Nöle Giulini

sculpture / objekte

Art in America reviews

With the rise of new materialism, the notion that nonhuman matter has its own meaningful agency has seeped into a number of disciplines. In the past several years, many artists hoping to think “with” their materials have turned to organic and living matter. Amid this surging interest in bio art, 15 Orient, in Brooklyn, mounted a miniature retrospective of German-born, Port Townsend, Washington–based artist Nöle Giulini, who has been working in this mode for the past three decades with little institutional recognition.

Cassie Packard, with Photos by Izzy Leung
Art In America, March 23rd, 2023

ArtForum reviews

In 2018, curator Alan Longino found himself browsing through the (excellent, useful) archive of exhibitions on the New Museum website and stumbled on an entry for a show called “A Labor of Love.” Organized by Marcia Tucker in 1996, the exhibition surveyed fifty artists whose foregrounding of craft in their work, according to the curator, destabilizes boundaries between fine art and folk art, genius and hobbyist, art and daily life. Two pieces caught Longino’s eye: a ratty, stitched-together Mickey Mouse sculpture and a pair of ballet slippers sewn from dried banana peels. To his surprise, the former was made from neither leather nor resin but something altogether different and novel: dried kombucha mother. The artist behind both works: Nöle Giulini.

A few years after his discovery, Longino assembled a small, smart survey of the Port Townsend, Washington–based artist’s output at the Brooklyn gallery 15 Orient, featuring selections from major bodies of work. Much of her art flows from an eccentric methodology Giulini developed in the early 1990s. First, she grows kombucha mothers in large, custom fiberglass incubators. Next, she carefully removes the slimy, gelatinous fungus from the tank, treats it with frankincense and myrrh to preserve it, and sews it while it’s still wet, allowing it to shrink and distort as it dries into a hard black leather. The Mickey was absent here; instead, we found kombucha bunched and knotted to form a “wig,” sewn into crowns or flowers, shaped into a sack or witch hat, and cut into dessicated nets, among other talismanic arrangements and weird abstractions. Footage of Giulini’s process, displayed in the gal- lery’s back room, came across as vividly biomechanical: a Gigeresque entanglement of organic and inorganic, spongy flesh tenderly pulled from its fiberglass womb.

To that end, Giulini’s art seems linked to the work of several younger artists today. If sculptors in 1960s America found themselves enthralled by Plexiglas and fluorescent tubes, artists in recent years face a different set of circumstances. Faced with 3D printing, lab-grown meat, robotics, haute-cuisine fermentation, and viral pandemics, artists have begun to suffuse their works with biological materials and processes, combining bacteria, fungus, and fermentation, say, with more traditional sculp- tural approaches. Think Nour Mobarak, Jenna Sutela, or Anicka Yi (who has herself used kombucha). This is art that might rot or disperse; it exists as aroma and remains alive; it makes the gallery a biome. (Such work also seems to split the difference between additive sculpting, like the shaping of clay, and subtractive sculpting, like the carving away of marble, for this is sculpture that grows.) In this regard, Giulini’s art comes across as a striking precedent.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One of Giulini’s really great works is called Artist Statement, 1991/2022, and it consists of dozens of rubber bands hanging from nails, arranged so that the loops suggest letters and words making up a few lines of text. What the message might say is a mystery to you and me. In other words, the exhibition’s first note—put forward by an artist who hadn’t shown in New York in decades—was a withholding of meaning and artistic intention. In the place of MFA blather, we got Zen quiet. This felt appropriate. As tempting as it is to situate Giulini amid a matrix of contemporary practices, to fit her in lineages and assign her “relevance,” doing so risks flattening the oblique otherness that remains so key to her work. As Tucker said of “A Labor of Love”: “Issues of quality are issues of power . . . the most interesting and significant activities are usually found at the edges rather than at the center of artistic discourse.”

—Lloyd Wise