Welcome to Nobson

There were four years between the first Gagosian
Nobson Newtown show and the second, which was held from early November to mid December, 2011, at the international gallery’s impressive London premises on Britannia Street in the West End.

Again Gagosian’s website covers the show very well. There’s a video tour of ‘Welcome to Nobson’ and a series of installation shots. Toss in the first class catalogue (alas its production values don’t come cheap) and you feel you were there. Almost.

As with the 2007 show, the 2011 NobGag takes a drawing from
Nobson’s past and juxtaposes it with the new work. In 2007, this was Paul’s Palace, presumably because of the mountain of Henry Moore’s to the side of the architect’s house. In 2011 it’s Public Toilet, perhaps because of the sculptural component of the new show.


The sculptures are made of marble from the same quarry that Henry Moore dipped into. They clearly refer to the faecal matter that meat eaters produce. But, for sure, the soft, warm colours and shapes also refer to human flesh. It’s difficult not to see teats at the top and bottom of the forms. In
Couple, one ‘figure’ seems to be sitting on the other’s knee. In Three, a third ‘figure’ is being sat on by Couple. Has baby come along?

Another structural similarity between the 2007 and 2011 NobGags (if you’ll excuse the expression) is the way that a series of what could be called subsidiary drawings - though they are beautifully finished productions in themselves - are used as elements in a bigger and more ambitious composition. Here is a list of drawings that Paul Noble produced from 2008 to 2010.

2008-9: Eden
Heaven, Hell, A2 + B2 = C2
Family is Infinity
Mr and Mr Gate, Mrs Gate, Mr and Mrs Gate, Conjoined Fence, Ah, W_E_L_C_O_M_E_T_O_N_O_B_S_O_N

Most of these drawings, albeit reconfigured, find their way into the enormous
Welcome to Nobson, which is dated 2008-10. It’s reproduced below in all its glory. Well, no, not in all its glory, as the original is 4.5 metres high and 7.15 metres wide. Not just the biggest of the NobGag drawings (sorry, I must stop typing that), but the biggest of the entire Nobson project.


The left-hand tower in the centre of the picture spells ‘WELCOME’, in Nobson font. The right-hand, and higher tower, spells ‘TONOBSON’. In the
Public Toilet drawing of 1999, a glimpse of the monument in the background shows that the ’TO’ was in those days placed in between the ‘WELCOME’ and “NOBSON’ parts of the structure, a bit higher than half-way up. Perhaps the people of Nobson Newtown, in the wake of the World Trade Centre atrocity of September 11, 2001, felt that it would be an appropriate gesture of sympathy towards the people of New York for their own humble monument to be redesigned as an unashamedly twin tower structure. I’d like to think that last sentence, with its deadpan black humour, is in the style of the original Nobson Newtown publication.

In order to take this analysis further, I need to mention that towards the end of 2008, Paul Noble travelled to Palestine where he lived and worked in Ramallah. According to John-Paul Stonard who wrote the catalogue essay for the 2011 Gagosian show, the artist was struck by uncanny resemblances between Palestine and Nobson. Perhaps this simply means that you can take Paul Noble out of Nobson Newtown, but you can’t take Nobson Newtown out of Paul Noble.

Ramallah is in the West Bank of Palestine, about 20 miles north of the divided city of Jerusalem. The plan of the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine, has influenced the basic plan of
Welcome to Nobson. The Dome is the centre of a greater Muslim shrine known as the Noble Sanctuary (no pun intended).


The Dome was built on the site of the Second Jewish Temple and indeed the Foundation Stone is the holiest site in Judaism. The Jewish faithful would like to be praying there, but access to the site has been restricted over the years. The Temple Mount also has historic importance to Christians, as Jesus worshipped in the Temple. Below is how the site looked shortly before the birth of Christ, though taken from another direction.


The walls enclosing the religious site restrict access, then as now. Dogma, whether Islamic, Jewish or Christian, dictates that there is a right way to live. These tenets sit uncomfortably with anyone growing up in a liberal democracy as Paul Noble did, studying ‘A’ levels and listening to post-Punk music. The 2011 drawing,
A Wall is a Path, may come out of this discomfort:


Actually, taking into account what the artist has said in an interview in
Wallpaper, and his contribution to the Tate catalogue Abracadabra, I can imagine teenage Paul and a friend sitting on the above wall, listening to Joy Division:

“When routine bites hard,
And ambitions are low.
And resentment rides high,
But emotions won't grow.
And we're changing our ways,
Taking different roads.

