Iowa Arts Council
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Iowa Arts Council

Artist to Artist: Benjamin Gardner with Noah Doely

The Des Moines artist Benjamin Gardner has a lot of roles. He teaches art and design at Drake University, he has co-taught seminars in Cyprus and Cuba, and he makes multi-disciplinary art that explores everything from memory to mythology to the origins of human culture.

He is also a fan of Noah Doely, an Iowa Arts Council fellow whose solo show is on display through October at the Des Moines Art Center.

Benjamin interviewed Noah and was kind enough to share it here on the Iowa Arts Council blog — in what might be the first of a series featuring artists interviewing artists. (If you have other ideas, let us know.)

Benjamin Gardner, left, and Noah Doely

Benjamin Gardner: I knew about Noah Doely’s work before I met him. This isn’t atypical; I have always been interested and perhaps a bit obsessed with what artists are making, where they are living, and who is showing their work.

Noah’s work resonated with me when I first saw it, though, and now that I’ve spoken with him a few times and have seen a number of his photographs in person, I know he is an artist I will seek out for years to come. In my ninth year of living in Iowa, I am happy to say that the number of artists I follow continues to grow, but Noah’s work stands out as that of an artist investigating interesting and mysterious things. His photographs are something of a paradox, formed by an understanding of certain facets of the artwork along with a sublime ambiguity that leads to more questions and speculations.

I asked Noah if he would discuss some of the particulars of his studio practice in correlation with “Iowa Artists 2019: Noah Doely” at the Des Moines Art Center.

A man with a child on his shoulders views a work of art by artist Noah Doely at the Des Moines Art Center.
Opening exhibition of “Iowa Artists 2019: Noah Doely” at the Des Moines Art Center. (Photo: Brittany Brooke Crow)

BG: One of the things I’ve always taken from your work is a convergence of nature, history, and perception. Do you see these themes, and other content in your work, tying in to your materials and photography in a particular way?

Noah Doely: Though each of my projects involve different sets of variables and ideas, those themes typically intersect. I’m interested in the way that nature is filtered through perception and the role photography plays in that process. I find myself using historic photographic processes in part because of the connotations they possess, as well as how they affect the way subject matter is perceived. I usually begin with an idea and then determine what process or set of tools will best work to convey it. For example, it was important to me with “Above & Below” that I create the images using a pinhole camera because I was thinking about photography in its most basic, primordial form. I wanted to create a connection between the pinhole camera and the cave in part because they possess the same form — light shining through a simple hole into darkness — but also because they share associations related to origins, vision, and illusion.

Untitled #9, an archival pigment print from the series “Above & Below,” 2014, by Noah Doely

BG: I don’t know exactly the best way to word it — I think, for myself, I call it “research” but know that other artists might have different names or labels for it. How do you go about collecting the input that helps generate your artwork?

ND: I engage with research in various ways: reading, listening to lectures, music, and podcasts, watching television and movies, walking in the woods, corresponding and conversing with friends. I often find myself going down internet rabbit holes. I keep notes in my phone to remind me of words, phrases, or images that I come across. The other day my friend’s 5-year-old called a graveyard a “ghost garden.” I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I put it in my notes app. I also take a lot of photos on my phone as visual reminders for myself. If an image or idea keeps nagging at me, I’ll look into it more and that will inevitably lead to additional lines of inquiry. Collecting is also a significant aspect of my practice and I have various personal archives that I’m always adding to. These collections contribute to my work directly or indirectly.

BG: So, can I ask what I think a lot of people would want to know: What pieces of media and culture are you generating ideas from? What music, podcasts, internet threads are you interested in at the moment? Are there great source photographs that you are working from as you develop new projects?

ND: Lately, I’ve been looking at photos of people viewing or engaging with solar eclipses, as well as eclipse-related imagery and ephemera.

I’ve also been accumulating “Wills” cards, which are collectible cards that came in packs of cigarettes during the early 20th century. The cards have fantastic illustrations that feature a variety of subject matter, often related to the natural world.

