Rose Nolan by Sally Foster

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

It’s not good to worry about space 2008 comprises two large hessian banners painted with the words IT’S NOT GOOD TO WORRY and ABOUT SPACE. Written boldly in red capitals against a white background, the banners, measuring eight and six metres long respectively, spell out in explicit terms Rose Nolan’s signature look and statement of intent. Speaking to the history of modernism and the situational practicalities of exhibiting art, Nolan’s large‑scale banners are constructed to be seen and read within the architectural spaces of the gallery.

Establishing her practice in the mid‑1980s, Nolan belongs to a generation of Australian artists who grappled with what being an artist meant in the wake of the end of the belief in the idea of an artistic avant‑garde. While drawn to the romance found in the radical claims modernism made for art—and the lifestyles modern artists made for themselves—artists such as Nolan were also cognisant that it was no longer tenable to believe in modernism’s ability to deliver on its promises to remake the world in its own progressive image. Embarking on a practice that used what was readily at hand (pragmatism) rather than what lay beyond reach (utopia), Nolan looked back in recognition to the distant and heroic Russian avant‑garde as the example par‑excellence of what modern art, even as it joined forces with politics and industry, had once aspired to—the creation of culture, community and identity through a commitment to art and social transformation.(1)

Over the course of three decades Nolan has divided her work into five categories: Banners, Constructed Work, Flatwork, Homework and Word Work.(2) Cultivating a hands‑on, homemade and self‑referential practice, Nolan places a premium on the visible materiality, or tactile composition, of the things she makes— demonstrated literally in her long‑term preference for using rough‑hewn materials such as hessian. Employing the bold typography, simplified geometric design and programmatic approach of Russian Suprematism and Constructivism, Nolan replaces Kazimir Malevich’s ‘supremacy of artistic feeling’ with the post‑1960s western European language of self‑help and positive affirmation, in banners that call for recognition rather than revolution. By claiming gallery floor space and getting in the way of the gallery‑goer, large‑scale works such as It’s not good to worry about space speak to Nolan’s desire for her work to be seen in public, at the same time as she gives voice to what it looks like to navigate the crowded cultural spaces in which art jostles for attention today.

(1) See Chris McAuliffe, ‘Help me do things differently’, in Rose Nolan: Work in progress #3, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, 2002, pp2–3.

(2) See Rose Nolan and Max Delany, Rose Nolan, Arts Victoria, Melbourne, 2001 and Michael Graf, ‘Why does she do the things she does: Rose Nolan 2008’, in Blair French and Robert Leonard (eds), Rose Nolan: Why do we do the things we do, Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Sydney and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2009, pp12–22

SALLY FOSTER is Curator, International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Rose Nolan appears in

  • The Book

    With more than 150 artists profiled, the Know My Name book celebrates art by women from across Australia.