Noma and the Giant Art-Making Dog

Noma Bar's incredible canine creation has been nominated for the prestigious Design Museum Design of the Year Award. This interview from last year talks about the initial reaction to the piece.
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“I need to let the dog rest,” says the graphic artist Noma Bar wryly as he rejoins me to continue our conversation. “I’ve just had two cuts that didn’t work. Got to switch it off for five minutes.”

Even a two-metre-high, 750kg, electric-powered canine art-making machine, with a bite much worse than its bark, gets dog tired sometimes; today, with good reason.

Bar has been hosting his second live drawing and create-your-own-art workshop at the Outline Editions gallery in London’s Soho district, and for the past five hours hordes of people have come to participate in his interactive ‘Cut It Out’ exhibition.

The chance to see how the Israel-born artist utilises negative space to produce his signature pared-down ‘double-take’ imagery and to view the vivid finished artworks displayed on the walls has attracted many visitors, but it is the giant pooch centrepiece created by Bar which has made this a smash-hit show of the 2011 London Design Festival. At times, the queues have stretched onto the pavement outside as people waited to have their own versions of Bar’s designs die-cut using his extraordinary embossing device/sculpture.

Buyers select from eight designs and A3 paper from 36 colour options (“It’s a semi-democracy” he says). The chosen paper is then carefully inserted between the die and the board, and the dog’s mighty head is swivelled into cutting position. The image is cut by gripping the dog’s teeth and pushing down steadily.

With prices ranging from £20 (for a one-colour, unsigned, ‘self-made’ artwork) to £300 (for a signed Bar original), two till rolls-worth of sales have been made just in this one afternoon.

Luckily, no-one has picked a colour combination so hideous he’d refuse to sign. “No, I haven’t had pink with green yet,” he laughs. “People are very influenced by what they see on the walls, so 90 per cent are choosing what I’ve made already so it’s my taste. A lot are going for bright colours which I love as well.

A couple of weeks after our chat, the exhibition proves to be equally popular when it moves to the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. After a return to the Outline Editions gallery (November 10-28), the mega dog will lollop across London to the SCIN gallery in Old Street, with a ‘pop-up’ event in Amsterdam set for February 2012.

“Now the buzz starts,” says Bar. “It was so hard to explain before. Even sending the brief to journalists, professionals, people couldn’t understand it. When you say, ‘It’s a giant dog and you grab the teeth and then press on the teeth and it’s the power of the teeth that’s cutting the paper… ’, they are like ‘Okaaay’.

The dog evolved from a casual conversation between Bar and Camilla Parsons, Director of Outline Editions’ Gallery, about his desire to cut his illustrations and “build a negative space machine”. As Bar’s screenprints encourage the viewer to look beyond the obvious, rebranding negative space as positive, it seemed a natural progression for him: “This turns negative space into something physical.”

The design of the machine is based on Bar’s most iconic illustration, ‘S.M.L’, which depicts a dog eating a cat eating a mouse

“Every time people talk about my work, people use S.M.L,” he says. “I think it captures a lot of what my work is about. It’s a summary of life, domination, natural selection, the rich and the poor.

“I wanted to see it in 3D, but it’s not a 3D that industrial designers would design. If they wanted to depict a dog’s face, they would create subtle curves. I wanted to take things I was doing graphically and transfer that to 3D.

“I designed the whole thing, and six or seven people worked on it over a period of two months. The engine inside creates 20 tonnes of pressure. Excuse me… ”

The engine inside creates 20 tonnes of pressure

He darts away and returns a few seconds later with the die-cut template for S.M.L.

“The reason for the engine is that if you and me jump on this, we’re not going to make a dent in the paper. It needs two or three four tonnes of power to cut. Then we achieved 20 tonnes of power which gives a really clean cut and allows you to cut crazy things — rubber, wood, carpet.”

Some of the work on view attests to Bar’s experiments with his new toy, incorporating everything from flowery carpets to David Bowie album covers, but he is adamant that this will be a one-off for this project.

“This is two weeks of experimenting with materials, but the core of my style is there,” he says, pointing to one of his pictures hanging in the back corner of the gallery, close to where we are seated. It consists of a single white shape on a blue background, suggesting two heads on a pillow. “My wife is on the left, I’m on the right. I’ve come back from the studio at two, three in the morning and she’s waiting for me. The purity of the story … very simple and flat. Texture would distract.”

And it can take a lot of time to make images of such apparent simplicity stripping away extraneous detail from his busy initial sketches (which often incorporate stickers, newspaper cuttings and odd fragments of ephemera found on the street) to focus on the essence of the image.

“For example, on S.M.L, the first big dog was a Labrador in my first sketches. Then he became a big poodle. Through time, he became more of a pit bull to make the story stronger.”

The importance of a strong narrative in Bar’s art can be attributed to the fact that virtually all of his work has evolved from editorial commissions. Over 1,000 of his illustrations have been displayed in magazines and books worldwide, including upwards of 60 front covers, and his client list encompasses The New York Times, Esquire, various international editions of GQ, Wallpaper*, Time Magazine and many more.

“I love to work with a brief,” he says. “I really loveit. It gives you a mini script. You have a start and end, and you see one thing and then you discover another thing while you’re reading. I try to create illustrations that also have a start and an end and you uncover more meanings the more you look at it. It works very well with written words because you spend much more time observing the paper.

