Ye Olde Ruin

The Paul Noble retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery that ran from September to November, 2004, was an unmissable show. I missed it because in 2003 I had moved out of London so as to be closer to my elderly parents up here in Scotland. They’d just about had their place in the sun. Was my time running out as well?

I did - and do - make the trip down from Scotland, occasionally, and I made the Maureen Paley show that was on at about the same time. Indeed I see from my diary that I made the closing night of that show, missing out on the Whitechapel by a week.

I seem to remember there was a large egg downstairs at Interim Art, much decorated with ribald imagery. Not sure what else was in the show. Maureen Paley may have put together something at her gallery to take advantage of the retrospective taking place nearby. Most of the major work would have been needed for the large exhibition.

I now feel - thanks to having soaked up the catalogue that went with the Whitechapel show - that I was there. Almost. The main works on display were
Nobson Central, Mall and Ye Olde Ruin. Below is Mall, place of worship turned into shopping centre. From the image you may think it’s not such an ambitious work as, say, Nobson Central. But the towers and the walls of the building are covered with drawings that mix religion with sex, belief with scatological humour.


Adrian Searle wrote a review of the show in the
Guardian. I haven’t seen this drawing close up, he has. This is his take on it:

‘The shopping mall is like an ancient temple, a vast synagogue or mosque. Neither the ancient world nor even Las Vegas have seen its like before. Its minarets or towers are carved like Trajan's Column, with bas-reliefs winding to their pinnacles. In fact, the entire edifice is covered in carvings, even into the deepest shadows and recesses of this vast emporium. What stories do these carvings tell, and what is that statuary up on the pediment? Christ broken, an inexplicable bunch of carrots in his hand. He's held upright by a human, pointy-headed turd. Above this excremental pieta, Judas, a living stool, contemplates a suicide's noose.’


What is the word written in Nobson font under ‘JUDAS’ and above ‘SHOP’? It took me a while to work that out, because the tops of the letters are cut off and because the above image crops most of the opening letter. But after a minute’s work with the Nobson keymap I realised the word is ‘SYNAGOGUE’. The Whitechapel catalogue makes it clear that Paul Noble was brought up within the Jewish faith in Whitley Bay. So it makes sense that the place of worship in Nobson Newtown would be a synagogue. Albeit an obsolete one. Nobsolete?

The Guardian’s respected critic goes on:

‘On the walls of the mall are more poo-people having group sex, wild orgies and S&M sessions, going at it with their little arms and legs and the requisite sexual parts. There are things going on I don't even want to think about. But the more you look, the more you want to see, and the more there is to see, the more you keep on looking. Isn't that Hokusai's Wave, about to inundate that turd sheltering under his brolly? I'm drowning, too, not in sewage but in drawing.’

Yes: drowning in drawing. Adrian Searle tells his readers that a large drawing called Ye Olde Ruin covered one wall of the main upper gallery at Whitechapel. And when I say huge, I mean massive. At three metres by four metres, Nobson Central is dwarfed by this 4.2 metres by 7.6 metres, 15-sheet work. Here she blows:

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The triangular area to the left looks as much like a vertical surface as a horizontal, because of the projection technique that Paul Noble always employs in his Nobson drawings. In other words, there is no receding into the distance, no true perspective. In fact, the area is a stretch of land covered in shrubs and flowers, studded regularly with follies, many or all of which are monuments to the dead.

The triangular area brings to mind the one in
Acumulus Noblitatis, but with follies instead of the tree stumps. And this time the found text is (again) fairly decipherable if you can get access to a high quality reproduction of the original, which is now in a major Rotterdam gallery. The quote is a couple of lines from the sublime Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

‘One thing is certain and the rest is lies
The flower that once has blown forever dies.’

The Nobson letters are laid out as follows:


That’s 69 Nobson font letters in all. Here is an image that covers 20 of them:

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Aren’t they exquisite? Memorials to the dead sharing space with flowers in bloom or blown. The letter in the bottom right-hand corner of the above image - an L - seems particularly apt for the chosen couplet. A sculpted man kneels, gazing at what I assume to be a portrait of his ex-lover or parent. A sunflower bends down over him, its head almost touching the top of the kneeling figure’s. It looks to me as if the flower is mocking the man’s sentimental attachment to the dead. ‘
One thing is certain and the rest is lies...’

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What’s going on in the above detail? The man with the lantern has a woman, kneeling and being sick, on the end of a chain. Both of them might be thinking: ‘
One thing is certain and the rest is lies...

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And in the detail above? This time the sculpted male could almost be relieving himself against a wall. After all, the Rubaiyat is full of admonishments to drink from the cup while one can, before one’s flesh becomes the pot from which others drink.