About a year and a half ago, I came across Deadly Prey Gallery in Chicago on Instagram. They sell hand-painted movie posters from Ghana. These posters originated with the “Ghanaian Mobile Cinema” of the 1980s. They were painted by local artists on flour sacks as a way of advertising films that were being screened via the mobile cinema and arose out of competition between video clubs. The imagery was often more amplified and embellished to draw in more people. Sometimes the artists had not seen the movies before creating the posters, so they would speculate or interpret the films’ content in their own way. They would often incorporate elements or characters that had nothing to do with the movie’s story. Hand-painted Ghanaian movie posters are still produced by artists today, and I’m interested in the ways that forgery and authenticity play a role in that world.

Some of my more recent internet rabbit holes include tulip mania, gravity hill, entopic phenomena, Acasta Gneiss, and unexplained sounds. I was also briefly fascinated by the story of the Garfield the Cat telephones that have been washing up on a beach in northwestern France for the last 30 years. Podcasts and music I’ve been listening to recently include On Being, The Magic Hour, Lexicon Valley, In Our Time, Julianna Barwick, Mary Lattimore, James Blake, and Washington Phillips.

BG: You refer to variables and ideas within your projects. Could you talk a bit more about these and how they develop over the course of a project?

ND: It’s hard to generalize about my process because the work plays out in so many different ways. Sometimes I have a direct line of inquiry, other times I’m following intuitions hoping the pieces will come together somehow. A recent example of the latter: I started collecting globes, not really sure why or where it was going to lead. I think I have close to two dozen by now.

There is usually a significant gap of time between when I get an initial idea and when I actually start executing it, and the original idea usually changes many times before I start creating the work. Frequently, the idea requires me to learn a whole new set of tools and materials. There’s often a question that I’m asking through the process. For instance, what will these cave dioramas look like when I photograph them using a pinhole camera?

I regularly wonder if I’m so close to my process that some of the most significant elements are things I won’t think to mention. For example, how big of a role does the time I spend on eBay every morning play? It’s probably a larger role that I would assume.

In regards to “ghost garden,” I don’t anticipate that that specific concept will play a direct role in a work, but it’s one I want to keep in the archive. Maybe it will be the title of a group show someday. Maybe I’ll read it again years from now and it will spark a thought.

Opening exhibition of “Iowa Artists 2019: Noah Doely” at the Des Moines Art Center. (Photo: Brittany Brooke Crow)

BG: I feel like my relationship as a viewer shifts between your work in a really interesting way. In “Above & Below,” the work at the Des Moines Art Center this summer, there is an empty space for me to enter and explore while your “Cyanotypes” or “The Expanse of a Fact” series invite the viewer to participate more actively, almost as some sort of performance. I engage with the “New Forms” work as though I’m looking through a microscope, too, which is more active in a different sense. Do you typically work on a single project at a time, or is there more fluidity between them? How do you transition between different bodies of work?

ND: Each of my projects causes me to think about different types of vision or different vantage points, and I often consider temporal and physical distance in my work. I’m fond of art that requires the viewer to look more actively, to reflect on the act of looking, or art that somehow destabilizes the assumptions we bring to the viewing experience. With my work, there is frequently a disconnect between what something appears to be and what it is.

It’s common that one project leads directly to another. I’ll learn something along the way that doesn’t really fit what I’m currently working on but that acts as a seed for the next project. With some series, I reach a very definitive endpoint. Others I contribute to over a number of years, often with significant breaks between the work. I usually have one primary body of work in production at any given time, with several others on the periphery. All the while, I continue researching, collecting, and experimenting for potential or future projects.

BG: This description of a disconnect and your process is really beautiful. Are there parts of your studio work and projects that you wish people had a better sense of?

ND: I know there’s always going to be a gap between my personal relationship to the work and what’s experienced by the viewer. It can feel disappointing sometimes when I sense that people are only looking at the “surface” of the work.

However, when something I was thinking about comes through, even to a single individual, it’s satisfying — like a shared secret. I also enjoy instances where viewers have experiences or make connections with the work that I didn’t intend. These are often uniquely fascinating.

If you’d like to suggest other artist-to-artist interviews, please email Michael Morain at michael.morain@iowa.gov.

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