An Interview with Scott Noel by Elizabeth Johnson
An Interview with Scott Noel by Elizabeth Johnson
An interview with Scott Noel
by Elizabeth Johnson, 2021
Elizabeth Johnson: In our telephone conversation, you mention John Berger’s book, “Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible,” as being useful in thinking about painting. Berger states that “something as small and at hand as a pebble or salt-cellar on the table” might open access to the heaven he calls “invisible, unenterable but intimately close.” How would you describe why quotidian subjects or everyday people elicit your desire to paint? Is it generally by chance that you get interested in a particular subject? Is story a part of your interest from the beginning?
Scott Noel: I became interested in pictures, photographs, comics, illustrations, and reproductions of paintings at an early age and began to draw on my own. Pictures awakened me to the look of things and inspired the activity of drawing. Images of animals, airplanes, battle scenes, crucifixions, whaling scenes, cars, and basketball players were a preoccupation. Eventually, my hunger to make pictures coalesced around the challenge of drawing people.
The vocation of art begins in a longing that only the art can address. At first the longing attaches to something in the world. But, over time, the artist notices something about how picturing itself causes almost anything seen to open as an occasion for wonder and surprise. Is the pleasure we take from Cezanne’s apples in the idea of the fruit or, rather, their evocation? The quotidian or the everyday describes things I paint but doesn’t capture the almost erotic charge released in the scruples of painterly seeing.
Berger invokes Simone Weil’s formulation that heaven is at hand (“thy kingdom come”) when we feel God immanent in everything that happens, and we can meet the world, as it is, with desire. This is a tall order, but Berger imagines painting is an activity where this spirit sometimes prevails. The world rises up as the realm of the visible and collaborates in being seen through the resources of poetry and painting.
EJ: Berger describes the internet and social media as turning “appearances into refractions, like mirages: refractions not of light but of appetite, in fact a single appetite, the appetite for more.” Your portraits, still lives, and narrative paintings seem to combine the desires to stop time, to sustain seeing, to explore your talent, and to enlist art canon. Is a burgeoning appetite for “more” a chief driver for your painting? And in your opinion, should we be concerned with Berger’s warning about the dominance of spectacle due to an excess of appetite?
SN: This is an unsettling question. Berger is a Marxist and sees clearly how the online world expands the reach of markets and exploits the habits of consumption for capitalism’s purposes. Your question wonders if an artist’s obsessions are yet another “refraction of appetite” and another form of consumerist spectacle. The kind of painting I love had its gestation in the trading cities of the ancient Greek world and the hotspots of economic innovation such as fifteenth-century Florence, seventeenth-century Amsterdam, and nineteenth-century Paris. Painting appearances suggest analogies with exploration, mapping, and possession, but it is also devotional and, sometimes, a disinterested journey into understanding. Berger sees painting as a mode of solidarity with people across time, because, in his view, painting confirms and dramatizes a world that we share.
Although art can be traded and possessed, if the poetry is strong enough, the devotion sufficiently demanding, the world emerges in its enduring mystery and enlarges our common appreciation of the gift of existence. I think Berger is right about the peril of disembodied appetite and desire. The difficulty and attentiveness of art’s communion with the world, for both maker and viewer, is one kind of resistance to our distracted and destructive habits.
EJ: Also, I understand Berger to mean that it is difficult to sustain the uniqueness of images and intimacy with them when everybody is revealing personal images on social media. You often return to paint the same cherished objects and people. Also, you’ve said that you in your work you emphasize “wholeness.” Is the fact that your painting––handmade, uniquely composed, felt and seen––is this enough to separate “your” model or “your” vase from dozens of related images you’ve already made or the hundreds of images of models and vases available for consumption each day? Do you feel that the overwhelming volume of media images makes the painting of a single, notable image from life more difficult?
SN: I have little involvement with social media or the digital world. I think most of painting’s meaning is inseparable from its physical presence. Photography and digital imaging are a problem because they create a demotic understanding of what the world looks like. No great painter before the mid-nineteenth century could take this for granted. Almost all contemporary representation is infected with the protocols and the algorithms of photographic seeing. Chemical and digital photography have color settings, lens curvatures, exposure speeds, tonal polarization defaults, pixel gradients, and information matrices that are very effective tools for encoding an appearance but are nothing like the physical experience of moving through space.