There is a section in the catalogue to the Whitechapel show where Paul Noble includes images and texts that reveal, sometimes literally, where he’s coming from. So if you can locate the row of modernist 1930s houses that he pictures on the seafront at Whitley Bay, and walk just a little further north, you arrive at an enormous cemetery. The Google van took the picture below, showing a combination of graves and plants.

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Below is an image taken from Google Earth. Again I fancy there is some similarity between the aerial shot of Whitley Bay and the left side of
Ye Olde Ruin. Perhaps all the old gravestones have been removed and replaced with memorials in the Nobson font as a tribute to local artist made good. Yeah, right.

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There’s a lovely video on Youtube showing Paul saying a few words about his show in 2010 at the Laing Art Gallery in nearby Newcastle. (Whitley Bay is a few miles north of the mouth of the Tyne - the river that runs through the centre of Newcastle.)

In the still I’ve grabbed from it below, Paul is standing in front of
Ye Olde Ruin wallpaper. (If you fancy some - and who wouldn’t? - it’s available at a price from here.) The video made me smile at this point, as Paul, clearly nervous at having to talk in public, through much umming and ahhing, tells his audience that the Rubaiyat has been rendered in his own font. He has a stab at quoting the couplet:

“And it was emm... I can’t quite remember it completely.”

Fair enough, Paul. You were only staring at the two lines for about six months.

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“But it was something about a rose once blown was forever....emm... Tcchh... Ooh, I can... Ooh!...”

Paul finally pulls himself together and states:

“Essentially, life is short and you make the most of it.”

Obviously, Paul was not at ease in this situation, which must have been frustrating for him. Nevertheless, even as he stood there, mildly embarrassed, it would surely have given him succour to know that he is a master when it comes to drawing, an absolute master when it comes to integrating intellect with feeling, visuals with words, humour with a moral compass, so as to produce a complicated, fluent, multi-layered work that is going to be valued by both individuals and society for a very long time.

So let’s get back to
Ye Olde Ruin. By the side of the field of follies there is a mountain. On top of the mountain is the construction known as Ye Old Ruin. And on top of that is a great wrought iron square from which a wrecking ball hangs. Is Ye Olde Ruin to be knocked down? At the foot of Ye Olde Ruin - but on the flat top of the mountain - are a few symbols of grief: flowers, an old teddy bear...

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How did the people of Nobson get up there to leave such tributes? It would seem that there is an entrance at the bottom of the mountain adjacent to the entrance to a fenced graveyard. Is the latter where artists are buried? Or is it a graveyard for works of art? On the avenue of railings leading up to this enclosure, close to the entrance itself (bottom right in the image below), is an incredibly complex bit of lettering. Something is written in Nobson font, then written again in reverse on the other side of the avenue. Needless to say the resultant is bordering on the illegible. But I know my Nobson lettering by now. I can read it all right: ‘ALL ART IS DEAD’.


At another corner of the enclosure, bottom left of the above image, there is a sculpture that might represent Paul Noble. The sculpture’s enormous cock is erupting semen. Well, why not? - he is the artist responsible for the infinitely fertile egg that can be seen inside the enclosure, perhaps the egg I saw at Maureen Paley’s Interim Art, back in November, 2001. Which came first, I wonder, the semen or the egg?

Whether all art is dead or not, ‘I AM AN ARTIST’ is written on the pedestal of the ejaculating man, but doubly translated, first into Latin (ARTIFEX SUM) and then into Nobson. Can you spot any differences between this portrait of the artist and the still from the video taken at the Laing Gallery?

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No, neither can I.


I’m adding this a few days later, the main elements of the drawing only now coming together for me. The artist, Omar Khayyam, in the moment of the brain’s orgasm, comes up with his singing-ringing tree. That singing-ringing tree being a concise and poetic manifestation of the human condition. Listen:

‘One thing is certain and the rest is lies
The flower that once has blown forever dies.’

Having blown his load (as Viz, the North-East’s earthy comic would put it) the old artist is buried in the ‘ALL ART IS DEAD’ cemetery, his headstone being a piece of his art. However, the artist’s seed has fertilised another egg, so there is no need to worry. The new artist, Paul Noble, has stepped up to the plate - and onto the plinth - and it looks as if something pretty special is going to come of his labours. Let’s listen in to the artist at work in his studio: “Here we go...It’s coming, it’s all coming together...ah-h-h-h-h-h-h-h...”

Where is the art in that? you may be asking yourself. But keep listening, bearing in mind that art comes out of life. Life always comes first, and, if it’s real life, then art gushes forth soon after. Hark to the singing-ringing tree! Or, rather, pore over each exquisite sheet of
Ye Olde Ruin.

If any copyright holder wants any image altered/removed, or the rights information to be displayed differently, they should get in touch.