In our debut City 2 City interview, Rosalux member artist Frank Meuschke speaks with Pittsburgh, PA, painter Joseph Noderer. Frank first saw Joe's work on Instagram, just a few years ago. He was struck by its convergence of originality, landscape, and links to various histories of painting. Read on for a journey through Joe's Pennsylvania landscape, his influences, coming to grips with an art education, and the difficulty with expressiveness in contemporary art.
How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it?
I usually say expressive landscape paintings; that is the easiest way to cover a lot of bases in my work.
Tell us something about where you live?
We’re part of the city [of Pittsburgh], it’s called Brookline. It’s just a few miles to Pittsburgh, although we are within the city limits. I am south of the Monongahela or Allegheny River, I can’t remember. They come together to make the Ohio River, which then goes down, west, through Kentucky to the Mississippi. We’re south of that and it’s pretty green. Brookline has a lot of houses that are eight or nine feet apart. Older houses that are a hundred years old. There’s a lot of green, a lot of tangly stuff popping out all over the place. It’s very hilly. Looking out my studio window, across the street, I can see the telephone poles and houses that are at the top of the next hill. It’s an urban neighborhood, family oriented, folks that have been here for awhile; Pittsburgh locals.
It sounds like an early 20th century, working class, single family home neighborhood.
Yeah. Pittsburgh used to be a pretty big manufacturer of steel but there are also a lot of coal mines in the area. Pittsburgh is one of those places where there’s the north and there’s the south, not in terms of their…
Not the Civil War.
Yeah. People in the south don’t like to cross the river and vice versa. So I grew up in the south and my experience with the north is only since I have moved back. The further south you get, the closer to West Virginia you get; there’s more and more coal, more mines in this area, and there’s more mills in the north.
Did you grow up south of Pittsburgh?
Yeah, even further south. I live in Brookline, now, but I grew up a little bit further south in a suburb called Bethel Park. Those houses were built in the sixties and seventies, housing development kind of thing. At the time we had a pretty big wooded area behind our house that kind of stretched parallel to our street and at the top of our hill, which was a dead end street, a big patch of woods that I could easily walk through to get to my friends.
So you grew up in that in-between space, between total urbanity and the hills of southwestern PA.
Yeah, it wouldn’t be too much further south to be where you would consider it truly rural. As a family we would go on walks or bike rides on the Montour Trail. As a teenager we’d go creeping around the woods, trying to smoke weed, and hide from the cops. You can easily have that experience of being out in the woods, but then come home to sleep in a nice house in the suburbs. Or just go to the city; Carnegie Mellon is here, three or four different schools, and especially CMU, bringing in lots of interesting people around the city [which] was truly a good place to get interesting, alternative thought.
I think people still don’t think of Pittsburgh as a place of thought so much as it will always have this working class association, which it still hangs on to very, very much. Not hangs on to, but is. I mean it is a very working class city, for sure. But there are also some really smart people here, and really creative and really interesting people too, and they just coexist somehow; it’s great.
Before the pandemic, what was the nature of the art community in Pittsburgh?
There are a few galleries. Historically, they have had a hard time staying open. There are a lot of people here who are intelligent and sophisticated and appreciate shows, but there are only a few people here who buy [art].
How is the community of artists? Do people support each other?
Yeah, I think so. People are serious about making work and seeing work. A gallery recently opened up that is concerned with showing local artists. That helps a lot. There are a lot of really talented people here and Pittsburgh needs to showcase that talent. Zynka Gallery is doing that, which is cool. There’s a first Friday. The city does support a lot of arts organizations -there’s the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh and things like that. I can see it moving, incrementally, toward getting richer.
You do have to make an effort to meet people and maintain those friendships. My friend, Pete, who is a painter as well, we met when I was renting a studio space from an organization called Radiant Hall. They own three buildings converted into studio spaces and they are really affordable and in the city. They have open studios and a number of people came through.
You might go to openings and see a few people that you know, go out and have drinks and talk. That was the experience in New York and Chicago -we’d go to openings, accumulate people, and you’d end up in a bar, somewhere, talking about art. That doesn’t happen as much, here, but I am okay with that. [Laughs]
Have platforms like Instagram substituted for a local, in-person art community?
To some extent you can get around the exhibition experience, but that social aspect? You find out that a big part of it is the social aspect - and the work is a part of that. Talking to people, meeting new people and all the ways that kind of thing can turn into new relationships and foundations to be built.
