Not Entirely Related: Notes and Speculations on the Recent Art of Isabel Nolan

A hole into the future, 2011, Isabel Nolan, installation view, Musee d'Art Modern St Etienne

A hole into the future, 2011, installation view, Musee d’Art Modern St Etienne

Written for the book accompanying ‘A Hole into the Future’: an exhibition curated by Séamus Kealy and  Lóránd Hegyi for The Model, Sligo and Musée d’art moderne, Saint-Etienne Métropole 2011/2012. The book also included texts by Graham Harman, Seamus Kealy and Isabel Nolan. 


I … have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.

— George Eliot, Middlemarch[i]

Eventually into darkness, 2011
Steel, paint and MDF
object 161 x 67 x 45 cm

Tense overlaps. Anxious points of contact between composite elements. Taut complexity in the interconnection of assembled forms.  A certain gawky poise: singular presence, angular elegance…” Slight, scribbled jottings in my notebook: simple observations made a little while ago in response to an Isabel Nolan sculpture entitled ‘Eventually Into Darkness’.  The notes are somewhat vague, loosely cataloguing an assortment of perceived qualities and potential virtues: “The object has something chaotic about it: a mix-up and pile-up of incomplete, incompatible triangles. But there is also a kind of cat’s-cradle ‘order’ to its intricate matrix of criss-crossing vectors  — a sense of strategy or system in the sculptural experiment. There has been steady, if undoubtedly anxious, deliberation in the making. Surprisingly, too, there is a solidity and ‘certainty’ to the structure. It is made of steel — a significantly sturdier and heavier ‘production’ than many other, earlier I.N. sculptures.  And yet this is not a closed, concluded object (perhaps it is worth asking if this is an object at all?). Unattached tail-ends of the open triangles hang-down or poke-out in mid-air. It is as much a framing of ‘shattered’ space as a modelling of slender materials. (Was it the Young Marble Giants who said of their spare, subdued post-punk sound that ‘you write the gaps as much as you write the music’?) The work shape-shifts as you move around it, casting altering, sloping shadows back onto itself, its lines seeming to be active, jerkily animated. Despite its weight this piece appears as a provisional, precarious thing.”

