Jonny Niesche opens Starkwhite's new Auckland gallery with his latest show, You say sfumato, I say sfumato (12 May–17 June 2023), which wittily puns on the technique of gradually blending shades or colours.
Niesche's profile has risen dramatically as collectors seek out his beautiful paintings, a description he embraces unapologetically.
Jonny, you studied at the Sydney College of the Arts, where your supervisor was Mikala Dwyer. Following graduation, you went to the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna where you were mentored by renowned Austrian artist Heimo Zobernig. What impact did they have on your practice?
Massive. I started studying at Sydney College of the Arts in my 30s, so I was late compared to most. Later, I decided to do a master's.
I only wanted to study under Mikala Dwyer. I wanted to better understand sculpture and installation, so I wrote to Mikala and asked, if I apply, will you be my supervisor? And thankfully she said yes.
You had a clear intention to learn how to deal with space and think sculpturally. How did your education contribute to this process?
Both Mikala and Heimo saw the best in you and tried to draw it out. There was intense discussion about materials. Do they talk to each other? What's the artist communicating? How does an artwork operate? Is what you're making functioning the way you think it is? Or is it interpreted differently by other people? Is that good or bad? And that was incredibly interesting and rewarding.
It sounds like both mentors were opening pathways to your own voice. Did being an older student open you to assimilate their suggestions?
Yes, I had a different sense of urgency and better understood the system. I applied for an exchange scholarship initially to study with Daniel Richter, and from what I understand Heimo Zobernig picked out my application and put me in his class. In the application, I was already deviating into a more sculptural, playful installation practice. Later, I asked him why he chose me and he said that he felt I was a wild card.
Perhaps he picked you as the wild card because you spent a decade as a musician in New York. What were you doing there?
I fell in with Peter Mengede, who was in the American metal band, Helmet. Then I played with Dave Maltby and shared a recording studio with Russell Simins, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion drummer.
I was obsessed with sonic manipulation, sound waves, the recording process, and what you can do with it. That led to the idea of a visual waveform, now part of my practice. I also liked the performative quality of playing music and having an audience. I wanted to make art with a call-and-response that's visually connected.
Did your art gravitate towards the equivalent of ambient music, soundscapes where listeners could bring their interpretation?
Exactly. I leave it open to what you bring to the work or space. It's blurry, moving, and viewers are trying to make sense of it. You have a moment to think or shut out the noise and disappear into it.
I've always been obsessed with the sublime and how to hopefully have a quasi-transcendental experience from the work. Not in a religious sense, but more in a belief in the spirituality of abstraction.
The sublime is often found in natural phenomena, such as mountains and sunsets. Does this resonate with you?
I've always been obsessed with horizons and the space of a sunset, looking out to the east in Sydney at a particular time of night. That's so evocative and there's always been something in that blurred space that captures my imagination. In blurring, you lose the focal point and distance becomes epic and elastic. That's definitely something that runs through my practice.
Moving between art and music, painting and sculpture, it feels like your practice is something of a hybrid. Would you agree this brings a certain character to your work?
It does have its character, but I do see it through the historical lens of painting. And for me, they do operate as paintings. It's colour on a fabric surface but augmented and stretched over different frames with space between them, over mirrors, or protruding from the floor. It's painting with sculptural elements.
Your colour palette is very distinctive. It seems to be considered and yet emotional. Is it both?
They're digital images that are sublimation printed onto transparent fabric. I'm obsessed with colour and surface and there's talk about such work being empty and vacuous. Whereas I think it's quite the opposite. For me, it's emotively intended and effective, rather than clinical structures that create a particular pattern for a certain optic. It's moving colours around until my heart pounds.
So you consider your work more in the realm of Colour Field and Minimalism, as in Mark Rothko, rather than optical or ocular as in Bridget Riley?
Yes, I fit more comfortably in that Colour Field realm, and especially with artists like Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and way back to Rothko. These images are always in my mind. I have a voracious appetite for imagery, and I feel like they play out in my work in a subconscious way. Also, 'You say sfumato, I say sfumato' relates to my interest in the Light and Space Movement artists who came to prominence in California in the 1960s.
Is it fair to define your style as Pop Minimalism?
I think it's pretty fair. My work does have a pleasing sensibility in general. It's not difficult work. It's meant to be beautiful, but not shallow. I'm interested in playing with beauty and a hint of bad taste that gives it a bit of rupture.
Some of the materials you use are redolent of mid-century glamour. Is that intentional?
It's totally intentional. You know, I'm a child of the '70s. I have memories of smoky hazy tones, going to the department store with my mother, being in the cosmetics department, and secretly falling in love with the space—mirrors reflecting everywhere and colour swatches of lipsticks and eyeshadows.
Are you a fan of glam-rock then?
Yes! I'm obsessed with glam rock and it's had a massive influence—the performative qualities of glam rock musicians like David Bowie and Deborah Harry. Many of my paintings have had glitter and sampled colours from their eyeshadows. I had this unashamed enjoyment of glitz, glamour, and beauty. Now I'm trying to incorporate that into a minimalist aesthetic.
Is your new show at Starkwhite further developing the ideas we've been discussing, or something new?
For the exhibition, I thought about how a set of colours can operate differently in a different space. How and where can I take the palette that I used in Los Angeles? Can I use silver instead of brass frames, extend the work into a larger rectangle, put it in a different space, and augment a couple of the colours? How is it going to perform and feel differently from the first incarnation?
And that's why I came up with the title, You say sfumato, I say sfumato. I was thinking of a translation from America to Australia.
Will the show integrate some of the sculptural elements we've discussed?
Yes, I've made three very long horizontal bar works, which are meant to play on the concepts of the Light and Space art movement by juxtaposing California and New Zealand light. It will be installed along the back wall, which is something I haven't done before. I'm a bit nervous and super excited. —[O]
Main image: Jonny Niesche. Photo: Hugh Stewart.