When you paint from observation or memory the world resists our assumptions and recipes for recreating the fabric of light and space. Painting forces you toward first principles, which, in their way, are as corrosive as the insights of quantum mechanics. A painter must answer, successively, for themselves, how color relates to light, how shape can embody both an object and a space, and whether the things we desire, like a body or a building, when embedded in a context of viewpoint and atmosphere, retain independence. The doubt implied in this last question is essential to the drama of modern figuration from Cezanne and Monet to Giacometti and Auerbach: Is it the object we desire or the complex occasion of its visibility?
EJ: Berger talks about the “secret of how to get inside the object so as to rearrange how it looked,” “the encounter between the painter and model,” and “every authentic painting demonstrates a collaboration.” He quotes the famous Chinese landscape painter Shitao, “The brush is for saving things from chaos.” After years of deeply engaging with the subjects that you paint, and today, living in a world where images, copies, and history are instantly available: does the deep focus of painting feel different than when you were a younger?
SN: Painting is much more pleasurable now, but I still encounter the same questions and anxieties I did when I started out. Every time I paint there comes a moment when I wrestle with something in myself and must let go of the thing I want to hold. I love to paint in the presence of a sitter or in the light of a cityscape, but I can’t “capture” the appearance; rather, I move the paint around, simplify, blur, scrape, and rephrase until the beloved seems to appear. Even after all this time, I never know exactly how this will happen during a painting session. One thing I have learned—that I didn’t know when young—is that any appearance will depend on the interaction of all the elements in the picture. That is to say; a wall behind a sitter’s head will be just as much a challenge to seeing as the proportions of the features. The color of a swath of masonry will depend on the pitch of the color of the mortar running through the courses of bricks. Everything matters.
Another thing—clearer now than at the beginning—is that the reality a great picture expresses is not an inventory of things, but a feeling about the necessary relationships that preside among the namable stuff. The sine qua non of all art is, perhaps, the sense of space. Our intuitions about weight, gesture, and time generate fictional equivalents in painting. This awareness connects very different practitioners like Ingres and de Kooning or Velazquez and Giacometti in the quality of their obsessions, and I’m inspired by this trans-historical filiation.
EJ: Your painting Nausikaa and Odysseus combines the mimicry of life through painting with the mimicry of a mirror and your self-portrait. Was this painting especially compelling personally to complete? Your open-mouthed expression and blurred movement make a sharp contrast with the stillness and mirrored appearance of other subjects in the painting. I haven’t seen all your work, but are you less interested in self-portraits?
SN: Nausikaa and Odysseus was made in the spring of 2006. It fits with many pictures I’ve made that frame bits of studio experience with echoes of mythic stories. Everything begins with connections I’ve made with people willing to collaborate in making pictures. These are mostly young people, artists, and models, who have the time and motivation to take on modelling. The young are godlike in their physicality and a great visual inspiration. Fionnula, the woman in the painting with red hair, appeared one day in her celadon-green jacket with the bearing of a princess. As the painting developed, my mirrored reflection’s grizzled contrast with her youthful glow made me think of the “Nausikaa” episode in The Odyssey. The story evokes a courtly dance between the middle-aged Odysseus and the fragile, yet luminous, grace of the princess. This is a pretty good summary of my studio experience. I’ve included mirrored self-portraits in many studio interiors over the years. The mirror is a metaphor for the creative enterprise, but also an emblem of a slightly different time and space from the rest of the picture. My melting framed likeness always makes me think of Wilde’s Dorian Grey. There’s something about the separation of artist and sitter in the picture that is, for me, the condition of the artist’s visibility.
EJ: I’m also drawn to Roxborough Roofers and the novelty that the workers provided you with free models for as long as they were on the job. Did they know that you were painting them? They seem to be both posing and moving about unawares. Did you make drawings to work from in this case? Did you consciously mix classic with unidealized, everyday poses while you were painting?
SN: Roxborough Roofers was mostly painted in the very hot summer of 1999 and reworked the following summer. Although it depicts the view from my Mitchell Street Studio, this was never a roofing project. The 80 x 74” canvas has a vast foreground of blank factory roof that I realized needed to better integrate with the distant rowhouses. I bought a ladder to get models onto the roof in the blazing mid-day sun. My wife, Jan, is in the lower right-hand corner at the top of the unseen ladder. Two painter friends, John Lee and John Meehan, modelled for the seven figures on the roof, assuming different workmen’s guises, which were informed by my years as a housepainter. I identify with the dignity of skilled manual labor. It’s a crucial part of my studio vocation––especially when I think of Jeff Koons and Kehinde Wiley subcontracting the fabrication of their work to artisans. I’m pleased you noted the eruption of “classical” contrapposto poses in the roofers’ gestures.
