London

Paul Noble

Chisenhale Gallery

The fictional town of Nobson Newtown is more than the collection of dwellings and other sites depicted in Paul Noble’s highly detailed and laboriously executed large-scale pencil drawings. The buildings as we see them are isolated—each confined to its own sheet of paper—while occupying a place in Noble’s larger conception of the space of the entire mapped-out townscape. Like all new entities, the town hasn’t risen out of nothing; rather, it sits on the site of an older community, where, we are told, the members’ activities had revolved around the veneration of a wormlike deity. In the new town there is no place of worship, because the inhabitants no longer feel the need for religious solace. Instead, a large shopping mall, converted from the old temple to the deity, occupies the town center. Engineered by the planners of the new town as a fitting “center” for a modern, uncentered residential area, the mall sits in the middle of an oily swamp and rubble heaps.

Much of this information was available in a plan and booklet that accompanied the exhibition. Visible in the drawings on display were a cemetery, quarry, chemical and light industrial plants, dump, slum, and hospital. One could also see an ocean scene and a seaside villa called Paul’s Palace. The latter occupies three stories, and while the perspectival rendering is quirkily off (as it is in all the drawings) and the connections between the structure’s different spaces are idiosyncratic, the space never becomes as clever-clever as Escher might have made it. However strange it looks, Nobson Newtown remains conceivable.

Noble’s creation is spectacularly obsessive. The booklet text mentions Nicolai Ceaucescu’s People’s Palace, and if Nobson Newtown shares anything with that megalomaniacal confection it is its status as the grandiose realization of an individual’s self—image. Noble is literally written into the fabric of the whole place. There is not just a slum, but “Nobslum,” not a hospital, but “Nobspital”; this is evident because the forms of the buildings spell out these words in a custom-made 3-D alphabet. The structures are all built out of stone mined from a local quarry, which may no longer be in use. What remains in the quarry are twenty-six rocks, one for each of the letter forms, grouped into sets of five or six except for the N, which sits on its own plinth.

Besides the bankrupt profligacy of former Soviet satellite states, another obvious point of comparison is J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional Middle Earth. Characteristics Nobon Newtown shares with that fantastic realm include a consistent geography, history, and mythology, as well as an identifiable and differentiated populace. This comparison could condemn the entire enterprise to teeter on the edge of English whimsy, but it appears that Noble is well aware of the danger. In an exhibition that makes a virtue of persistent and honorable graft, the artist courts an encounter with the traditional and unfashionable. Nobson Newtown’s twin mottoes are “No style, only technique,” and “No accidents, only mistakes.” As practical tenets go, they are as otherworldly as the place itself, flouting the givens of most recent art. Noble’s defiant stance calls into question gestures that rely on the authenticity of chance to bolster their own integrity.

Michael Archer