But this [pandemic] is happening, It seems like people, in art, are saying we’ll do an online exhibition instead. That’s good, but I would hate for that to replace things, though, because it is so much easier to be able to be on your phone, to be able to hold onto an exhibition. Plus the format is so different, it being so small really changes [the experience]. It’s the equivalent of walking across the street and then turning around to look at your painting on the other side. A lot of times it looks really great when they’re two inches by two inches. Or different, at least. I feel like we still have a lot of visual stuff we can get out of having an online interaction and we can be somewhat sociable on it too.
I like artist interviews because I feel like I can better understand what artists are thinking. I think a lot of artists are interested in that, maybe because it gives some insight into something that is largely private.
Yeah for sure. In the interview you pointed me to, with Jim Hittenger, it was neat to read about things that I consider influential for me also influencing him and see how he visually dealt with those things. You can have a similar influential experience, say film, and we’ll both put out different things maybe based on our age or how our environment was filtered through seeing these films when we were younger. Sometimes it makes you feel a little bit better about what your influences are, if you are embarrassed by somethings here and there, when you find out that everyone has got geeky things they like.
You have to come to terms with the things you were raised with.
My parents had mostly family photos around the house and they still have this artist hanging up, the artist Bev Doolittle. She makes nature based, believable looking stuff. They are all prints at home, not originals, but they’re of some Native American, frontier stuff, a lot of natural stuff. What she does is kind of gimmicky; she’ll hide things in the underbrush...
Oh, yeah, I know her work.
Yeah, like a wolf! It’s funny because I liked them when I was a kid. Bev Doolittle paintings are rugged, frontiersy, but with this hidden element that is only revealed the longer you get lost in staring at the image. Saying this out loud, it is absurd to me that I never realized that until right now [laughs]! So yeah, those Bev Doolittle things were more influential to me than any art I saw at the Carnegie as a kid.
Because you lived with it -it was there, in your vision, everyday.
Yeah, it was similar to looking out the window. Like the Bev Doolittle painting, the longer you look, the different kind of animals you can see in the tree branches -you can kind of do the same thing just looking out the window of the kitchen.
A way of bringing in the idea of the painting as a window.
Would you share something of your formative experience of the land that has so strongly influenced your work?
I had a positive experience with being outside, in Bethel Park. As a kid, playing outside, we had a large patch of woods, behind the house. I spent a lot of time outside with friends or by myself having experiences with what seemed like “real nature” at the time. Not just a tree in the yard, but the woods with the creek, where I happened upon a dead deer and that kind of thing. It’s a visually striking place. It’s pretty dramatic.
There’s hills, sometimes very steep hills. The weather is temperamental; I always think of it as kind of moody. I think this nature lends itself to painting because there is a lot of texture here, a lot of movement, it’s very dynamic. It’s an older place; there’s still quite a bit of old buildings and some of them are occupied and falling apart. I’ve been a visual daydreamer ever since I was a kid. It was easy to get lost in staring out the window, in elementary school, at the trees because there were so many trees right there. The sky and the leaves on the ground -it’s easy to get lost in all those things. I started doing that when I was a kid and haven’t stopped.
Would you say that the window is more important than an actual engagement with the outdoors?
Now, for sure. When I was a kid it was probably equally split. I played outside a lot. Now the balance is little off. You had more time to do that when you were a kid. You can just play.
Without a sense of time.
Yeah. It’s harder to do that as an adult.
The work isn’t necessarily informed by your day to day, now, but is informed by early experience?
In a lot of ways, yeah. If I think literally about my day to day, seeing it through my car windows, through the work windows -I’ve wondered about that. How can I make my work more about my day to day experience? But then, all I can think about is making paintings essentially of work, which I do not want to do.
When I moved up here, my dog and I would walk multiple times a day throughout the seasons. That, up until about two or three years ago, was the extent of my daily experience with nature. Now that primarily comes through plants. My girlfriend and I have a lot of houseplants. It’s a big part of our interior worlds. We have these beautifully composed areas of lots of different types of plants that she has cared for amazingly.
I think the suburbs has conventionally gotten a bad rap when we talk about nature, or even when we talk about the city. I’m thinking that the suburbs is sort of a window upon the world outside the city. It exists as this place between the internal city space and the external, raw nature experience.
It has a lot more to offer than we have ever allowed it in terms of our experience of nature. It's counter to the narrative of wilderness, where there isn’t a human in sight, and its opposite, the urban experience and it being nature-less, which we also know is not true. The suburb is a unique vantage point and if you open up to it, it allows you to see that narrative differently.
I can see it from other perspectives as well. Folks out in the country can look at the suburbs as a window into what’s happening in the city in a way that maybe they can relate to more than just looking directly at the city. It’s a window; it’s a middle ground. Yeah. That’s interesting. Paintings as windows is definitely a thing.