These happen intermittently in everyday experience like the surfacing of a Jungian archetype. When I began, I didn’t know the narrative of work would be part of the picture; with most of my pictures the story is not known in advance. The narratives evolve from memories of my reading in literature and history and associations the pictures develop with forebears in the labyrinth of earlier art. For instance, while working on the Roofers I remembered a small painting in the de Young Museum, Thomas Anshutz’s The Ironworkers’ Noontime, which also has a strange array of anecdotal and neoclassical poses.
EJ: The Graces Survey the City feels like a real success in expanding upon studying the figure and relating it to art history, here, I’m reminded of Goya’s The Colossus. Did you mean to allude to urban construction as being a subtle menace? Bad, but not as bad as war? Do the delicate Graces soften what I imagine was a long-lasting disruption of your view?
SN: The Graces Survey the City was painted in the winter of 2017 in the wake of Trump’s inauguration as president, which was a bewildering and mournful time. Perhaps the picture is a pendant to the Roofers because gender stereotypes are explored in the narrative. I was certainly thinking of Goya’s Colossus in evoking a conflict or contest between the giant women and the buildings. These figures too were an improvisation. I began with a fascination with the renovation of the vacant Smith-Kline headquarters at the picture’s center, the rise of the second Comcast tower on the left and the Latter-Day Saints Hotel on the right, each topped by a construction crane glittering in the winter light. I’ve painted quite a few flying figures over the years, and with each new picture, I feel emboldened to go further in the direction of the baroque masters. Gravity and normative space could always be annexed to their imaginative purposes. The build-out of cities reminds me of a child’s Lego projects, where the three-dimensional grid suppresses the unruliness of organic form. The giant women are goddesses and mothers, emblems of nature striding though the architectural grid and its masculine willfulness with bemused condescension.
Left Image: Eurydice, 148" x 96", Oil On Linen
EJ: I am thinking of your painting, Telemachus and the Sirens. Did you let the story of Telemachus guide you as you painted it? Or did you tell the story in paint as you worked? Also, my favorite painting so far is Annunciation. The work suggests a heavy situation with the female subject. My first response was, “Whoa. I don’t even want to know what she is thinking.” It gave me a powerful punch like the embarrassment of breaking in on gossip. The chaos of the objects perfectly balances her expression in a nonverbal way that suggests plot. How did this painting come about?
SN: All the pictures you’ve noted dramatize the desire to discover a story in what is otherwise a contingent visual event. The pictures are a fiction: the artist seems to be simply painting the visual facts and finding meaning in the meeting of elements that might be random, accidental, even “chaotic,” as you describe the still life in Annunciation. But the picture’s naturalism is also a construction deeply beholden to precedents in Titian, Velazquez, Eakins, and Degas. The implicit narrative, or meaning, issues from both the frieze-like structuring of form and interval, and also iconographical clues like the phallic cranes in the construction pictures, the seductive sirens in Telemachus, and the vessel presented to the woman in Annunciation. For me, there is an irony in the way the narrative is ambiguous, stutters and breaks down into a kind of parody of its historical precedents. In the foreground of Annunciation there is a book on Chardin on the seat of the chair whose cover reproduces the girl with the shuttlecock. I hope the pictures reroute the drive for narrative certainty into another channel. An observational painter’s attention to the contingent facts, both in the motif and the materiality of the medium (what you call “telling the story in paint”) weaves its own spell. The colors and shapes I paint and the physicality I pursue are stimulated by the act of painting. In this activity, the world opens as a set of possible poetic relations. The interdependence of painting and the beauty of the world is an article of faith. For me, painting is not manipulative in the way narratives can be and not possessive like the unassuageable hunger of consumer capitalism, à la Berger’s critique. Rather, painting cultivates a continuously vibrating “double vision” where personal desires seek an alignment with the constant flow of visual events, and arbitrary visual facts are transfigured into necessary poetic relationships.