On Jim Nolan and Welcome Stranger, by Sally Glass

 

Jim Nolan is a wild guy to know. He’s the type that you can tell has been around the block a few times, but isn’t loud about it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Totally measured, with a quiet humor that once accessed is completely fucking hilarious and makes sense in a way that you couldn’t know existed before you got the joke. He’s almost too cool to boot, but never to the point of exclusion. Everyone is invited that cares to inquire. Take his favorite tattoo he ever saw, for example, belonging to a uncle of his friend in Virginia, on whose shoulder was scrawled, “CRY HERE”. This dry, intuitive wit is a theme that carries over not only to the work in Welcome Stranger, but the title, the venue, the publication, and all other encompassing aspects. The show itself takes its name from the Joe Strummer song Bindhi Bhagee, in which the protagonist meets a wayward traveler and attempts to describe what his music sounds like. For Nolan, the work in this exhibition is how he manifests his own response to that question.

 

There aren’t many moments in which I find myself where I simply understand; everything makes sense, requiring little to no peripheral struggle to grasp. Beginning with the first time I occupied Jim’s studio, I was able to reach this understanding. Appropriately for this essay, I happened to be the one on hand to welcome Mr. Nolan the day he arrived at CentralTrak for his 3-month residency in early 2013. Upon first meeting, I could tell we weren’t quite sure what to make of one another—me putting on my best bubbly, hospitable host; he the road-weary newcomer. However, the instant I stepped into his space after he settled in, there was a recognition. I sensed the wryness, the matter-of-factness with which he treats his materials, the mining and archiving of images, as well as musical and art references. It was all in there, and so resonated with me especially because it was the exact page I happened to be on in my own art practice as a graduate student and resident. We coalesced so quickly in fact, that not even a month after his arrival, he volunteered to assist me in installing the first exhibition I ever curated, in which I ended up putting a few of his sculptures. We later collaborated on work for a residency exchange exhibition at Lawndale Art Center, and Jim was the major catalyst that sparked my relocation to Houston with his fellow resident at the time, Emily Peacock, after completing my MFA in 2014. Emily and I even moved into the actual home that he and his wife, artist Linda Post, were leaving to live full-time in Nacogdoches, where she is a tenured Professor at Stephen F. Austin University.

 

Within Welcome Stranger and his practice as a whole, Nolan usually begins working from artistic traditions, as seen earlier in his series of restroom stall dividers after Warhol’s “piss paintings,” which suggest urine as a gesture. Around the time he was dabbling in these, Nolan developed what he likes to call his “alcohol by volume” paintings, for which he’d “get a little drunk and channel [his] inner abstract expressionist.” When I ask what his relationship to painting is, he replies that he’s always somewhat trying to make a painting or a drawing without really doing so. He opts instead to make a sculpture of a painting rather than a painting of a sculpture, as he demonstrates with landscape painting. “Having a background in film,” he relates, “I took one painting class in college and I was just baffled by how you even begin to paint: How do you pick a color? How do you pick a subject?” But what did make sense was that most of the painters that he was interested in were really using sculptural techniques, like Blinky Palermo, Ad Reinhardt, and Imi Knoebel.

 

With regard to his own materials, Nolan embraces a Cage-ian methodology, limiting himself to using items or images found in his immediate vicinity, like faux wood surfaces or camouflage tarpoline, that which he is able to purchase at the 99 cent store, or fabricate and order online, due to his currently isolated location. Beer bottles and cans are always in the mix; a nod to influences like Jasper Johns and Cady Noland. But if you thought that the quotidian or on-hand elements were frivolously chosen for convenience, you’d be mistaken. Each move or gesture or choice of material has several reasons behind its use, regularly having been saved for months or even years until Nolan finds the proper moment to employ it. The images printed on the blankets, wood planks, and beer bottles used in This Is Not A Metaphor, for instance, date back to his original stay at CentralTrak now nearly three years ago. He may be an undercover comedian, but his set up is never arbitrary. His references are an amalgam of art history, music, and personal taste, however they shift according to the function and evolution of each piece. “I have a lot of different influences that aren’t necessarily art-related,” says Nolan, “ [and] most of them are music.” This particular attachment is expanded upon by friend Jeff Byrd’s composition, which provides the soundtrack to Welcome Stranger. “Since I always blast music when I'm working in my studio,” Nolan explains, “it doesn't seem right to look at my work in silence.” And because galleries can tend towards the reverential, he wants the pieces to be grounded in their own aura as if anyone could have made them. Nolan prefers to create each object so it appears that none has originated from the same artist, each one a riff (another musical term) on the one before.

