Paul Noble interviewed by Brett Ballard

Detention by NobleImage 1
Paul Noble grew up in Whitley Bay, the seaside resort of Newcastle, a place full of amusement arcades and dodgy night-clubs. As a student of Hummberside College of Higher Education in the early 80's, Noble grappled first hand with the spectre of Abstract Expressionism; the "real" and colourfields. He has said himself of this experience; "You had to do lyrical abstraction or you weren't worth talking to. Historically, Rauschenberg was maybe okay, but beyond that it was all funny business."

Noble moved to London in 1986 after living briefly in Manchester. His recent work has been shown at City Racing, of which he was a founding member, and at Cabinet Gallery. "Lookin Good", a work in collaboration with Colin Lowe is included in Sarah Stanton's "Supastore Boutique" at Laure Genillard Gallery.

The conversation between Paul Noble and Brett Ballard took place during September 1994.

Image 1:
Paul Noble
Courtesy the artist

BB: I wanted to ask you first of all about your interest in books.

PN: The books. I've got millions of books.

BB: Where do you find these books?

PN: Well, I haunt libraries and they sell them.

BB: You're buying these books from libraries?

PN: They sell for about 20p. Danielle Steele is very popular in the withdrawn sections of the library. You get real big hardback pulp novels. They just decide the books are too tatty and sling'em out.

BB: I thought you must be getting them from thrift shops.

PN: No they're too expensive.

BB: Are they from one particular library? You mention Limehouse.

PN: Limehouse is very good. They seemed to be particularly ruthless in throwing books out. I think they must be really bored there and maybe in a way it's a bit twisted that they enjoy getting rid of books. I thought that there was a calculated way that the value of books was quantified; that a computer entry would show that such and such a book hadn't been read for three years - after which it goes into the bin.

BB: And are they?

PN: No they aren't. Apparently if a book looks a bit tatty they sling it.

BB: It seems like an odd logic.

PN: There is no logic to it. It's just someone, bored, working in a library.

BB: Are you influenced by anything else; for instance, TV or movies?

PN: Influence is a strange word. Rab C. Nesbitt is something I enjoy very much. It's popular culture, it's comedy. I enjoy the way that Rab C. N., is eloquent but still uses a common language that doesn't normally allow for much reflection.

BB: I did want to ask you about humour. What part do you think humour plays in your work?

PN: I try to use it but one of the fortunate things about being an artists is that you don't have to be actually funny because you can say it's art. You can get away with having a bad punch line. I'd like to use it more. It doesn't bother me that sometimes it's presumed that if you use humour your work lacks weight.

BB: Do you feel that this humour just comes from you and that it's always been a part of the way you look at things?

PN: I suppose I use humour; firstly because I enjoy humour and secondly because it's more common currency for communicating. I don't necessarily feel it belittles the whole. I think it's a valid populariser of a piece.

BB: What about the confessional mode? It seems to me that this is part of your particular "expression".

PN: I don't think there is any confessional mode from my point of view. I would be interested to know where you find this.

BB: Okay. What about autobiography?

PN: Not really, no.

BB: What about this then (pushes press release towards artist).. Does this ...

PN: No it's not. Obviously I am using experiences I get from life but I'm not interested in going into my own personal psyche. I find that uninteresting and only occasionally interesting in other peoples work. I don't think of myself as special enough to be shown at the centre of my work.

BB: But you are in the picture quite often, you're in the picture with Helmut Kohl.

PN: I am yes, that was done specifically for a show in Germany. At the time I wanted a famous German person and big Helmut has been chancellor for such a long time. It was about my presumption as an artist, a particularly stupid artist, because I had and still have little understanding of Kohl's politics. All I wanted was fame.

BB: So then where do you think artist's fit?

PN: Socially?

BB: Yes. Do artists have a place?

PN: Actually I was talking about this last night with Colin Lowe. It was about Richter's "Baader Meinhoff" paintings at the I.C.A., which at the time really annoyed me. As a body of work it is worthy of respect, but I didn't feel that the artist was in such a privileged position to make a liberal statement about the amorality of...