It’s not even something I care to walk away from or challenge, strictly.
Yeah, I’m pretty much fully invested in that idea.
How do you go about creating a sense of place, or more on point -the feeling of place, in your artwork, if you even feel you are doing so?
I want to. I find this area very beautiful. Formative experiences, in terms of interacting with the world, those were all had here. It’s important to me, but since I’ve been back, I have trusted that the character of this place would come out if I work intuitively because I’ve had so much time, even when I wasn’t here, being saturated by this place, or wanting this place back.
My goal is to capture how I feel about this place and I just assume that it comes across to people looking at my work. Whether or not they know, by looking at a painting of mine, that I live just outside of Pittsburgh? They can see it, maybe even the group of paintings, as a region because of the consistency there, in terms of subject matter, color, composition, specificity. I want there to be specificity in my work and of course, an amount of ambiguity.
I looked at your work and I’m not sure I knew you were in Pennsylvania, but it suggested it. I don’t know if it matters to viewers of your work that they pick up that regional sensibility or not, but to me it is specifically there, I see it based on my experience [of Pennsylvania].
I’m glad to hear that. Because to some extent it confirms that it’s not me subjectively thinking that I am capturing the place, but being way off-base, objectively, for someone else. I am really just painting what I see here. I know that it is not representational in the conventional sense, but I think it’s reflective of my influences, they’re right out this window. What I do with those influences, I don’t put them all back together so they look like the view out the window, because I need more than that. I think some people don’t realize that I am painting what’s around me. I haven’t constructed some sort of world, or if I have, it’s based on the world that I live in.
There is a sense of decay in your work that, to me, speaks of the region as well.
Yeah, it’s here. There’s a lot of old stuff here and a lot of it is not repurposed. Some of it is plowed over and something is built on top of it. But there’s plenty of stuff that is left alone to fall apart. At the same time, it doesn’t exist in an economically depressed area, it’s not an indication of a ghost town. You can appreciate it that way and not look at it as an indicator of some really dark thing that is happening.
I’m reminded of Caspar David Friedrich -his interest in painting the gothic ruin. I don’t look at that ruin as a matter of fact, but that he is creating an entire ethos or mood around an environment that looks partially rendered, accurately, and partially made up. I feel like your work has an American...I was almost going to say gothic!
I know you’re not talking about this [gothic] literally, but, it’s funny, as a teenager, I was very goth, liked all the goth music, but also gothic fiction, films, and some artwork -I didn’t see a whole lot of that in high school. You know, I am a seventeen year-old with black hair and nail polish and my teachers weren’t like, “Oh, you should check out Friedrich!” No, they were like, “Do you need help?” [laughs]
That sensibility, that awareness of mortality, with Friedrich, is something that has always been built in with me. I don’t know if that has to do with the region, or what. With Friedrich, his work is reflective of mortality, of spiritual wealth versus earthly gain. Those things aren’t explicit, in my mind, but I am aware of loss, the transitional nature of things.
How much of that speaks to being in a rust-belt city that has seen a significant end to a certain kind of life or work life?
It could be the collapse of the steel industry or it could also be genes. I’ve just been drawn to that stuff for so long. When I lived in Austin, Texas, that’s a very different city than Pittsburgh. I think that how Austin’s culture deals with progress is a lot different than here. So I feel like, if I had grown up there, I might not be as affected by the things that I am here.
Was there a particular exhibition that had a profound impact on you as a young artist?
Earlier on I mentioned going to the Carnegie. There’s the Museum of Natural History and then the Museum of Art; they’re connected but also distinct. As a kid, I don’t remember going to the fine arts aspect, but I remember going to the natural history part quite a bit. Because, like any kid, I liked dinosaurs. Anything else there -the hall of minerals, the geologic stuff, the dioramas there, are out of sight. They are from the golden age of dioramas. Those contained worlds were very influential to me and that makes a lot of sense [when] looking at my work and that idea of a window.
When I was in undergrad, I really liked figurative painting. I really liked Lucien Freud, Jenny Seville. Who I loved the most was Odd Nerdrum. I remember going to New York and seeing a show of his work at Forum Gallery. I was just beside myself with wonder -it was great, but I have a different opinion, now.
He was popular then [nineteen nineties].
Oh yeah, sure. He was writing all that stuff on kitsch. He’s a goofball, but he could definitely make a handsome painting. Seeing them in person was important because he was essentially doing Rembrandt-type stuff. It was like, wow, these paintings have all this depth, on top of the content. At the time I was being a little reactionary; I was into academic figurative painting and almost everybody else was into more avant-garde stuff that I didn’t feel comfortable doing myself because I didn’t know enough.
