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Art & Culture

Q and A with a Contemporary Sculptor: Nooni Reatig  Joseph R. Phelan*

Recently, I visited the Japan Information and Culture Center a few block below Dupont Circle to see the exhibition “In[CREASE]: An Exploration in the Language of Folding.” A selection of recent work by the Washington-based sculptor and architect Nooni Reatig (b.1980) can be seen there through December 20th.

I met up with Ms. Reatig who walked me through the show. We discussed the works on display, her development as an artist including her key influences, and her artistic philosophy. The following is an edited version of our discussion.

“Nooni Reatig in Front of Exhibition” photo–Nooni Reatig.

How did you begin as an artist?

At home as an only child I was always doing something crafty or playing with metal shavings in my dad’s model-making shop, construction material samples that my mom would bring home for me from her architecture firm, or looking for treasures like frogs outside.

My first art memories were of going to the local museums every weekend, predominantly the Hirshhorn and National Gallery of Art. My mom and I would play a game where we would take turns closing our eyes and leading one another to a work of art and then saying, “Ok, open your eyes.” This made me think of art as a surprise. When I make my sculptures, the result always reveals itself as a surprise to me.

I was taught by my dad to make an origami flapping crane at around age five. I folded the crane so many times that the folding became intuitive. I then asked for origami books and taught myself more forms. This love of folding paper later evolved into an exploration of abstract shapes. What I liked most was the simplicity and shape of the folds. I wanted the folds to be themselves and not represent anything else. people, so how did the experience work?

My father was making found metal sculptures at the time, in the early 80s, and would take me with him to Montgomery Scrap Yard in Rockville, Maryland to search for materials.

I learned from your talk that a junkyard in Rockville was important to your development and aesthetic. That might sound counterintuitive to some people, so how did the experience work?

It was there that I learned about materials — learning to differentiate between metals and their properties such as steel, tin, aluminum, copper, brass, and stainless steel. When I went there, I also learned about gravity and to pay attention to your surroundings, mainly because of safety. I found beauty in crumpled metal; each piece was unique. I’d be in awe of the giant cranes and how they would grab pieces of metal out of a huge pile and thought that I’d like to do that one day.

Let’s focus on the exhibition. What period of your working life does this exhibition represent? Why did you pick the title?

The exhibit is a survey from sculptures and assemblages that I’ve been working on for the past 15 years. It represents my continued exploration of folding materials, primarily steel and aluminum. The Japan Information and Cultural Center chose the title as a play on folding/creasing and increasing the lexicon of what we understand origami to be and how origami has influenced artists outside of Japan culture. The pieces I work on fold new and recycled materials on and off the wall as a comment on permanence and a search for nature.

There are a few works that I’d like to learn more about.

“All Real All Steel, Column” photo–Nooni Reatig.

This piece is an abstract column that was the result of pushing the steel sheet metal to its bending point with my body. When I visited Egypt a few years after making it in 2009, I found that some ancient columns depicting papyrus bundles used the exact same number of folds and similar geometry. This convinced me of the intuitive connection of art-making to nature.

There are several colorful wall hangings in the first gallery that look like fabric but are they made out of metal?

“Untitled” photo–Nooni Reatig.

These pieces are part of the most recent aluminum mesh series. They are untitled. I was attracted to mesh because it appears soft like fabric but holds its shape like a solid material. They use rigid folds that I then distort to create a feeling of softness and lightness. I’m inspired by the tightrope of where the organic meets the geometric.

There’s one used to advertise the exhibition, “All Real All Steel.” I’d like to know more about that one.

The cover piece is comprised of 8 stacked pieces, each made from a four by eight-foot sheet of steel, and the maximum I could carry myself. This series is made by hand using industrial techniques. The result is that every fold, every weld, every piece is unique. The piece is meant to be modular and conform to the context where it’s installed.

“All Real All Steel” photo–Nooni Reatig.

In the second gallery, there are three assemblages on the wall. Tell me what you were up to in those works.

The assemblages use recycled materials that had previous lives and comment on consumerism, culture, permanence, and are a celebration of that. Sometimes beauty is found in the trash. These pieces were made at the same time as the All Real All Steel series and were the complement to them. I thought of all the work I was doing at that time as the pure vs. the impure.

Apart from factors we’ve already discussed, what have been the most important influences on your artistic development?

I was attracted to symbolic representation especially Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space and his Endless Column which taught me that everything is done with intention and nothing should be extra. The pieces are minimal but full of meaning — they triggered in me a feeling of nostalgia for something that I had never experienced. This sentiment of feeling became something to strive for. At the time I was already folding steel and making metal origami, I discovered a painting at the National Gallery of Art that spoke to me profoundly — Domenico Veneziano’s St. John in the Desert where the folds I was using in metal depicted in mountains — nature. The Saint is also shown throwing away material goods which I interpreted as being utilitarian and minimalist. In the painting, the Saint is depicted as nature, camouflaged as the same color as the origami pleated mountain peaks in the background—a comment on stripping away of the nonessential.

Tell us about your work as an architect. Is there a building in the DC area that best represents what you want to do in this field? 

Ridge Place is a development of townhouses around a courtyard in Mt. Vernon Square that my firm, Suzane Reatig Architecture, recently completed. It is a reinterpretation of the traditional Washington townhouse which allows twice as much light and air into spaces by the use of a mews-like courtyard in the center of the townhouses. The courtyard space gives access to the outdoors in addition to helping foster community by providing a semi-public space for residents to interact and have a break from the busy surrounding city.

In my architecture practice, I’m driven to increase the quality of life of urban dwellers by providing maximum light, air, and access to the outdoors. The housing I design has to pass the test if I would live there myself.

How would you sum up your artistic philosophy? 

I am interested in culture and lifestyle. In my art, I use materials to try and find a balance between the real and the imaginary, the pristine and the decaying, art and commerce. In my recent series with aluminum mesh, I’m exploring the fine line between the geometric and organic. Inspired by nature, I fold mesh into uniform folds and then find beautiful ways to distort those folds—the attraction to disorder—and surprises.

Many thanks, Nooni.

Thank you, Joe.

“In[CREASE]: An Exploration in the Language of Folding” at the Japan Information and Culture Center runs (1150 18th St. NW) until December 20th. Open Mon.-Fri., 9am-5pm.

*Joseph R. Phelan, a Washington based author and teacher, is The InTowner’s museums exhibitions senior reviewer. He has taught at the Catholic University of America and the University of Maryland University College and was the founding editor of Artcyclopedia.com, the fine art search engine. 

Copyright © 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Joseph R. Phelan. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107 (“fair use”).