An Interview with Louise Noguchi

March 2, 2014 at 12:50 pm

by David Fujino
January 2014

Compilation Portrait 16Since 1981, Louise Noguchi’s art has been challenging viewers in Toronto and beyond with the provocative, psychological questions it asks. Louise has exhibited nationally and internationally and has an MFA from the University of Windsor and an AOCA from OCA (Ontario College of Art) in Toronto. Currently, Louise is a Professor in the Art and Art History Program, a joint program between Sheridan College and the University of Toronto Mississauga,where she teaches photography and performance-based art. Louise has been represented by the Birch Libralto Gallery of Toronto for several years. Of course, I have my personal favourites when it comes to Louise Noguchi’s art — favourites like the photo-based, B&W woven photo, “Compilation Portrait 16”.
Photo: “Compilation Portrait 16”.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Louise Noguchi

The above portrait was exhibited in 1995 at Cold City Gallery in Toronto. The artist cut up her photo image and the photo image of a murderer (Jeffrey Dahmer) into separate strips, and then she interwove her face into the face of the murderer to come up with a compilation portrait. While Noguchi’s woven picture is an uncertain blur of different identities, genders, and races, it also inserts the artist into the work in the role of a spectator of police photos in newspapers and on TV. The exhibit of the Compilation Portraits was a terrific viewing experience that left you thinking.

Another favourite is Noguchi’s ritualistic video, Crack (2002), in which a cowboy’s bull whip decapitates a white flower, with one crack; this piece certainly has a ‘haiku-like brevity’, but it also shifts the meaning of cowboy culture and history from historical entertainment to something ritualistic, meditative, and based on chance — and that’s the art of it. Further, by enlarging the image, the artist evoked the popular appeal of the close-up in cinema, yet by projecting it onto a gallery wall, the fine art traditions of paintings and mural paintings were clearly invoked.

The interview which follows is not meant to cover most aspects of the artist’s career: I’m interested in the artist, as well as the art. The following interview was conducted over email.

Let me ask you this — in the year 2013, has the social and artistic status of a female artist remained the same, or has it changed?
When I compare the social status of a career in art today, being an artist (female or male) is considered a much more respectable profession than when I first started out as a visual artist. However, I’m not sure if you are questioning if the status of a female artist in relationship to a male artist has changed. If this is what you are asking, comparing artistic status is a difficult thing to measure, although a friend of mine pointed out that you just have to count how many solo shows are being awarded to the two sexes: mostly men are given solo exhibitions, while works by women are more often exhibited in group exhibitions. I guess the best indicator is to look at what our major institutions are exhibiting and decide for yourself.

If you’ve got some time off, with only a few teaching duties, and no art show to put together, what do you like to do?
I’m going to be very boring in telling you that I like looking at things, particularly art, but I also like looking at objects, plants, landscapes or experiencing anything that has visual appeal for me. My mother always pointed out things that she thought were beautiful to her. She finds a lot of pleasure in looking at things and appreciating what she sees of interest and this was passed on to me. Although, I think my artwork is more concept based than this, so maybe the pleasure of looking at things substitutes for an urge to create work that is aesthetically based.

You’ve been teaching art at Sheridan College for some time now, haven’t you? … What made you go into teaching?
Yes, I have taught at Sheridan in the Art and Art history program for thirteen years now. I first started teaching over twenty years ago at OCA. This happened when I was asked by my former teachers to interview for a teaching job in sculpture. The request came out of the blue, but I was thrilled to be asked because I very much admired the teachers who taught me when I was at the college. They always made it seem so effortless in the way they balanced their professional careers with their teaching. I now know it’s not such an easy thing to do!

Do you believe in artist-run galleries?
In the late 1970s and 80s, artist-run galleries were the best places to see the most current work by contemporary artists, whereas the museums and many of the commercial galleries often lagged behind. During that time period, artists did not want to be represented by commercial galleries or to be approved by the museum. Now, museums, commercial galleries and private institutions are curating the types of exhibitions that artist-run galleries once did, while artist-run galleries seem to be suffering from lack of new funding. It is important to have a mix of galleries: collaborative, in dependent, commercial, public and artist-run galleries. There is a diversity of work that can be seen in each of these venues and they each contribute to the art community in different ways.