That Burchfield show, at The Whitney, about ten years ago. I love Burchfield. He’s so Midwestern. There’s an undercurrent of darkness to his work that I think exists in regions like this.
He was in Western New York. Gloomy -lot of clouds from the Lakes.
Yeah, and he lived in Ohio for a long time before that. Seeing that show in person was great. I don’t think, prior to that, I had seen any Burchfield in person because they are famously sensitive to light and they stay put. So that was just mind-blowing for me. I also saw a pretty great Lucien Freud show in Ft. Worth -that was pretty eye opening too.
Do you think about this work when you are making your own work?
Burchfield I do. I have plenty of his books around. The Burchfield Penny Museum is only about three hours away, in Buffalo. I think about Burchfield in terms of I don’t what to be derivative of, more so than anything else. I think my paintings are pretty different from Burchfield.
Freud I don’t think of, consciously. One of the things I was blown away by, at that show, was how the closer you got to those paintings, they completely fall apart into material but you do not have to get to far away from them and they feel as real as you. I still have a hard time understanding how that’s possible, to be honest. I don’t really like Freud as much, anymore. Once you find out about people, you’re like, “These people aren’t that great.” [laughs] But that was one of the first times I had that experience.
Viullard -there’s a few of his paintings at the museum in Chicago where I would go pretty frequently. That’s a similar thing, but his stuff is way weirder than Burchfield or Freud.
What contemporary artists are you looking at now?
Alessandro Keegan is an awesome believer in painting. He’s into the occult and spirituality. He’s up front about it and makes really great work that is connected to that. It’s not corny, cheesy, sensational or anything like that and I think that’s pretty impressive.
Where did you study art, if you did at all?
Undergrad school was in Pennsylvania. I went to the Tyler School of Art.
Yeah, near Philly.
Did you go to grad school?
Yeah, in Chicago. Although, before I went to SAIC, I lived in New York very briefly.
What year was that?
It was February, 2002, and I probably left in 2003 [Laughs]. It was one of those...a really rude awakening. I really did not like it there.
Why did you go to NYC?
Before I graduated from Tyler, I did the Yale Norfolk Residency and met a lot of people there that lived in New York and we got along really well. I decided I was going to save up some money and move to New York. Went to Philadelphia, got my stuff, and then moved back to Pittsburgh. I lived with my folks, worked and saved money. I saved about two thousand dollars and then I moved to New York in February.
It was the winter after September 11th. It was probably the worst time to move to New York for lots of reasons -that being the primary one. It was a complicated time. I moved from Pittsburgh, from a relatively ideal setting, to New York. It was a lot of anxiety, really stressful, on top of the fact that there was a miasma of total terror and fear and anxiety -all those things left over, just still hanging. Not even left over, just hanging in the air from nine eleven.
I visited some friends in Philadelphia while I was living in New York and they were living, to my eyes, just the best life and I didn’t see them as making any kind of huge sacrifice, artistically, by living a more comfortable life. I realized that part of the reason I moved to New York was that I thought, you know, that this is the place -the center of the art universe in America. And you know, I really don’t like my day to day life, I feel terrible all the time, but it’s worth it because I am in New York and it’s going to lead to something. So that trip to Philly made me see that I didn’t have to live in New York if I didn’t want to.
Part of my reason for moving to New York is that I wanted to get into grad school and I thought it would be a great place to be making work to then apply to grad school. I assumed that I would get into at least one of the grad schools that I applied to. Didn’t get into any grad schools because the work wasn’t true to my nature. I was making stuff that I thought would fit into Yale or even SAIC or...
The “important” schools [laughs].
Yeah! Exactly, the important schools.
Everybody applies to Yale, whether they want to go there or not [laughs].
Yeah [laughs]. That’s the truth.
So I got all the rejection letters and that was tough, but what happened was that I kept making work; I kept painting. But then I started making these paintings that I really, really felt connected to and that was a pretty formative experience. When I am making a painting I am trying to be relatively intuitive; I’m trying not to think too much about what it might mean or what I am trying to say with this painting. I’m trusting that I’m making it and I’m influenced by what’s going on and that influence will come out and will show in a way that is more saturated than if I were to set out with the idea of this or that. That practice of just sitting down, painting, listening to music, getting lost in a painting -that’s where that started, actually.
I wasn’t painting for an application or for anybody, since I didn’t have any kind of prospects lined up for showing, really just painting, in large part, for myself. Although I lived with two other people who were artists and I had a lot of artist friends -they saw what I was doing. It wasn’t like no one knows I paint. The experience was just about me and the painting. I can’t imagine how awful things would have been if I had gotten into grad school with that work I was making, initially, for grad school.