BB: The event?

PN: No, the amorality of culture. I found the distance between the position of the artist and the actual life tragedy was a great problem for me.

BB: The position of the artist, is an issue that I would raise in relation to your work. It's also an issue I've found in the work of Colin Lowe and the Germans, Lehanka and Liebscher. It's more a type of expressionism in which the artist occupies a less privileged position.

PN: I agree with you. I'm aware of this as a general attitude.

BB: I wanted to ask you about your relationship with Colin Lowe. Are you old friends?

PN: No, no I met him through City Racing and I had seen his work in a group show in Camden, so I knew his work a little bit. You asked me if my work was autobiographical but I enjoyed the fact that his work looked autobiographical. It drew very heavily on his family.

BB: I liked the wall piece called "Beer Talkin" that he had at City Racing which involved him explaining to his father about art. It seemed to me like therapy.

PN: It isn't therapy, it's a distracting strategy that he uses. I'm talking for him here, but I think he is aware of how he is using himself as a subject for his art. What I enjoyed about Colin's work was that I saw the Invention of a personality and of an artist as a whole.

BB: Do you think his work is accessible to others?

PN: Ultimately, yes. It is easy to locate yourself in there, the figure is there and they're very domestic scenes. It works like a school frieze. You can choose a narrative and the more time you give it, the more aware you are of the layers. In "Beer Talkin" there were several; his function as an artist, his relationship with his parents, a fight outside a chip shop and so on. For me it was very easy to accept and to understand because of the way that it was structured. It wasn't programmatic and that was the essence of the piece.

BB: You realise that there was more of a logic to it than had first appeared.

PN: I have often wondered what the inelegance of the visual artist is? I don't know.

BB: Is it any greater that anyone else?

PN: Is it any less? I'm not sure at what level or what quality the intelligence of the visual artist operates.

BB: This is a difficult quality to define. What struck me about Liedscher and Lehanka's show at City Racing was the way in which they playfully deflected many issues which are of consequence, such as war or the value of art. Somehow it was their humour and their "boys own" aesthetic which opened up those issues.

Let me ask you about your shelf piece. "Detention" at Cabinet Gallery.

PN: All the books were titled "Brainyism and Brainiology Today" It was a fairly stupid notion, with a stupid title and endless volumes. The author was AMANDA TORY- RYTTEWKOJTAYT, a really awful pun. All of the books in the shelf piece, or at least most of them had the authoress on the back of the book, either as a photograph or as a drawing. I think they were all blondes and I'm one of the blonde authors. I was trying to elevate myself to the level of a dumb blond.

BB: What about the sculptures on each end?

PN: They're the bookends. One was supposed to be a giraffe and the other an elephant. It wasn't important that people read them just as a giraffe and an elephant. They were book ends but there had to be a strong sexual suggestion. I put a penis on the elephant which probably wasn't necessary because the head was enough. I quite liked the giraffe because it's back legs were open to offers.

BB: Is the blond wig on the shelf to do with a question of identity?

PN: The blond wig was probably a loose afterthought to the piece but I was happy it was there because I was the dumb blond of the piece. I wanted everyone to be a dumb blonde.

BB: Have you gone for blondes or have they gone for you?

PN: I was chatted up by a blonde called Donna in Lemington Spa. It was her birthday. She had painted nails and a shiny black handbag. She told me her friends called her Donna Kebab.

BB: Does your tape with Colin Lowe at Laure Gennillard follow on from this?

PN: "Lookin Good" is a ten minute cassette, It's a monologue of compliments to be played by the woman who has just got dressed, put on her make-up and is ready for a night on the town.

BB: What sort of response have you had?

PN: Women have enjoyed the cassette but some men have found it sexist.

BB: Why do you think that is?

PN: I don't think men have been responsive to the idea that women can use make-up and clothes ironically, to define traditional notions of gender difference. And again, it points out the irrational nature of sexual attraction, as that is beyond intelligence.

© Brett Ballard 1994elogo