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In the Studio: Scott Noel

by Allison Malafronte

"Strangely, perceptual painting’s real concern now is to explore the space where our experience argues with those normative standards of photographic truth." ~ Scott Noel 

Scott Noel in his Philadelphia studio

In the Philadelphia art community, Scott Noel’s name is synonymous with both a historic academy and a contemporary school of thought. As a dedicated painter for forty years and an influential teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for twenty-two years, Noel’s way of painting and seeing has proved pivotal for the numerous students he has taught and mentored. In addition, his participation in the Perceptual Painters group since 2009—not only in his visual contributions but also his intellectual explanations—has bolstered the growing awareness of these artists’ more poetic and inventive approach to painting: one based on direct observation, a volumetric design of space and a focus on shapes of color, rather than on line or re-creating the patterns of light and shadow. In this interview, I was able to pose some questions to Noel—whose limited online presence, lack of a cell phone and studious devotion to his studio is well-known and regarded among his students—and learn his perspective on picture-making, painting challenges, capturing the passage of time and what perceptual painting means to him personally. 

Portrait of Diana Oviedo, 2016, oil on linen, 44 x 42 in.

AM: What is your primary motivation for beginning a painting? Content? A message/statement? A visual investigation? 

SN: Drawing and painting, at least since adolescence, have been compulsive activities. Motivation doesn’t quite capture the circuit of needs and drives that shape the work. Picture-making is my way of responding to the beauty of the world as I’ve come to know it through the senses. Early on, encounters with a few beautiful works in reproduction—Michelangelo’s Pietá, Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, and Velázquez’s Juan de Pareja—shaped my interpretation of the world’s beauty, before I appreciated that a work of art is a fiction. After forty years of painting, it’s clear to me that the perceived world of becoming and change is always in a dance with the language of mysterious equivalents elaborated in painting.

The Graces Survey the City, 2017, oil on linen, 66 x 96 in.

AM: I see that large-scale, multi-figure allegories are a common theme, among others. Do you find that the audience viewing your work is able to make the connections and correlations you seek to convey? Or is explanation sometimes a necessary part of the process?

Patrice and Ben in August, 2016, oil on linen, 84 x 52 in. SN: Multi-figure allegories are one of my creative obsessions along with cityscapes, portraits, nudes, still lifes, and interiors. The attraction to them is partly their difficulty and their absurd gratuitousness. Even for Veronese, Velázquez, and Ingres, the large figure compositions are spectacles that can only be understood as a kind of theater. My efforts acknowledge this and are full of quotations from different narratives, so only my title clarifies the story to which the picture refers. This is quite natural, because I rarely start with an allegory or a plot, but rather, a visual occasion. A nude woman on a platform surrounded by a group of clothed figures might be Bathsheba, Susannah, Nyssia, Andromeda or Diana among her attendants. The attraction for this kind of figure painting is to make contact with these visual traditions, acknowledge their perennial fascination and then explore the spectacular stagecraft that goes into them—especially the creation of a believable wholeness through an articulated space and light. I like the stories for their archetypal durability and fully understand the audience might not know the story. Hopefully, the psychological character of the painting will still communicate the archetypical situation.

AM: You have been a member of the Perceptual Painters group since 2009. I have heard some varying definitions of perceptual painting, although the common foundation seems to be a focus on volume and space. What is your definition of perceptual painting as it applies to your work and process?

SN: I’ve been part of the Perceptual Painters in solidarity with a group of painters I admire. If there is a bond between such disparate personalities, it’s in direct response to the visible world. Of course, this is a pretty fraught premise, as your question implies. Space, volume and time are central categories in our understanding of reality, but none are explicitly visible because they’re concepts, not things. Painted engagements, with experience, can make you feel (with great precision) a quality of light and atmosphere, spatial depth, weight, volumetric displacement, movement, duration of attention, and, implicitly, the passage and slowing of time—but none of this happens without a profound engagement with the potentialities of marks, colors and shapes on a surface. We’re back to the dialectic between experiences and language. Perhaps because people around the world have, for millennia, made paintings, it seems that the medium can occasionally give very direct, bodily expression to our awareness of appearances and space. Painting is a kind of communion with the world, but only when its rigors and traditions have been pursued to an immersion that feels like physical instinct. It’s probably fair to say perceptual painting today is a kind of protest against the mediated experiences of an image-saturated culture. Paintings are images too, but they feel like a more demanding and urgent witness to the world we share precisely because of the ground-up difficulty in their physical realization. So, for me, perceptual painting isn’t really a style or a tradition, but a radical engagement with building a world from first principles.

Ice Fishing, 2017, oil on linen, 46 x 56 in. Courtesy Gross McCleaf Gallery (Philadelphia, PA)

AM: Some might say that perceptual painting has been around for centuries, at least in terms of painting what colors and shapes enter the eye rather than what the brain already knows. Why do you think the perceptual-painting approach is important right now?

SN: You could certainly say perceptual painting has been around for centuries, but its protocols keep changing depending on the needs the activity expresses. Fayum portraits are nothing but the expression of the need of the subject to be seen, face-to-face. The natural vision in Leonardo, Bellini and Titian is an effort to give appearances the durability of sculpture and architecture. The light-based opticality of Caravaggio, Velázquez and Vermeer is the expression of an intense need for individual witness. Impressionist perception is concerned with both the contingency of individual vision and the language of painting itself. Today, you might say we have a demotic standard for visual truth that comes from photography, film and digital sources. Strangely, perceptual painting’s real concern now is to explore the space where our experience argues with those normative standards of photographic truth. One of my petty gripes with contemporary atelier training is that it mostly reproduces the conventions of photographic vision—light- and shadow-pattern copying without fully acknowledging how conceptual representation had been for centuries prior to the advent of photographic vision. I also like to say the inventors of this photographic vision are artists such as Velázquez and Vermeer, which in no way discounts my admiration.

<em>Still Life With White Shelves and Tomatoes</em>, 2017, oil on linen, 26 x 32 in. Courtesy Gross McCleaf Gallery (Philadelphia, PA)

AM: I understand that your approach to color comes from the Charles Hawthorne/Edwin Dickinson “color-spot” tradition. In this teaching, shapes of colors are the basic unit of seeing, yes?

SN: Charles Hawthorne and Edwin Dickinson are very important to me. Charles Hawthorne came up with the most radical account ever developed by an American of how to approach appearances in painting. Hawthorne stressed seeing the color/value at the core of “places” in an ensemble of visual relationships, setting these “color spots” boldly and flatly on a painting surface and looking for the precise way they came together in scale, disposition and perimeter—trusting these spots alone could disclose the character of an appearance without preliminary drawing. This is much harder to do than you might think because it demands overcoming our “prejudices” about the order of objects and intervals in a visual field. Unexpectedly, although Hawthorne’s approach is analytical, it releases a lot of creative space in the placement and arrangement of the large and small “spots.” Dickinson was the great poet produced by Hawthorne’s approach. His color/value interpretations are unique, and there have been few if any painters whose vision is as “true” and eccentric to the same degree. When pressed for a definition of art, Dickinson asserted “art is the organization of shape.” His personal contribution to perceptual painting can be measured in how radically he pursues this standard because, with Dickinson, before you ever find a beach, a face, a vase or a body, you encounter an unforgettably clear shape idea, both true and unexpected.

Portrait of Bettina, 2013, oil on linen, 40 x 38 in.

AM: Several artists in history were also skilled musicians and/or greatly influenced by music. The major color-theory advancements made through modernists Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee were almost entirely related to music theory. I sense some of that modernist, musical approach to color in the perceptual painters’ process. Have you seen the correlations between color and music made apparent in your own process and investigating?

David and David, Nike and Marie, 2016, oil on linen, 96 x 72 in. SN: Your curiosity about analogies with music is interesting. I try for them all the time in my teaching, but people who really know music can be a little impatient with the effort. I think all the arts have intersections in the experiences they address and the resources of language they exploit. We can talk about rhythms, repetition, the articulation of parts to a larger structure, rhyming, dissonance, even metaphor, but finally, I think, along with Degas, that painting is the most abstract of the arts insofar as it draws so strongly on identifiably sharable elements of visual experience. The look of the world is a deeply shared understanding, and every divergence from our ingrained expectations produces forms of static that can devolve into feeling the work in question is simply arbitrary; or, conversely, it somehow delivers us to a fresh recognition of reality. Managing the dance between expectation and revelation requires a high level of abstract sensitivity. Morandi is supposed to have said, “There is nothing more abstract than reality.” I think I know what he means without being able to explain it. But the insight creates a standard for judging the poetic quality of a realist work.

AM: I understand that you always paint from life. Of course in a classical-atelier or traditional sense, painting from life is synomous with verisimilitude. But in your process, painting from life/direct observation is a starting point: there are exaggerations of reality, such as in a fish-eye perspective or in pushing/compressing colors or shapes or whatever it might be to meet a vision. Please explain what painting from life means to you.

SN: I remain grateful for the ideals of atelier training while being thoroughly skeptical that tradition is inherently valuable. Any strong training has to transmit the terms of its own refutation and a good teacher inoculates his student against received dogma. Much of what I do in my work owes to the hopeless pursuit of equivalents for the look and feel of the world. My unconditional admiration goes to empiricists such as Thomas Eakins, Degas, Dickinson, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Antonio López-Garcia and George Nick, who would try almost anything except someone else’s recipe to bring the elusive mutability of the visual world to terms with painted being.

Scott Noel in his Philadelphia studio