How old were you at that point?
In my twenties, twenty-three or so.
There was a lot of struggle when I was twenty three. Questions like, “what am I doing; what worth does it have, who am I in my work and how do I choose a direction?” Do you have a memory for what you worried about, artistically, back then?
All my friends who were making art there were painters, but they definitely were kind of conceptual. They had gone to Cooper or Pratt. I didn’t know anyone from the New York Studio School, which maybe would have been an easier fit. When I think too much about being intelligent or defending something I’ve done in a painting, I get suffocated. I mean it’s intellectual to some extent, but for me it’s about connecting to my experience and just connecting to my environment. Again, not that thought has no place in that, but it’s not the primary reason for making the painting to begin with or there is no end goal, proving some sort of point, necessarily, about painting. So knowing that about myself, but trying to be a “smart person” in my paintings -that was very stressful.
That time in your life, whatever you do, but certainly as artists, your mind is way more open to influence, even influences that don’t fit, and it pulls you into a kind a void. And if you’re lucky, or whatever, maybe luck has nothing to do with it, if you survive all that you get to come out on the other side, which I say is over 35, whatever, maybe over 40, I don’t know what age it is, it’s different for everybody, where who you are remains in tact, despite all that.
To me, that’s an arc of an art education. So what brought you to Chicago, SAIC?
I had been to Chicago as a kid and thought it was a pretty cool place. I had been told, when I was in undergrad, by one of my professors, Richard Cramer, who unfortunately has passed away of complications due to Covid-19, that Chicago would be a good place for me to check out; check out the Hairy Who. At that time I was making work that was a little more graphic, in terms of being kind of flat, and really composed, but it was also inspired to some extent by cartoons and comics. So I can see why he would say that now. At the time, I was just a kid, and I thought more about what was happening in New York as important versus what was happening in Chicago. So I just didn’t know much about Chicago.
Even though the way I approach my paintings has changed, that current stayed intact. A lot of color, relatively stylized figures, but also not a presumptive attitude about art, which is what those folks [Hairy Who] were known for. They were smart; really intelligent people reacting to the high brow stuff in New York and on the West Coast.
So, the second time I applied for grad schools, I got an interview at SAIC. I went and got along with Dan Devening and Judith Geichman, the folks that interviewed me, and they were interested in where I was coming from.
I also applied to Yale and got an interview there too, but when I went it was like, “You don’t belong here, Joe.” When I was at the interview, they asked me who I was looking at and I mentioned Martin Kippenberger. Based on what I had to say about Kippenberger, which was mostly all formal, not conceptual at all, which is an enormous part of the approach, if not the entire thing, Kurt Kauper, who was one of the interviewers, said flat out, “I don’t think you understand Kippenberger.” It was pretty intense, he was right, but no one had ever been that blunt with me or it had been awhile. That was a pretty intense environment to be in anyway; I was interviewing at Yale and I was sweating bullets.
Yeah, it’s that kind of environment.
So when he said that, he was right. It made my stomach sink, and I also knew I wasn’t getting into Yale, but that made the interview at Chicago, which came after that, just feel more right, more natural. We got along. I was making these paintings on acrylic panels that I put together from wood at Home Depot -they were really poorly made. I wasn’t thinking about that conceptually, I was just making something to paint on. Dan said something about how the supports look like shit, and that’s got to be on purpose. It wasn’t on purpose, but I understood what he was saying. So it just seemed like a good fit. Chicago, in a lot of ways, reminds me of Pittsburgh -a big, blue collar city. After getting to know Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum, and other folks that work at the school, it seemed like the right attitude. They were serious, but not too serious, fun but not too much fun.
So, why did you move to Texas?
I was living in Chicago. I was teaching and working in a woodshop. Chicago was stressing me out. My parents had recently moved from Pittsburgh to El Paso, Texas, and then to Austin to be with my sister because of the grandkids. Work was drying up in Chicago and me wanting to be there was drying up. I initially wanted to move back to Pittsburgh, but part of that was to be closer to my family. Since they had all just moved to Texas I thought maybe I should consider moving to Texas. I found a job, there, teaching at the art institute. I have to admit I was definitely into the idea of moving to “the West.” Not the west coast, but the frontier west.
A romantic notion, maybe?
Yeah, for sure. Lot’s of people in Chicago were like, “If that’s the only reason you are going there, you shouldn’t go. Don’t move to Texas for that reason. ” But I did. So I moved there for a change. I liked that Austin was small, like Pittsburgh, but also that it seemed healthier than Pittsburgh -it is healthier than Pittsburgh. Coming from Pittsburgh, New York or Chicago, that seemed refreshing, although talk to anybody I knew down there and they’d say all I complained about was that it wasn’t old enough or decrepit enough [laughs].
