main Nobson works?
'Often they will expand on details in the larger works. A small mound of stones in 'Welcome to Nobson' is the starting point for one of the smaller drawings in this exhibition, for example. But it also relates to the recent death of a good friend and the memory of walking on the stony beach at Whitley Bay, where we both grew up.'
The final drawing is going to be 'Jetty', the exit from the town. How will you feel when it's finished?
'In one sense it will be a joy and a release! There is quite a repressive aspect to being so restricted.'
And do you know what you will work on afterwards?
'A 2D, flat-screen computer game called “Laius's Folly”. In Greek myth, Laius is the father of Oedipus, who is killed by his son. It has the characters of father, baby and dog - with the latter also occasionally turning into a mother. And it will be in full colour!'