Scott Noel: A Life in Paint
Scott Noel, Enceinte, oil on linen, 34 x 46 inches courtesy of the Gross Mccleaf Gallery
Scott Noel: A Life in Paint
By Elana Hagler
(Guest Writer for Painting Perceptions)
As I enter through the door in the side of the large industrial building in Manayunk, a slightly run-down but vigorous town of blockish looking rowhouses inside Philadelphia, I emerge into the convoluted series of hallways lined with artists’ studios, and I immediately feel lost. Even though I have been here before, I stand still for a dizzy moment, trying to figure out which way to go. And then, inevitably, Scott Noel’s ever enthusiastic voice rings out from somewhere within this maze, followed by the murmured reply of a conversation partner, and I follow it like a beacon. As I step into Scott’s studio, the familiar, intoxicating scent of oil paint gets stronger and I am hit on all sides by vibrating, sensuous color…I am Dorothy suddenly transported into a delightfully painterly Oz. And there stands the Wizard. But this Wizard is not some larger-than-life phantasm that turns out to disappoint. In front of me stands a slight, wiry man with an unassuming aspect and a wry and biting sense of humor that covers an incredibly probing mind and a generous heart. Scott Noel is one of the very few living painters I go to in order to recharge. Visiting his studio, one becomes more certain of the profound, meaningful seriousness of the artistic endeavor, and of the sheer joy of the struggle.
The walls of his studio are covered, salon-style, with his most recent paintings and drawings. There are large, multi-figure compositions in oil on lead-primed, rabbit-skin glued linen, hanging alongside lushly painted still-lifes wherein humble plastic knickknacks democratically share the space with vases, art objects and no-longer edible edibles. Another wall is plastered with pastel figure drawings which Scott creates alongside his students in class and uses as teaching tools. His paintings often contain allegorical allusions, and reference history, mythology and literature, but yet remain very much models in a studio or the objects of daily life plunked down seeming haphazardly on the studio table. During a slide show of his work, Scott once mentioned that as he works on a painting, he finds that he starts to tell stories to himself, but that the inspiration for the start of a painting is always a visual, formal investigation.
Studying the Studio pastel 40 x 64 inches 2010
Advent of the Muses, oil on linen, 56 x 72 inches
Orpheus and Eurydice linen 54 x 50 inches 2008
I have had the good fortune of being a student of Scott’s at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, as well as a teaching assistant for a painting course and a friend of many years. So I feel that I can speak to both his artwork and his role as a teacher. I have seen the great effect which he has had on so many young painters, many of whom have already become admirable artists and instructors in their own right. Scott is incredibly giving with his knowledge and always encouraging to young painters. More than that, he is a model of a life lived in the commitment to the perceptual moment.
Scott paints alla prima (Italian for “at once”), a very direct approach to painting where patches of opaque color are worked wet-into-wet, rather than the slow build-up of glazes over an underpainting, with the goal of a unified, fresh-looking surface and the ability to start and complete large chunks of the painting at one long sitting. If a day’s work fails to come together at the end of the sitting, Scott scrapes the whole wet area down with his pallet knife, leaving a ghostly image underneath which serves as the platform for entry for the next day’s work. He always paints directly from life, as he believes that photography does not give enough information to be able to grasp the kind of (in his words) “equivalence for movement, weight, and the interdependence of volume and space” which he is after.
Octavia and Antonia Divide the Empire, oil on linen (two panels), 72 x 108 inches
Jan’s Garden, oil on canvas, 59 x 59 inches
Both in his teaching and in his own work, Scott attempts to negotiate a meeting point between two very different approaches to art-making. First, there is the color spot tradition passed down from Charles Hawthorne and his student Edwin Dickinson, which is the prevalent attitude espoused by many top-notch realist painters today. This approach emphasizes the direct laying down of large, flat spots of color with very specifically modulated relationships to one another, where the fine-tuning of color, tone and edge create space, rather than the outlining of objects that are then described with a chiaroscuro approach. Scott integrates this approach, most especially in his drawings, with a more sculptural rendering of space, looking back to artists such as Michelangelo and Pontormo, where he “de-emphasize(s) contour and light in favor of gesture, mass, cross-contour and changes of state in a graphic investigation.” All the while, he constantly stresses composition, with the placement of everything within the rectangle being of incredible importance. Rather than aiming for the maximum contrast of light and dark, Scott keeps his overall tonality in the middle range, which evokes a twilight world of intense and closely modulated color relationships. At the same time, it is the hunger for the experience in the prolonged moment of painting and responding to the motif, the frantic attempt to grasp and organize all those sensations which are occurring and changing all at once and have to be concretized while the paint is wet, that keeps him addicted. All this is brought together in very fluid and dynamic tensions, which invigorate his paintings and open up the space for a deeper, more intuitive experience of viewing his work.
Scott Noel is one of the few painters who is not only able to masterfully embody these various struggles and aims in his work but is also able to articulate them in such a way that not only makes them understandable but also seductive to the young painter. Scott always encouraged in me a love for the wholeness of perception, I would even say the wholeness of existence, accepting even that which is problematic, in the world and in myself, and integrating it and shaping it to try to produce an artwork which is so much more than a mimetic image, but under the best of circumstances becomes a fictionalized embodiment of reality that embraces a more complicated beauty and somehow, deep inside, rings true.
ArtPneuma YouTube video of Scott Noel discussing his painting:
Reclining Portrait of Vivian pastel 30 x 44 inches 2010
Still Life with Amphora and Bread oil on linen 32 x 36 inches 2008
Still Life with Street Peaches oil on linen 46 x 42 inches 2008
Scott Noel painting, Photo by Mike Manley
Scott Noel pastel painting, Photo by Mike Manley