So I started working from pictures that were of Pittsburgh or South Carolina, which reminded me a lot of the Pittsburgh area with the tangly growth.
When was this?
That was 2009 through 2014.
So you went somewhere new, but you were thinking about where you were from and you were looking for notes of that in things that were in Austin. You then made a decision to go back home to Pittsburgh. I read in an interview that it was a bit of a challenge for you to go back home, even though you had wanted to. I don’t think your work is nostalgic, but I think, to some degree, you have dealt with nostalgia.
Yeah, a lot.
Can you talk about nostalgia, going back home, the pain it involved, and how that manifested in your work?
Towards the end of grad school, I was feeling a strong desire to move back to Pennsylvania, to Pittsburgh; wasn’t able to, and I moved to Texas. I was looking at things that reminded me of the Pittsburgh area, to work from, and that were also related to family. So, when I worked on paintings from photos of South Carolina, those were all family vacations that were impactful on me, visually, and made its way into my art. I realized I missed family or that feeling of belonging that I feel here [Pittsburgh], because I grew up here and had a lot of experience with people who have lived their whole lives here.
My uncle passed away in 2012 and we came up here for that. That was obviously, emotionally, a very heavy time. He was my mom’s only sibling and she was pretty upset and I missed my uncle. We came up in June or July, a beautiful time to be up here, but also very emotionally intense. While I was up here I began taking some pictures of things that I’d like to paint when I got back to Texas. After I got back to Texas, the more I was making these paintings based on stuff from Pennsylvania, the more I thought, “Why don’t I move back to Pittsburgh -why am I doing this -it’s weird.” My parents moved back up about a year before I did, so there were all these things pointing me in the direction of going back which was something I wanted to do for at least a decade.
When I got here [Pittsburgh], it was April or so. It was early spring, which here is dark, not warm, it’s wet, there’s barely any green although you know it’s on its way. That had a pretty profound effect on me emotionally, just like it did growing up. On top of the fact that I had suffered some losses; leaving people behind in Texas; not sure I was doing the right thing by moving [in] with my parents and not knowing what I was going to do. Found a job at a grocery store, no teaching had popped up, even though I made inquiries. I had to ask myself a lot of questions, had to change my perception of myself, I had to adapt.
What did that mean to you -to change your perception of yourself?
In Austin I thought of myself as an artist and a teacher that had come from Chicago. I was showing at a gallery in Chicago, regularly, every two years or so. My view of myself in Chicago was all art-based, painting-based. When I moved to Texas, that’s how I presented myself and that was the world I fit into. When I came up here [Pittsburgh] I just had a show and I had one more coming up, but beyond that, it was almost like a secret. I was working at Trader Joes and nobody here knew or cared about my experiences in Chicago or Texas. To some extent I had to be okay with painting or art-making as somewhat secondary to being a son. My mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer and I painted along with that. That put things into perspective quite a bit when there was the very real possibility of her death. I took myself out of a bubble; popped that bubble pretty hard.
But the thing is that once I got over that shock, it’s more in line with my nature, anyways, to exist in that middle ground. It was ultimately a good, but difficult, thing for me to have done. It was good because it helped me be a little bit more objective about home in a way that has improved my relationship with it, as well as changed the atmosphere of my work so that it might be less nostalgic. I’ve always, inadvertently, skirted nostalgia in my work, but now that I am here, I am painting what’s here. It feels like it is almost impossible for there to be nostalgia in my work, which is good because I was never comfortable with that.
I don’t think your work or landscape, itself, is a nostalgic enterprise, absolutely. It really depends on what you are going about.
Prior to that [the move home], I was being nostalgic. I was missing Pittsburgh or Bethel Park and seeking out things that reminded me of it.
In the online catalog for the 2012 exhibit “Tenses of Landscape,” which included some of the Austin work, you stated that “Reacting against... sameness has become essential to my work. I find the unique things (older buildings, trees, alleys/garbage) much more valuable than things that seem to be increasingly built to replace them.” You go on to say that these unique, old things remind you of painting.
So the question is what painting things is, or could be, in relation to your statement? The other thing I wondered, in the sense of reacting against the sameness of contemporary architecture, is whether you are reacting against a certain kind of art at that time. It’s kind of a tricky discourse because nobody wants to be reactionary, right? And yet, I know that people see [often incorrectly] that an artist making landscape is working against a contemporary art culture.
Can we have a dialogue about that -is there something to say about that?