“There’s something about this ping-pong of written text and my comment on the text, the ability to create a summary. What I’m doing has some element of ready-made. Material is given to me, whether it’s an iconic person or a story, like clay [to a sculptor]. Then I’m starting to take out, to cut, to add, to reshape it. This use of ready-mades is Dada thing, going back to Marcel Duchamp. I’m using pictograms, graphic ready-mades, that come from the subject or issue I’m talking about or been given. I think that’s the charm of it.”

In this way, over the past decade, Bar has created many oblique but instantly recognisable portraits of everyone from world leaders to celebrities, from his astonishing evocation of George W. Bush, in which Dubya’s facial features are formed from the silhouette of a tortured Abu Ghraib prisoner, to Naomi Campbell’s face deconstructed into drug paraphernalia to illustrate a story about the supermodel’s visit to rehab (magazine lawyers asked him to remove the image of cocaine from Campbell’s visage, but the original version of the portrait was later published in Bar’s book, ‘Guess Who?’).

Editorial direction also informs his use of negative space in many of his ‘Cut It Out’ designs. For instance ‘Power to the People’, where boxing gloves are intertwined with muscular arms held aloft, originated in a story about the direction UK’s new labour should take following the end of Tony Blair’s tenure as Prime Minister.

“For me, it is most important that each illustration needs to say something,” he concludes. “You’re not going to find me doing a straightforward picture of a dog. It has to have some kind of story.”

Such is the international demand for his work, from England to Australia, Bar can afford to be selective. He tells me he has 20 deadlines to meet in the next fortnight and regularly works 19-hour days in the studio in his back garden: “When my wife wants to call me, she’ll flash the light on and off in the house! I take a break from six till nine to spend time with the girls [he has two young daughters], then back to the studio. I’m not someone who waits for inspiration, I’m working till 4am.”

Three years compulsory military service in the Israeli navy nurtured this extreme work ethic and also his collaborative approach to commissions.

“You’re not going to find me doing a straightforward picture of a dog. It has to have some kind of story.”

“I won’t say you have to take this illustration — I give a lot of options. I’m never happy with the first idea. If it’s a general subject sometimes I’ll have 20 ideas, sometimes 30, sometimes five. Say it’s an article about a journalist and illustrator sitting talking in a gallery: we’ll explore a lot of ideas from a tape recorder, to two chairs, to a speech bubble of conversation and on and on.

“This is something I took from the army, beside the discipline. I lived for three years with eight people I would never choose to live with. It was like Big Brother but in a 20-metre boat, Apocalypse Now-size. You need to live with these people night and day, sometimes three weeks at sea, so I think I learnt from that from the army. Teamwork.”

Creativity runs in the Bar family. His grandfather made handmade decorations for coffins, churches and synagogues, and his sister is a fine artist and art teacher back in Israel. After completing a degree in graphic design at Bezalel Academy of Art & Design in Jerusalem, Bar had 25 job offers, but his heart set on moving to England. “I was just fascinated by London. I just felt that it was the heart of things, and I wanted to be here.”

Soon after he arrived he realised that his Hebrew typography was not highly sought after in his new home, so instead he focused on promoting his distinctive style of caricature portraits.

“I sent out something like 50 postcards of my work and I got an immediate response from Time Out magazine. I was about to go to Italy on holiday that night, but they asked if I had a few hours because they were going to print. They needed an illustration to accompany an article on new discoveries on Shakespeare. That is where the question mark [which he placed carefully to indicate Shakespeare’s eyebrow, eye and nose] came about. That commission was my personal ‘to be or not to be’, too.”

The flow of work has not let up in the decade since, culminating in his latest exhibition. And while his interactive dog looks set to travel the world, typically, Bar is looking ahead to his next major project.

“I’m starting now on a new book — on sex, relationships, love and hate. People tend to commission me on sex and I have a lot of illustrations on the subject. It links to the theme of negative space — penetration, inside-outside, babies. Almost the starting point of dealing with negative space.

He recalls examples of the topics he’s been asked to illustrate, including some brazenly explicit stuff for GQ France and, even, The Independent.

“I think it’s for a similar reason as to why people commission me on a lot of negative issues like war and conflict; because it’s kind of a sweet solution to a bitter subject. It’s simplified, it’s not realistic. They wouldn’t be able to publish a photograph.”

And although Bar is keen to emphasise that not all of his artwork uses negative space, his giant dog creation has encouraged him to further develop the theme.

He shows me an image called ‘Pointed Sense’, an aptly canine composition. “Every morning I sketch in the park opposite Highgate woods. A black Labrador was sniffing a white female Labrador. It was only a second, but the female’s tail was up and then the owner called the male away.

“These kind of moments really spark my imagination… when something is there and then it’s not there, the person is there and then not there. This is how the idea of cutting actually evolved. The tension between being and not being is something I want to extend in future. Life and death, love and hate — these kind of contrast moments when you love someone so much and then suddenly you are not with them. And negative space is such a versatile solution to represent those moments.”

Noma Bar will be hosting a live 'Cut It Out' session at the Design Museum tonight, Friday 4 May, 6.30-10pm. For tickets, visit:

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