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Art School alumnus: Experimental rocker turns abstract artist

1 July 2019
SCA graduate talks about his unending appetite for art
Acclaimed contemporary artist and alumnus Jonny Niesche reflects on devising and developing his distinctive aesthetic at Sydney College of the Arts.

When contemporary artist Jonny Niesche (BVA (Hons) ‘08 MVA ’13) finished high school, art was the furthest thing from his mind. He packed his bags for the United States. “I spent a decade in New York playing in hardcore bands and making experimental music,” Niesche says.

But when he came back in the early 2000s, music was the furthest thing from his mind. “After returning to Australia my interests completely shifted focus – I suddenly had a voracious appetite for art,” Niesche says. However, his knowledge of art was limited and he had “zero experience”.

So Niesche applied to Sydney College of the Arts as a mature-age student. 

I was so green I wanted to start at the very beginning in first year as though I was fresh out of school – the entire experience. I went to SCA because I was aware of its reputation as a school that focused on the conceptual framework of art practice.

Fast forward 20 years and Niesche’s distinctive abstract works are held in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, and the National Gallery of Victoria. He has held numerous solo shows in Australia and Europe. Linking painting with sculpture, his practice incorporates mirrors, glitter, translucent fabric and reflective metals and has what the artist calls “a performative quality”, changing with the light and as a viewer moves around the room. In 2018, Niesche created a light-projection for the MCA facade for Sydney’s highly popular annual Vivid Festival in collaboration with musician Mark Pritchard.

Not one to do things by halves, he took an undergraduate degree followed immediately by a master’s. “I started in the painting department,” Niesche says. “I loved the fact that even though I was studying painting, almost none of the students were actually painting per se – there was performance, sculpture, sound, installation, photography. All was acceptable and encouraged. I found this liberating and exciting compared to other schools where you may focus on drawing for a year then move on to paint.”

Niesche undertook his master’s studies with prominent Australian sculptor and installation artist Mikala Dwyer. He says Dwyer, a former student who became a lecturer, did much more than teach. “Every couple of months Mikala would organise a great lunch for all her master’s and PhD students at SCA. We would all bring something to the table. Mikala would always bring the same table cloths from years of these lunches. They were made from canvas and all of the artists were welcome to write, comment or leave a mark on them. They were a wonderful history of many inspiring conversations around the table.”

During his master’s program, Niesche undertook a six-month exchange at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. “It opened my practice up to another side of the world,” he says. “I was able to study with legendary minimalist artist Heimo Zobernig, who had a deep, resonating effect on my work.” Then in 2014, Niesche was awarded the coveted Fauvette Loureiro Memorial Artists Travel Scholarship – valued at $28,000, it is the SCA’s biggest annual art prize. He returned to Vienna for seven months. “The experience facilitated my intense engagement with European minimalist discourse and I made connections that led to the multiple solo shows I’ve had in Europe since,” he says.

Niesche believes in the power of collaborative learning, emphasising the importance of finding the right teacher, as he did with Dwyer and Zobernig. “Search out the right person you feel a sense of connection with, whose practice you admire, who you feel you could learn a lot from over multiple years.” He also believes in intellectual and artistic freedom. “Always be open minded,” he says.

In 2020, Sydney College of the Arts will move to the University’s main campus.

Image: Photo by SCA alumnus Jacquie Manning.