Nobson Newtown is an imaginary town that was first conceived by Paul Noble in the mid-1990s and has been growing ever since. Noble’s imagination seems limitless; his latest exhibition of works plays on a new ‘civic monument on the roundabout at the outskirts of town. The monument is a large, vertical structure that spells out the friendly message “Welcome to Nobson”’ that is also the title of the exhibition. This is not just an idea, Nobson is where Noble’s artistic personality resides – a town comprised of labyrinths and often deserted, densely covered areas of land.
Paul Noble, Cathedral, 2011, pencil on paper. Copyright to Paul Noble, image via www.gagosian.com.
Noble even wrote an introduction to his town in 1998 – a parody of a heritage guide book, describing the history of the area, even discussing geology and religion, up to the planning of the new town looking at the residential accommodation, the leisure areas, the shopping mall, and so on. The depictions are all grey because, as the book explains, ‘there is no chemical industry in Nobson, and virtually no light…’.
As you enter Gagosian’s main gallery space through a curtain of hanging beads, you leave the chaos of London and enter the grey-scale calming dystopia of Nobson Newtown. But, it is far from a conventional dystopia, the inherent contradictions of this place constantly confront us. It is a perfect wasteland but how is that possible?
Entering the exhibition. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
The main piece here, and the penultimate drawing in the project, is Nobson. The work is immense: seven metres high, it is made from 20 sheets of paper. The sheer scale actually makes you dizzy and to study it closely you’d need both a ladder and the confidence to squat on the floor of Gagosian.
Paul Noble, detail of Welcome to Nobson, 2008-11, pencil on paper. Copyright to Paul Noble, image via www.gagosian.com.
The drawing maps and marks the entrance into Nobson Newtown and two towering marble sculptures – Couple and Three – act as the sentries to the exhibition and to Nobson itself. The huge central courtyard is fenced off, enclosing Noble’s public toilet, a separate drawing from a number of years ago. In fact, many of the drawings focus on waste – Nobson is filled with endless rubbish sacks and turds that are also recreated in the marble sculptures.
Paul Noble, Public Toilet, 1999, pencil on paper. Image via www.frieze.com.
Despite the disagreeable subject matter, the sculptures are beautiful. The immediate comparison with Henry Moore is intentional as Noble had the marble cut from the quarry that Moore used. I found they lack the delicacy and intimacy of the drawings but the Tetrus-like quality of the interlocking shapes is quite hypnotic and they felt like fitting custodians of the town.
Paul Noble, Couple and Three in the current Gagosian exhibition. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
The works around the room are isolated, magnified from the main drawing. Heaven, a walled rectangular space with no entrance or exit, seems more like hell. With broken glass on top of the walls, the scene isn’t very idyllic. This macabre style is not out of keeping with Noble’s oeuvre. In fact, Hell seems more like Heaven – Noble loves confusing us with incongruities.
Paul Noble, Heaven, 2009, pencil on paper. Copyright to Paul Noble, image via www.gagosian.com.
One other work, A+B=C, shows two slides on a tiled floor – one has a normal gradient but, the other is too steep to be safe and, no doubt, would cause an unhappy ending. Again the contradictory nature of Nobson rears its head as Noble depicts a malicious idea in a calmly picturesque way. Nobson is an unsettled and unsettling place.
Paul Noble, A+B=C, pencil on paper. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
At one point, while I was walking around, I was in the room with four security guards. There is no doubt the works are fragile but this seemed slightly OTT – maybe they, like the sculptures, were guarding the gateways to Noble’s imagination.
Paul Noble, Family is Infinity (or, Hard Labour), 2009-10, pencil on paper. Copyright to Paul Noble, image via www.gagosian.com.
Many of the drawings are made from sheets of paper pinned together; they are so vulnerable, yet the drawings are incredibly solid visions into another world. Noble apparently starts in the top left-hand corner of the paper and lets his imagination play havoc, developing his city as he goes along. Nobson Newtown plays on the eccentricities of human life – it is a remarkable vision that is unrivalled elsewhere, one that is easy to get lost in as the viewer’s imagination mingles with that of the artist.
Paul Noble: Welcome to Nobson is at Gagosian, Britannia Street, until 17th December 2011, www.gagosian.com.