Would you name some qualities a person should have if they’re going to set off on a career in art?
This is a difficult question to answer because all sorts of qualities can be utilized in a career in art. I’ll just tell you about a teacher I had in junior high school, who gave our class some advice. He thought that people, who decided at a young age, what career they wanted to pursue, were the happiest and most successful adults. I thought about it and decided that I would become an artist and directed my interests towards this. Essentially, I don’t think you need any special qualities to have a career in art, just a strong desire or drive, and a good understanding of what you want to pursue. This is true for any career.

Is art a worthwhile part of society?
I guess you are putting me in the position of having to defend art, so I’ll say — yes it is. Okay, no it isn’t … If art were a worthwhile part of society, it wouldn’t be as interesting.

I hear you like going to Las Vegas. Sources tell me that you and your husband have gone to Las Vegas a few times.
My husband and I like to hike in the desert landscapes and canyons around Utah and Arizona. Las Vegas happens to be the cheapest place to fly into and to rent a car to get to the desert. The only time that I specifically went to Las Vegas was when I went to videotape “II Momento LV”, which depicts people riding in gondolas on the simulated canals of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. It was interesting to watch people on the gondolas seeking the type of romantic fantasy that Hollywood portrays of Venice, Italy.

Do you think you’ll ever retire from a career in art-making?
Many years ago I had an art dealer who would not return my work. It took several years with a lawyer to finally get some of my work returned. During this time period, I questioned the idea of being an artist and decided to not continue making art because of this unfortunate experience. Eventually, I found myself wanting to create work  again and I joined the artist-collective Cold City Gallery. When I resumed, I decided that I would never stop making art again or stop calling myself an artist, because I would probably change my mind and to do so would be a waste of time. As I age, I know that my production of making art will slow down, but I doubt I will ever stop making work.

What’s your greatest strength?
Greatest strengths can also be greatest weaknesses because you often rely too much on what you think your strength is. I would say that a sense of curiosity and stubbornness are my two strengths.

Do you have an opinion about the art of the last twenty years?
Whoa, such a big question! I don’t really have an opinion on this, but I’m always excited to see how art keeps changing to reflect the social and political changes in the world. Having said that — generally speaking, it seems that part of the art world is focused on the increased demand created by collectors. The desirable art object is in more demand than ever before. On the other hand, there is also work that takes into account the social, economic and ecological issues in the world and questions the making of more objects. Of course there are many other directions in art at the moment, but it is definitely a more pluralistic universe than it was in the past, and I would have to say this is probably true for all the arts.

Who are some of your greatest artistic influences?
I like the work by many different artists. But to answer your question, I’m going to refer to a quote by Joseph Kosuth, which I use in my teaching philosophy, “the strongest artists have their why before they have their how. It is about having one’s why and realizing that everyone else’s how won’t do; and the continuing search for a personal how that directly answers and relates to this why.” I came across this quote after practising art for many years and I found it had a lot of resonance to the way that I also think about making work. If you start off thinking about what your work will look like, instead of why you are making the work, you will be influenced too much by the work of others. That’s not to say that I don’t have influences, it’s just hard enough to find your own voice when making art.

Please talk about performance-based art. What is it? When did it start? Is it comparable to theatre, tv, film, and video?
“Performance-Based Art” is the name of a course that I helped to develop. We came up with the name to describe work that could be related to Performance Art. The class was more broadly based than just Performance Art, which some people may see as being based in the 1960s idea of this art form. We wanted the course to introduce and discuss ideas related to Performance Art such as Cindy Sherman’s photographs, sound work by John Cage, along with discussing the history of Relational Aesthetics, Gutai Group, Situationist International, Mail Art, to contemporary ideas that use ideas of global connectivity and the internet. With these discussions, students would then make studio work with knowledge of these past tendencies in art. We have since redesigned the course and titled it Video Sound Performance, in order to reflect the different media that students explore in the course.

How big a part does daydreaming play in your art?
Funny you should ask this. One of my grade school teachers wrote on my report card, “Louise spends too much time in class daydreaming.” I think the best time to daydream is at night, just before you go to sleep. Ideas have a way of merging together during this period and you get interesting results that you can’t get when you are fully conscious. I still daydream.

For more information about Louise Noguchi, please visit her website: