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Nolan, Rose - 2017.22

Rose Nolan

red and white ceramic tiles
300 x 1385 cm
Monash University Public Art Commission, 2017

Rose Nolan has played with extremes of scale since she started making work in the early 1980s. Her large banners and wall paintings can crowd out spaces, while her tiny cardboard sculptures propose a universe in miniature. The public–private divide that these contrasting scales posit is playfully inverted by Nolan’s mock-heroic strategies and wry texts, which deflate and humanise the monumental and invest the domestic with a renewed importance.

Monash University commissioned Nolan’s GIVE OR TAKE for the entrance foyer of the refurbished library at its Caulfield campus. A colossal text comprising the work’s title, it is made of tiny red and white circular ceramic tiles set in striking red grout. Although this is Nolan’s first work made with tiles, she has created similar large-scale text-based wall works throughout her career. The tiles, which are manufactured for commercial and domestic use, were chosen for their durability in the busy university site. Nolan’s combination of text and tiles has many parallels, especially with Islamic art and architecture but also with contemporary urban projects, such as subway stations.

Scale is a crucial means by which Nolan negotiates and frames the public nature of the site. The library is spatially complex, with many varied functions. It is also a relatively neutral institutional environment, for which the work provides a key chromatic focus. As a permanent public artwork – unlike many of the smaller moveable works displayed elsewhere in the library – Nolan’s tiled wall has a clear function to welcome people arriving in the foyer space. This is achieved by the vibrant design along the length of the thirteen-metre-plus wall, rather than by the words themselves, which are not easily read.

The closely laid mosaic tiles of GIVE OR TAKE invite the viewer into a very different register, with their suggestion of multiple microstructures that determine the whole. For anyone with a knowledge of the predigital age, these atomised units suggest the pattern of Ben-Day dots, the basis of photographic printing for most of the last century. Artists, of course, made use of the Ben-Day dot from early on. Attracted by the play between representation and abstraction, Roy Lichtenstein, Sigmar Polke and others revelled in the mechanical grain of the enlarged photographic image. Nolan herself has recently used similar tiny circular units to construct larger forms in her series of ‘sticky dot’ works on paper. Her text-based images, made with red stickers that art dealers use to advise that a work has been sold, humorously signal the passing moment of their availability.

Circles and cycles of consumption are motifs and themes that appear throughout Nolan’s work. A different mode of consumption, however, is flagged in GIVE OR TAKE. Attentive viewers may read the phrase as a commentary on the complex transactions of the commissioning process, as well as a proposition about the activity and function of the library and, by implication, the university itself.

Michael Graf is a Melbourne-based visual artist.

Photo: Andrew Curtis