 

Nolan’s sculptures more often than not originate from images, sometimes exploited repeatedly across time and throughout different works. Those images are then abstracted into physical form. Take for example Pinto Beans, which started as a photograph that Nolan found absurd and has used for many years, its individual aesthetic elements extrapolated into an almost cubist reconstruction of itself. Like a mirror on either side, a vertically fixed circular pane of glass, after the wet ground, protrudes into and dissects the bucket and sign as seen in the photograph affixed on both faces of the glass. Or in solid state revisited, with its actually moldy plaster speakers and non-operational wires set on a platform of broken mirrors, a reflection of the choreographed streams of water depicted in the tapestry hanging on the wall just behind. For Nolan, herein lies a dichotomy between softness and hardness, a visual representation of failed potential. There is something about this emphasis on failure that is intrinsic to Nolan’s particular combination of humor and poignancy. He prioritizes wrongness. “You know, I want things to be wrong,” he says, “but that work… in their wrongness.” Part of this tendency comes from Nolan’s idea to simply let the materials “do what they’re gonna do.” In lifting the curtain, he covered over a mistake left in the printed fabric with a piece of tape, which in his view actually improved the composition more than reprinting the image would have. “So it’s a found painting, a found opportunity.”

 

The connections within the work are numerous and synchronous —artistic and personal, material and conceptual. The collaborative energy extends still into the studio. There I find myself engaged in a conversation with Nolan about moving certain objects around, and suddenly we are re-negotiating a piece together. On top of a bucket in the corner of his studio, a strobe light flickers from behind drop cloths pulled taut over stretcher bars built specifically to be shone through. Nolan decides to switch out the old, crackling strobe with a newer, streamlined model, but it doesn’t create the same dynamic effect. “You might need that old shitty one, man,” I offer, amused. We step back from the conglomeration of parts, cocking our heads to the side, acknowledging its potential state of closer-to-being-finished-ness. It’s a satisfyingly funny and natural place to be for any artist, collaborator, or person that began as one, but is a stranger no longer. Welcome anyway.

Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros Bhindi Bhagee 

 

Well, I was walking down the high road
And this guy stops me
He'd just got in from New Zealand
And he was looking for mushy peas
I said, no, we hadn't really got 'em round here
I said, but we do got

Balti, bhindi, strictly Hindi
Dall, halal and I'm walking down the road
We got rocksoul, okra, Bombay duck ra
Shrimp beansprout, comes with it or without, with it or without

Bagels soft or simply harder
Exotic avocado or toxic empenada
We got akee, lassi, somali waccy baccy
I'm sure back home you know
What tikka's all about, what tikka's all about

Welcome stranger to the humble neighborhoods
You can get inspiration along the highroad

Hommus, cous, cous in the jus of octopus
Pastrami and salami and lasagne on the go
Welcome stranger, there's no danger
Welcome to this humble neighborhood

There's balti, bhindi, strictly Hindi
Dall, halal and I'm walking down the road
Rocksoul, okra, Bombay duck ra
Shrimp beansprout, comes with it or without

So anyway, I told him I was in a band
He said, "Oh yeah, oh yeah, what's your music like?"
I said, "It's um, um, well, it's kinda like
You know, it's got a bit of, um, you know"

Ragga, bhangra, two step tanga
Mini-cab radio, music on the go
Um, surfbeat, backbeat, frontbeat, backseat
There's a bunch of players and they're really letting go

We got, Brit pop, hip-hop, rockabilly, lindy hop
Gaelic heavy metal fans, fighting in the road
Ah, Sunday boozers, for chewing gum users
They got a crazy DJ and she's really letting go

Oh, welcome stranger


Welcome stranger to the humble neighborhoods

Well, I said, "There's plenty of places to eat"
He said, "Oh yeah, I'm pretty choosy"

You got balti, bhindi, strictly Hindi
Dall, halal, walking down the road
Rocksoul, okra, Bombay duck ra
Shrimp beansprout, comes with it or without
Just check it out

Welcome stranger to the humble neighborhoods
Neighborhoods, check out all that

Por da sol, por da sol
Walking down the high road

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