These hardly-sophisticated half-thoughts represent an initial attempt at concentration — a studied effort to register what is right there in Isabel Nolan’s work.  But when glancing back at my first impressions, it is revealing how quickly these notes on the physical properties of one sculpture — these sketchy remarks on this structure’s skeletal form — begin to stray and sprawl away from the immediate focus of the analysis, associatively spilling over several pages, the darting diagonals of the work itself matched by the lines of connection drawn between disparate ideas and references, multiple arrows marking divergent trajectories of thought. From an initial, unhurried reflection on the characteristics of a single ‘thing’, these notes speedily become speculations on potential correspondences with theories of everything. Italo Calvino once wrote that in the work of his fellow novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda, “the least thing is seen as the centre of a network of relationships that the writer cannot restrain himself from following, multiplying the details so that his descriptions and digressions become infinite”[ii]. Even with the most basic of materials and the most precisely delimited parameters of enquiry, the adventurous, questing imaginative spirit of an artist such as Gadda will seek to create unanticipated connective pathways to possibilities beyond. As Calvino says, “whatever the starting point, the matter in hand spreads out and out, encompassing ever vaster horizons and if it were permitted to go on further and further in every direction it would end by embracing the entire universe.” In a related manner, it seems at certain moments that there is something in the formal open-endedness of Nolan’s art that could make it near-impossible to resist that “tempting range of relevancies called the universe” (the tentative nature of terms selected here – ‘seems’, ‘something’, ‘near-impossible’ — is fretfully intentional: with Isabel Nolan’s work we are in the serious, indistinct realm of the ‘not-quite’). My notes thus carry on, moving rapidly from right here to out there. “How right or wrong is it to combine a recognition of the ‘intelligent design’ underpinning this sculpture (a perversely imprudent designation, given the ardent scientific enthusiasm of I.N.’s ever-inquisitive and always-doubtful practice) with an identification that material accident and causal happenstance have been fundamental shaping forces in the genesis of such beautifully ‘flawed’ creations?  And what should be made of that elliptical title ‘Eventually Into Darkness’? The apparent sadness of its sentiment contrasts with that odd coating of candy-lemon paint — the latter offering an uneasy appeal to lightness that nevertheless softens the tone down from harsh, steely seriousness. Maybe this title memorializes a moment in the sculpture’s emergence, recalling melancholy changes of mind and mood that have affected, or arisen from, the making process; marking, perhaps, a fading of artistic optimism with the slow dimming of a single day’s light.  But the title might also drag our thoughts into a slow drift towards more extreme ‘darkness’. Philip Larkin’s despondent thoughts on death come to mind: ‘the sure extinction that we travel to / and shall be lost in always’ — a ‘darkness’ that is an undeniable human destiny, ‘nothing more terrible, nothing more true’[iii]. Or what if there is a further poetic gesture in the phrasing of the title, one prompted, let’s imagine, by the blunt ‘indifference’ of the applied materials to subjective concerns and ‘expressions’?  Can we here coax out an allusion to a predicament beyond the human, to a foreseeable but unknowable ‘eventual darkness’ that is surely relevant to I.N.’s habitual readings of science fact and science fiction: a prospective predicament that appears as the logical limit of our theories of an expanding universe, an event scheduled for an unimaginably distant date after the exhaustion of our own immodest existence  (beyond indeed, all ‘dates’), an inevitable, terminal moment of cosmic cooling, of complete darkening, of the final disappearance of all light, all life. In passing, J.G. Ballard’s time-travelling astronaut in his short story The Waiting Grounds may be worth introducing here: a man brought to the end of the universe, to the limits of time, where he sees in full the ‘disintegrating matrix of the continuum’, where he is given the mystical ability to comprehend the totality of space as a system ‘no longer able to contain itself’, where he can impossibly occupy a detached viewing position at the moment when the ‘vast energy patterns’ of the precarious cosmos ‘begin to collapse … thrusting outwards huge cataracts of fragmenting energy.’[iv] … And yet, though there are pleasing visual and conceptual correspondences to I.N’s sculpture in these descriptions, this literary link may offer a quite difficult angle of approach, an awkward parallel. Perhaps, then, it will be worth taking these thoughts in a slightly different direction, one that may be pertinent to other recent developments in Nolan’s work, adding that in Ballard’s darkness, the hero also observes the step-by-step reassembly of the system, witnessing the eventual return of light, as out of the darkness ‘the first proto-galactic fields are formed, coalescing to give the galaxies and nebulae, the stars encircled by their planetary bodies.

These re-assembled notebook excerpts  — condensed, clarified, corrected —  emerge out of the remnants of a frantic, uncertain and over-reaching interpretative process — a restless, reckless attempt to make connections, to begin locating meaningful co-ordinates for the work, or more, accurately, to begin following lines of flight made possible by the work. But in rushing for the references, in starting to draw out a range of external and extended relations, is something of the strange, demanding aesthetic intensity and separateness of Nolan’s art undervalued and neglected?  Could it be that these eager first impressions fail to adequately account for the way that her creations disappear into what Graham Harman refers to as an object’s own “dark and concealed reality”?[v] ‘Eventually’, maybe, despite our attention and despite our sometimes elaborate and potentially productive interpretative efforts, the work backs away, withdrawing from us, and from the world of ‘meaning’…


…like an old fashioned pocket watch with its casing open to reveal the moving parts, the … sound would be pared and bare, its meshwork of cogs and spindles exposed in all its intricate distinctiveness … the result was a feel that was dynamic and propulsive yet curiously suppressed, subdued, even furtive.

— Simon Reynolds, liner notes to Colossal Youth by Young Marble Giants[iv]


With shadows all about us, 2011
Steel, silk, cotton thread, MDF, paint
object 134 x 34 x 34 cm

With shadows all about us (detail), 2011
Steel, silk, cotton thread, MDF, paint
object 134 x 34 x 34 cm

Time after time, in initial encounters and in more belated, balanced reflections, Isabel Nolan’s work — with its shifting constellations of sculptures, paintings, drawings, animations, textile works and installations — has given the impression of being formed out of multiple, contradictory urges and requirements.  On occasion, we might sense that several voices — some quietly pleading, puzzled or impulsive; others more rational, controlled and contemplative — must be taken account of together.  Increasingly, it has been clear that this willful contradictoriness, this lively spirit of fraught plurality and paradox, is fundamental. W.B. Yeats once suggested that a poet “is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete”[vii]. Nolan surely refuses such surety in the crafting of her art and in the cultivation of her sense of being ‘an artist’.  But still there are crucial points where we can sense that the ‘accidental’ has vied with the ‘intended’, and where the ‘incoherent’ has clashed with the ‘complete’. Neither pole in this contradiction appears entirely reliable, neither tendency wins out. 