Austin being a newer place, I was definitely talking about that sameness. I really didn’t like the architecture there. It was right for people who didn’t have a problem with putting this thing up or that thing up. It’s flat so there is no issue with expanding. Having been in older cities, prior to that, I saw Austin’s architecture as a visible byproduct of “new” culture, throwaway culture.
By looking at other things, I was definitely choosing those. By painting those things and putting them in shows in Chicago and Austin; I felt that by valuing them, by taking the time to paint them, I was giving people an alternative to what was happening.
In general, I don’t know what’s going on [in contemporary art]. What I could say is, as you mentioned, I'm being pretty blunt about wanting the paintings to have an expressive quality. Maybe that is something that people don’t say even if it is something that they want; they don’t throw it out there.
I think at the time, because I saw myself as an artist-teacher, I was thinking more about reacting to, or having a dialogue with, contemporary art, but now I don’t see it the same way. Because my role has changed, which is good. It’s made my work better because it is more direct. I think less about how it is going to fit into what’s going on, as if I know what’s going on.
I think the idea of expressiveness is a challenge because the academic life, and to some degree the commercial life that may come after it, tries to work that out of us. There are a lot of artists that work from that place, but hesitate to talk about it because [talking about it] it has been trained out of them.
That was definitely part of my experience in grad school. I had a group of friends in school who were not so much making expressive paintings, but they believed in the act of painting. The thing that united all of us was the tradition of painting and trusting, even though it was hard, that something of relevance was going to come through because we’re making paintings now, in the world. Whereas other folks in the [grad] program, or the advisors, weren’t into expressiveness, in the literal way you think of it, like a Frank Auerbach painting, unless you had a conceptual reason for doing it.
Do you think that was a function of their disability to entertain what I think is conceptual...a way of thinking about what painting is or could be -that’s conceptual, right? How you conceive of painting and what it can do.
Sometimes I am not sure if expressiveness is the right word. I think of them as expressive paintings, but maybe more in terms of being emotive, having a mood, an atmosphere. There’s a certain amount of texture to them, not a lot of flat, plain painting. That kind of texture, or implied texture, is something I consistently like across the board, whether its music, actual landscape, or other people’s work. There’s the evidence of my hand, there, because I use my fingers to move things around. There are fingerprints, so they are literally hands-on.
I can’t help but to think of Frank Auerbach, or Kirchener, when I think of expressive. But who I really think of as an expressive painter, who has been a big influence on me, is Delacroix. Historically speaking, his work is not expressive -it’s Romantic. He’s bold, his stuff has a lot of color, his compositions are very active. It’s an experience to look at one of his paintings; you look all around, you get really close, you get really far. That’s the kind of quality that I like to have in my work. Formally speaking, you could call my paintings expressive; there’s a lot of movement in them that is generated by me making expressive marks to begin a painting and then building on them from there.
Do you think it’s the sense of the natural world, the architecture, whatever it is, having a quality of languid animation -I say languid because your work isn’t wildly frantic. It’s sort of a dripping animation; even the inorganic feels organic.
Yeah, that’s how I see things when I look around. That’s what’s here. Even power-lines, hills, and houses -there’s a lot of, visually speaking, movement here. If I were living in Chicago, in Logan Square, I wouldn’t really get much -there would be a lot of horizontal and vertical. We get a lot of different visual stimulation here. On top of that, we have a lot of nature, pretty intense seasonal changes, all those things come together. Maybe expressive of emotion, or of feeling, maybe that is a better way to frame things when we are talking about painting because that [expressive] is such a loaded term. That’s why people don’t say, “I wanna make expressive paintings.” [Laughs] If somebody told me that, like one of my students, I’d be a little wary until I saw what they wanted to make and then that wariness might change.
I find Symbolist impulses entwined with American Regionalism, Burchfield’s manic mysticism hybridizing with Redon’s macabre irrationalism in your work. There is also a current of later German Romanticism and, in some paintings, a compositional resemblance to deChirico’s Archaeologists. What do you think of these combinations I put together?
I think they’re good.
There was a specific image that you made and I thought, “why does this painting remind me of deChirico?” A lot of your paintings have an internal aspect; they mind the boundary of the canvas edge. “The Archaeologists,” he had a series of them, are like that, where they look like a still-life. Your painting is like that -it’s portraiture, it’s landscape, it’s still-life -all at the same time.
I had to look that picture up because I know deChirico, but I was always really turned off by Surrealism, although he is kind of a proto-surrealist. I am still wary of it, but I think there were some really good things that came out of it.
