Ihor Holubizky, McMaster Museum of Art


sterrenstof is the Dutch word for “stardust” and the title of one of the two exhibition components in this installation of new work by John Noestheden. The work continues the artist’s interest in the cosmos and origins, as it reflects upon our sense of being in the “order of things,” and an historical and ongoing fascination with the stars.

Noestheden has also used the term “thinking space”—literally and figuratively—and considers how these thoughts can be activated.  He wrote in his on-going journal, “I have constructed a realm of elusive enchantment by presenting an experience about time, place, future and immanence.” Early in the development process, Noestheden visited the Museum to examine the gallery site and space in order to direct his work in a site-responsive way. The work on sterrenstof (but titled later)—two related monochromatic paintings—was undertaken quickly as he had already been developing comparable works, although on a much smaller scale. The decision was made to do “black paintings” composed of an equal number of horizontal lines (passes of paint).  He did considerable research and chose Williamsburg paint because of its stability and longevity. The brush he chose was a 1” (2.54 cm) wide, and measured to 108 horizontal lines for the entire height of the canvases, and which resonated with the gallery wall.  The width of the canvases, 213 cm each (7 feet), was determined by a practical consideration; it was the maximum clearance through his studio door.

The ground was done with two full passes using acrylic Bone Black, recommend by a Williamsburg chemist. Noestheden then applied two passes of ¼” (6.35 mm) thick Ivory Black oil. The final passes extend beyond the edges of the canvas; the lines take on a “life of their own” and as Noestheden wrote, “Life is a horizontal trajectory. Horizontal speaks of tilled fields, waves on water, return to the earth, etc.”

After completing the sterrenstof works, Noestheden searched references for the number 108 and uncovered numerous facts. Some were amusing: 108 is the number of stitches in a major league regulation baseball. Others are engrained in cultural beliefs: it is sacred number for several Eastern religions, representing a belief in the universe that embraces the apparent contradictions of “the one” (unity) emptiness, and infinity.  The latter did not confirm his number choice, but offered convergence, and as he said, “My most effective tool as an artist is intuition.” This is also reflected in his journal notes (the progress of thinking), and two excerpts from 2012-13

                  I have complicated my own expectations about the nature of painting—how it operates in the               world and evolves over time.

                  Despite carefully composed conceptual parameters, the paintings remain enigmatic due to painting’s ability to capture more than can be anticipated. Appearance is deceptive. There are                 phenomena present that can only be revealed by painting. [1]

“By painting,” Noestheden is also referring to the act of painting because his practice continues to engage a range of two and three-dimensional medium, and altered and rectified objects. Invariably there is a perceptual outcome, how material behaves and appearances shift, and with sterrenstof, not unlike looking at the night sky. Over the course of the exhibition development, Noestheden and I spoke about our mutual interest in the work of American artist Robert Irwin (born 1928).  In some respects, his work is radically different—Irwin does not produce studio work per se—but they share a way of thinking that is an essential part of their respective practices. Noestheden loaned me a book on Irwin. I discovered underlined resonant passages and my attention was drawn to them while reading.  One section is Irwin describing a mid-1960s intervention done in the American Mojave desert:

                  It’s a place where you can go along…and nothing seems to be happening [but suddenly] it takes          on an almost magical quality.

                  I’m not talking about some sort of spiritual or mystical activity.

                  The mark [I made] was a distraction; it was [really] about me, about my identity, my discovery.

                  You have perceived…yourself perceiving.[2]

In another passage, Noestheden altered a term, to bring Irwin’s thoughts to himself:

                  The central concern of all these installations [paintings] has been their presence [and that] any              descriptive report of their character or intention necessarily betrays their essential nature.[3]

In the “more descriptive,” single canvas work Burnham Volume 1, Noestheden harvested scientific data from astronomer Robert Burnham Jr.’s Celestial Handbook (and by coincidence first published about the time of Irwin’s desert sojourns).  Burnham wrote that the appeal of astronomy is both intellectual and aesthetic but “also offers the privilege…of adding something to the knowledge and understanding of man [and the privilege] of being…in the presence of the original.”[4] Noestheden, however, is doing more than transcribing data, as he noted in correspondence: 

                  I bought the first three-volume paperback set realizing that there was something I could do with          those pages of celestial mappings. Each book became a composite map drawing, for            compression and collapse. The Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxies are heading toward       imminent collision in about four billion years. These maps could then serve as visualizations of     the last sublime, and individual stars photographed by Burnham could be transformed into   photocopier mediated inventions extracted from all manner of star guides. 

                  Burnham's work offered an opportunity for representing our collective destiny. That collective               destiny is physically invested into the paint surfaces.

If there is no adherence to empirical science in his work, there is a paralleling precision through which Noestheden “imaginates” data and origins.  Irwin also commented on the relationship between art and science:

                  I really feel…that certain questions become demanding and potentially answerable at a certain            point in time, and that everyone involved on a particular level of asking questions, whether… a physicist or a philosopher or an artist, is essentially involved in the same questions.  They are universal in that sense [but through] a different methodology…so that when we find these so-called accidental interrelationships between art and science…they’re not accidental at all. [5]

Noestheden activates interrelationships in other ways, with unseen “embellishments” and fictitious alterations to data, which he describes with a particular glee and fascination.  Both works, for example, have “inclusions”; ground star matter, a meteorite fragment that Noestheden purchased.  There is also animal bone in the composition of the Williamsburg Ivory Black paint. For Noestheden it opens up a poetic and metaphysical side, similar to one expressed by American scientist Dr. Edward Zganjar, who proposed that almost every element on earth was produced in the cosmic forces of “star-making,” including, as he noted, iron in our blood and calcium in our bones.

                  Understanding the universe and humanity's place in it has always been a primary focus of human       inquiry since the time of the caveman. What we're doing…can provide a piece of the puzzle of the origin of the elements that make up the entire universe. [6]

Another way to look at it is in Noestheden’s 1996 suite of drawings titled Drafting Silence: “25,920 horizontal lines represent the average number of breaths we take in 24 hours. Each line is 36 inches long [91.44cm]—the length of time it takes to draw one line equals one complete breath cycle.”  American artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970) spoke of a comparable frame of reference in a purported statement:

                  The reason I paint [large canvases] is precisely that I want to be very intimate and human. To               paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a      stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something you command. [7]

We can return again to science, and the challenge of the ungraspable—what is beyond the empirical.  In 1930 astronomer Sir James Jeans wrote “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.  Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter.”[8]


[1]All quotes from the artist are via correspondence and artist journal entries.

[2]Lawrence Weschler, Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees; Over Thirty Years of conversations with Robert Irwin (University of California Press, 1982; expanded edition 2009), 163-164

[3] Weschler 171

[4] Robert Burnham Jr., Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, An Observer’s Guide to the Universe Beyond the Solar System: Volume One, Andromeda Through Cetus (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1966, revised edition 1978) 5

[5] Weschler 141

[6] “Physicist Finds out,” Science Daily, 25 June 1999. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/06/990625080416.htm  Retrieved 29 July 2013. Is the inclusion akin to Marcel Duchamps’s recificed ready-made object With Hidden Noise, 1916? Duchamp asked friend and collector Walter Arensberg to insert a small object in a ball of twin, which was then sealed, and concealed.  It rattles when shaken, but only Arensberg knew what was inside.

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Rothko  Retrieved 10 September 2013

[8] Sir James Jeans, The Mysterious Universe (Cambridge University Press, 1930, revised edition 1932) 186