As we particularly find with the range of extraordinary sculptures that have already begun to be considered here, one component pair in the set of antinomies that shapes Nolan’s practice is a disconcerting combination of centrifugal and centripetal forces. There is a steady drawing of things together into tightly-held, highly idiosyncratic arrangements that are generally resistant to precise identification with pre-existing points of reference in the world (tellingly, one recent work is entitled Holding It In). And simultaneously, there is an explosive or more measured opening out: an exposure to the unpredictability of proliferating possibilities of contact. Instincts towards ‘intactness’ and inwardness exist in an ongoing negotiation with more extroverted energy.  This wound-up to-ing and fro-ing between artistic impulses in Nolan’s work is especially evident in a recent sculptural predilection for meticulously dressing looping, swirling metal shapes  — thick and wiry modellings of industrial material — with glistening silk covers, intricately embroidered sleeves that clasp the structure tightly, ‘holding’ it and lightening its manufactured heaviness with handicraft delicacy.  With Shadows All About Us (2011), for example, is a carefully balanced and orderly bundle of self-contained, curling steel, perfectly bound with stitched, navy fabric.  Future Thing (again 2011) is a much larger but ‘looser’ metallic doodle also given a shimmering, silvery, silky make-over; it is a shape that resembles, from certain angles, a barely legible, joined-up-but-collapsing capital ‘M’, or from certain others, a scribbled bird or butterfly cartoon — and at the same time it looks very little like any of these mixed ‘matches’.  In such pieces the hard-soft dynamic established through the connection of the unlike materials creates a seductive, bewitching aesthetic intensity. So it is, first of all maybe, the contained, internal tensions that intrigue. There is, of course, a fetishistic weirdness to some of these silk-on-steel forms: stitched-up slinkiness adding curiously freaky and finalizing off-kilter glamour to ‘held’ results of formal striving that — in the case of a work such as Future Thing, or its positively salacious Ballardian near-twin Kiss the Machine — give the worried impression of not being quite ready for their costumes.

Future thing, 2011
Steel, silk, linen, embroidery silk and thread
object 148 x 146 x 93 cm

But Nolan may also be interested in less readily comprehensible effects arising from the forging of these close material relationships. Something of what these objects ‘are’ seems hidden from us — a notion that she toys with a little more directly in a recent work such as Colourhole, a skinny hexagonal metal ‘table’ covered completely with a black-fabric mesh that appears to us as a blankly dressed, ordinary (and barely useful) thing, but that contains on the usually concealed underside of its soft, dark surface a dazzling multi-coloured spiral. This skillfully embroidered coil of shining thread is only visible to those who happen to look below, and when thus discovered it either leads our eye deeper ‘into’ the sculpture, or we see it emanating glorious, destabilizing plurality ‘outwards’ from within the heart of this otherwise monochromatically solemn sculptural form.  To a profound degree, such sculptures signal Nolan’s interest in stubbornly obscure, enigmatic things; they speak of introverted, obstinately reticent artistic convictions.

Colourhole, 2011, Isabel Nolan, steel, fabric, embroidery thread and thread, 76 x 40 x 35 cm

Colourhole, 2011, steel, fabric, embroidery thread and thread, 76 x 40 x 35 cm

Nevertheless in important ways even Nolan’s most tight-lipped works are presented in a manner that might suggest their associative continuation across the surface of the world. We can gradually see them as ‘held-in’ but not quite self-contained. In this respect, a crucial characteristic of the recent sculptures is the use of distinctive plinths — steadying, simple MDF cuboids or strictly minimal tables that single out each individual sculpture for special attention and simultaneously connect, extend, and often also (through the use of an added top layer of toughened glass) reflect back the privileged, ‘primary’, raised-up form. The vital presence of these plinths — bluntly visible but under ordinary circumstances functionally ‘invisible’ objects — can of course be meaningfully contextualized by enduring art historical questions concerning sculpture’s place in the world: questions arising, that is, in the modernist moment when art began to absorb the supporting pedestal into its own increasingly abstracted forms, cutting itself off from literal attachment to location and instead aspiring towards the exploration of idealist space. A corollary of this movement was a further shift in the direction of new realms of aesthetic uncertainty, an eventual drift into ontological darkness: as Rosalind Krauss has famously written, “modernist sculpture appeared as a kind of black hole in the space of consciousness, something whose positive content was hard to define, something that was possible to locate only in terms of what it was not.”[viii] Nolan’s works are not necessarily formal interrogations of this pivotal problem in modern art, but they may be seen as intensifying related doubts, approaching corresponding event-horizons of meaning.  Each object involves a network of close but troubled internal relations, while also requiring intimate physical contact with another associated object. There seems an impossible pairing of a penetrating drive inwards and an incessant dispersal outwards. As we see these works staged within the wider, integrated installation formats that Nolan has on occasion conceived of for exhibitions — numerous versions of the ‘plinth-plus-object’ sculptures brought together in neatly arranged, museum-like combinations (these collections generally being complemented by works in other media that provide, in part, a ‘backdrop’ of other anxious and expansive aesthetic propositions) — a situation of acknowledged alliance and encouraged comparison between these forms is created, the works becoming illuminated by their relationships, and increasingly allusive through their considered juxtaposition. At the same time, however, these communities of curious constructions, these unrecognizable things, still surely seem to us adamantly isolated, inscrutably mute phenomena — even gathered as a group they keep themselves to themselves, taking part in a system of relations that might make us think (to borrow again from Graham Harman) of “the world itself quantized or broken into discrete chunks”[ix], each element resisting our instinctive attempts to position it definitely within a network of possible meaning, each encountered object remaining resolutely alien.


Any attempt to describe space adequately must concede that space involves the relation of objects that do not entirely relate… Space itself is the mutual exteriority of objects and their partial contact with images of one another,however this might occur. Then space is not relations, but the tension between objects and their relations

 — Graham Harman, ‘Space, Time, and Essence: An Object Oriented Approach'(2008)[x]

Among the many recent points of departure for Nolan’s work, one important reference is Arkady and Boris Strugastky’s 1971 science fiction novel Roadside Picnic. Perhaps best known itself as an inspiration, insofar as the novel subsequently provided the narrative fundamentals of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, the Strugastkys’ story is set in the era of transformation and confusion that comes in the wake of an alien spacecraft’s visit to earth.  Areas affected by this momentous but brief visitation have not only become ‘zones’ of indeterminate ontological status — the aliens’ passing presence seeming to have altered the essential conditions of natural, physical reality in certain newly charged locations, the extra-terrestrial contact with the planet thus also having created spaces of tantalizing mystical appeal — but these terrains are also found to be littered with mysterious objects, remnants of the alien encounter with earth, some of which show signs of being extremely hazardous or wondrously powerful.  These objects are studied with care and fascination, but their ‘meaning’ and true purpose remains unclear. And yet, in the view of one character, the physicist Dr. Valentine Pillman, these unfathomable things are indeed the result of a literal littering of the earth: his theory about these object’s compelling presence being that they are the scattered leftovers from an interplanetary ‘roadside picnic’ — they are merely the trash tossed away by travelers pausing during a long journey across the galaxy, junk strewn casually across a planetary pit-stop that has for these extraordinary strangers no specific value or significance. So understood, these objects may have no special import as gifts, messages or markers, and they might not hide profound secrets — they are nothing more than meaningless detritus, discarded by a civilization utterly indifferent to the presence of our own.

Here, then, are things that have “arrived in the world intact”[xi], and yet they are utterly impenetrable, entirely resistant to us, because, in one sense, we are irrelevant to them. In Nolan’s work, the influence of such fictional marvels therefore connects with her desire to make largely unfamiliar things, to resist the urge to amend the given meanings that might be associated, for instance, with readymades. Instead, she chooses to invent ‘found objects’ that have had no previous life, that are evocative and resonant, but without denotative or connotative clarity. Vivien Rehberg has recently written well of the various ways in which contemporary artists have sought to draw our attention to “the hidden lives of objects”, suggesting that as “our cultural and physical landscape is manifestly littered with objects … a restored intellectual depth and emotional charge, even if it is constructed, could be the necessary condition for objects to survive in our imaginations”[xii].  Commenting on current practices that are concerned, in particular, with the continuing conceptual efficacy of the readymade, Rehberg notes that “the most constructive approaches are those that keep a critical and contextualizing eye on the aesthetic and historical matrices in which the object is, and has been, situated.”  Yet this approach to objects — centering on processes of “researching, reconstructing and re-interpreting” — may lead us only part of the way to renewed or adjusted artistic understandings of our ‘littered’ world. There may be further, equal and opposite potential to be found in art that gestures beyond these agreed matrices of meaning, that resists the familiar, or even less familiar, codifications of things. It is surely important to stress, as Harman says, a “tension between objects and their relations”. Here and there in Nolan’s work we experience this precise, uncannily discomfiting tension at different levels of intensity. But it is perhaps within the meltingly ambiguous visions of her paintings that we feel the related gravitational force of intelligibility most acutely. In Nolan’s semi-abstract “descriptions of space”, we often edge closer to known things, identifying recognizable and comprehensible relations to the world, sometimes therefore perceiving within these hazy realms shadowy traces of the manifold source-subjects that so richly inform the ongoing investigations of her art.