“Love, love will tear us apart, again.
Love, love will tear us apart, again.”

And as the single fades, Paul and the friend walk off in different directions. Which is just to say that although recent experience clearly feeds into the drawings that make up the ‘Welcome to Nobson’ show, the experiences of childhood and adolescence are always with an artist in his maturity.

In the drawing below, This is the Way, the oblong looks as if it may relate to the perimeter wall of the Temple Mount. Is that really the way, to have people walking round and round in the desert? Why that patch of desert and not another? It’s all bollocks, isn’t it?

On the other hand, disciplines handed down from generation to generation have helped the tribe to survive. Don’t ask for too much and you won’t be disappointed... The universe can be found in one grain of sand if you look hard enough... If you’ve walked one circuit you’ve walked them all. Perhaps Richard Long has got it wrong, striding around the planet in search of something he is more likely to find in a dusty old Bristol backyard.


At least in the case of the perimeter wall of the
Welcome to Nobson monument, there are gates. The monument is on what amounts to a roundabout at a crossroads. Movement is encouraged. Welcome to Nobson: from the east, west, north or south.

What a place Jerusalem must be, with the non-meeting and non-mingling of Moslem, Jew and Christian! No-go areas for all. All three religions recognise a Heaven and a Hell, though. And so does Paul Noble. Below is his drawing of Heaven, a place to which there is no entrance. Its high walls are embellished with broken glass in the way favoured by property owners of old the world over. As Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us in their Books: ‘It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’ But how is ‘rich’ defined in this case? As a man standing on the perimeter wall who still has unbroken skin on the palms of his hands and feet and both his testicles? Gee, thanks God.


By the time
Heaven has been introduced into Welcome to Nobson (bottom right of the large image on this page), its broken glass-topped walls are in the form of a maze. Again, there is no proper entrance to it, just an odd set of stairs that ends in the fingers of a hand. But if somehow you did get in there, and made your way through the maze, you would end up staring at a brick wall. Actually, it looks as if the maze has been flooded. Are those Arab head cloths amongst the mysteriously floating jetsam?

Hell looks more enticing. No, really, it does. There is an open entrance and the low wall is topped with railings whose ostensibly abstract pattern is both anthropomorphic and suggestive.


Below is a photograph of the Rendezvous Café from the seafront of Whitley Bay. Noble has sketched the place before as the catalogue to the Gagosian show illustrates. Are the railings a subtle reference to the artist’s home town? Well, yes, that point again: the new work draws on his recent experience in the Middle East, but there’s no way Paul Noble can forget the place he came from. Even if he wanted to.


Welcome to Nobson, Hell has expanded to represent the perimeter wall/fence of the Noble Sanctuary (pun intended). The upright ‘figures’ in the railings of Hell appear in the four gates. For example, Mr and Mr Gate make up the gate at the bottom edge of Welcome to Nobson. Careful scrutiny of the pattern of the iron railings shows why the gate is so called. The gate on the left, top and right edges of Welcome to Nobson are... Well, to answer that question I have to flick through the 22 pages over which Welcome to Nobson has been obligingly reproduced in the catalogue of the same name.

Right edge:
Mr and Mrs Gate
Top edge:
Mr and Mr Gate
Left edge... Actually, I’m not sure about this gate, it seems less gender specific. Though the structure is divided between two different pages in the book, so it’s difficult to get a clear view of what’s going on.

There is always that struggle to see what is going on in
Nobson Newtown, that’s part of its challenge and its charm Either you’re looking at a low quality image on the web. Or you’re looking at a small reproduction in a book. Or you’re standing in front of the original image but you’ve only got another ten minutes to look at the drawing before your partner freaks out. Besides, you’re standing on tip-toes but still can’t really see what’s going on in the top quarter of the drawing. An average person’s eye level wouldn’t come even half-way up Welcome to Nobson, yet there is loads going on in the top row of five sheets.

But let’s be positive. By hook or by crook you get yourself - not just your eye - to one of the four gates, and you find said gate open. Then you head straight for the monument. At some stage what was simply twin towers becomes ‘WELCOME’ and ‘TO NOBSON’. But you keep walking because you realise that each of the letters has been decorated. In the one reproduced below (the second ‘O’ on Nobson), God, portrayed as a turd, is making little turds. The relevant text of Genesis (which applies to Christianity and Judaism) reads:

‘Then God said: “Let us make man in our own likeness to resemble us, with mastery over the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the animals every wild beast and every reptile that crawls on earth.” So God formed man in his own likeness. In the likeness of God he formed him male and female he formed them both.’


Welcome to Nobson. ‘Let there be light.’ Isn’t that marvellous?

Having completed the monumental
Welcome to Nobson drawing, the artist went back to doing simpler scenes as whole drawings:

2010-11: This Way
This is the Way, Cathedral, A Wall is a Path

Below is Cathedral. It looks as if stones have been piled on top of one another in the dusty, rocky wastes of the Negev Desert. I suppose a cathedral is just stones placed on top of one another, if in a very particular way using mortar: man trying to build a structure that takes him (us) nearer to God. In that sense, the great pile of stones (there are humbler piles elsewhere in the drawing) is a forerunner to what we understand to be a cathedral.


It brings to mind Canterbury Cathedral. Or, rather, it brings to mind
Riddley Walker, the novel published by Russell Hoban in 1980, whose action centres on the South-East of England, in a hypothetical future where a nuclear disaster has reduced the towns and cities to rubble. All that’s left of Canterbury Cathedral is the crypt, a forest of arching stone pillars whose architectural achievement is no longer understood. Language has been eroded as well. This is how the eponymous Riddley expresses himself when down in the crypt:

‘I fel down on my knees then I cudnt stan up I cudnt lif up my head, The 1 Big 1 the Master Chaynjis it wer all roun me. Wood in to stoan and stoan in to wood. Now it showit 1 way now a nother. The stoan stans. The stoan moves. In the stanning and the moving is the tree. Pick the appel off it. Hang the man on it. Out of the holler of it comes the berning chilyd. Unner the stoan. See the bird boan. Thin as grass. Becoming grass.’

Russell Hoban gets away with writing like that for the entire 200-odd pages of his book, not in spite of the translation difficulty that every sentence brings but because that effort quickly seems to become an essential part of the author’s vision. Riddley-speak is as effective as the Nobson font in getting under the skin of everyday reality and giving us a fresh view of our world. In the 2004 Whitechapel catalogue,
Paul Noble, there is a section where the artist lists quotes from material he feels has in some way influenced him or inspired his work. The first quote is a few verses from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. One of the longest is the creation myth from Riddley Walker, a sort of post-apocalyptic Genesis which begins like this:

‘Wen Mr Clevver wuz Big Man uv Inland they had evere thing clevver. They had boats in the ayr & picters on the win & evere thing lyk that. Eusa wuz a noing man vere quik he cud tern his han to enne thing. He wuz werkin for Mr Clevver thayr cum enemes aul roun & maykin Warr. Eusa sed tu Mr Clevver. Now wewl nead masheans uv Warr. Wewl nead boats that go on the water & boats that go in the ayr & wewl nead Berstin Fyr.’

As with the Nobson font, it’s the slowing down of the reading process that makes for thinking time. A rare and valuable way to go in an era of shortening attention spans.

Riddley Walker, all the towns of South-East England have been destroyed by a nuclear war but the places still just about hang on to their old names. Burnt Ash is Bernt his Arse. Folkestone is Forkt a Stoan. Canterbury is Cambry. Dover is Do it Over. Herne Bay is Horny Boy. I wonder what Whitley Bay would have been referred to if Riddley had ever roaded that far north.

Looking again at
Cathedral, one wonders if the big stone is capping something. One wonders how the makers of the monument managed to get the large stone (is it carved?) on top of the pile of smaller stones. Are the makers developing a technology whereby the whole cycle will start again? Buildings, will be better and better made, wider and higher; there will be more and more powerful architect-tyrants, until BANG the whole thing comes to a catastrophic end. Again. That’s not what we want, is it Riddley?

’Sharna pax and get the poal
When the Ardship of Cambry comes out of the hoal.’

Oh God, don’t let it happen. Let the Christians, the Muslims and the Jews sort out their differences. Let the Russians, the Americans and the Chinese learn to dance together,
Gangnam style if need be.

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