Something special in remembrance 1881, 2009
Watercolour and waterbased oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm

Sad time 1862, 2009, Watercolour and waterbased oil on canvas, 30 x 40 cm

Sad time 1862, 2009, Watercolour and waterbased oil on canvas, 30 x 40 cm

Figures make fleeting, spectral appearances. Landscapes, and fragments of the natural world, are granted fitful form. There are conceptually specific but visually ‘insubstantial’ art historical citations, including, for example, hypnagogic recollections of the work of Edgar Degas or Jan Matejko in paintings such as Something Special in Remembrance, 1881 (2009) or Sad Time 1862 (2009). Often too, stellar objects hover on the horizon of comprehensibility, several paintings from recent years such as Miracle of the Sun, 1 & 2 (both 2008), Another Moon (2010) or Time in the Other Place (2011) highlighting chromatically resonant orbs within luminous sky-scapes of watercolour flux. The titles of this latter cluster of paintings help, of course, to provide points of meaningful reference, alluding (however obscurely) to aspects of content that have become solidly sustained in Nolan’s art — content that concerns, in part and on occasion, scientific speculation on the problematic gravitational adjacency of heavenly bodies, or to put this differently, that responds to the immense tensions between distinct objects, forces that either allow the restless systems of outer space to achieve balance or to catastrophically collapse.

As we detect the presence and relevance of such steadying references and supporting background stories, it is always the case, however, that reassuring ‘details’ remain slight, slippery, not quite tangible. What we see, or think we see, appears nascent, not yet established as a sure ‘connection’: the deliquescent ‘zones’ of her paintings combining glinting, near-psychedelic allusions to things in the world, while also remaining at a remove from reality.  Nolan foregrounds forms and ideas that are, maybe, only approaching definitive existence in her imagination, so leaving generous space for the emergence of other, independent but inter-linked and unimagined worlds as we ourselves encounter the various elements of her work — just as, perhaps, Ballard’s astronaut in ‘The Waiting Grounds’ observes “proto-galactic fields … coalescing to give the galaxies and nebulae, the stars encircled by their planetary bodies.”


[i] George Eliot, Middlemarch (London: Pengiun Classics, 1994), p.141

[ii] Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (London: Penguin Classics, 2009), p.107. All further references are to this edition.

[iii] Philip Larkin, ‘Aubade’ in Collected Poems, edited by Anthony Thwaite (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), p.208

[iv] J.G. Ballard, ‘The Waiting Grounds’ in Collected Stories: Volume One (London: Harper Perennial, 2006). All further references are to this edition.

[v] Graham Harman, ‘Objects, Matter, Sleep and Death’ in Towards Speculative Realism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2010), p.201

[vi] Simon Reynolds, ‘Liner Notes’, for Young Marble Giants, Colossal Youth and Collected Works (Domino Records, 2007)

[vii] W.B. Yeats, The Major Works, ed. Edward Larrissy (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2001) p. 379

[viii] Rosalind Krauss, ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ October, Vol. 8. (Spring, 1979), p.34.

[ix] Harman, Towards Speculative Realism, p. 200

[x] Harman, ‘Space, Time, and Essence: An Object Oriented Approach’ (2008), in Towards Speculative Realism, p.162

[xi] Grant Watson has written that Eva Rothschild’s sculptures often look as if they have “arrived in the world intact”, while also being about the creation of “distortions … kinks and gaps in the normal fabric of things and how we perceive them.” See Grant Watson, Eva Rothschild (Dublin: Douglas Hyde Gallery, 2005), p. 29.

[xii] Vivian Rehberg, ‘Object Relations’, Frieze, Issue 132, June-August 2010

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