With “The Archaeologists,” once you brought that up, I instantly saw the subject matter and its relationship to the edges. I’ve become increasingly aware of the edge; how what I am making interacts with that. I’m looking at this one right here [on the studio wall], it definitely has that kind of still-life aspect where it looks as if it’s an object existing in a space. It’s a painting of a possum chewing on someone’s hand and arm. The possum and the arm have become like one thing. The exterior is just color. The idea is that I don’t always want what I am making to look as if it’s a snapshot, or a window is a better way of putting it, out onto a larger reality. It’s like a way to make the experience of a physical thing rather than a picture of the environment in which you or I would feel a certain way. I’m taking that idea and trying to get at making a new thing out of those parts.
I think of them sculpturally, not all the paintings, but the ones you’re referring to. I look at it and think, “Why is there all this empty space?” To get the idea across of this thing being three dimensional, like an impossible still-life. Why not just try to make an impossible still-life? It would almost make more sense if they were sculptures.
In your later, shall I say "bearded portraits,” I draw visual connections ranging from Ole Peter Hansen Balling's John Brown to Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son. What do you think about all that?
You’re not reaching too far with “Saturn Devouring his Son.” That’s definitely an image I saw when I was a teenager. When we see that painting, now, there’s an element of goofiness to it. But there’s also a blunt, downplayed, but in that way believable, violence to it with the mutilated corpse he’s holding. I’ve always been drawn to that kind of grizzliness.
That figure doesn’t look too threatening to me. If that figure wasn’t holding, and implied to be eating, another human being, I would certainly think it was strange, but wouldn’t be afraid of it. It reminds me of watching horror movies, when I was a kid, with my dad. You know this is fake, going into it, but there are gross things that happen. Like Dawn of the Dead, everything’s garish, the zombies are blue, the paint -there you go, the blood is bright red as paint. Yet there’s still a visceral, disgusting fear and terror to those things and I think that I saw that in that Goya painting. Then you can get into the irrational -that being something that just isn’t as aggressively off-putting as something that is bloody. He’s going for something like that. And the same for those paintings of witches, all that irrational belief in superstition or the occult. That has stuck with me for a time.
John Brown, he’s an interesting person. He’s a person, an era, I’ve been drawn to for awhile. There’s that connection to the hillbilly, you mentioned, just formally. Painting facial hair or hair that is unkempt is way more satisfying as a painter of primarily natural things than is someone who has a nice haircut and no facial hair whatsoever. I live pretty close to rural areas, here, and folks that remind me of... [laughs] the stereotype of the hillbilly, visually speaking. It's more that I see the bearded people as symbolically representative of my home and the land, here.
It is, technically, Appalachia.
Yeah. There’s a love-hate relationship with that. I have this critical remove from my education. I think, on the one hand, I like that, I need that -the everyday, which in this area, often kind of looks like that [my portraits]. I mean, I exaggerate it a bit, of course. But I also need that kind of criticality; one can be both.
Is there a sense of self-portraiture in it?
Yeah, definitely. That’s part of the reason why I struggle with portraits. I don’t have a problem making myself look unusual or deformed or whatever in a painting. I can be pretty objective about it. I wouldn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings if they had an expectation of a portrait being painted of them.
Would someone ask you for a portrait? [laughs] Has that happened?
No, not really. I would like to do that and I’ve painted a few portraits of people, but it never feels good to do it. I never feel like I’m letting loose and doing what I want to do. Whenever someone who maybe hasn’t asked, but might want a portrait, that is what they want. They know they’re not going to get a photographic portrait of themselves.
From Thoreau to Ted Kaczynski, the retreat to nature has been a consistent counter-cultural impulse in the U.S. What do you think of the “lone man in the wilderness” concept? I’m not really catching much from you about the wilderness man; I’m not sure that that is relevant. Does this idea interest you?
It used to. I was very interested in mountain men for while. At the time, when I was getting into that stuff, I was swept away by the romance. I didn’t think at all about how it was connected to the destruction of the environment, expansion of corporations, all that stuff. I was just looking at what I saw was a harmonious balance between man and nature, but specifically for Americans. Now I think it is synonymous with the destruction of nature, consuming things, the displacement of peoples. But with mountain men, that happened here or there, folks were just heading out west to be alone and commune [with nature]. I realize now that my view of that was very romanticized, very inaccurate, and certainly something I wouldn’t want to put out in terms of an image of “better days.”
That’s not where you’re coming from.
No, but I was drawn to those things just [from] growing up here.
The influence of that mythology.
Yeah, for sure. There’s a connection to nature, there. I was influenced by those things, but now, when I tap into that, it has less to do with mountain men or the frontier. Those were a way for me to get back into this. All that stuff, like the film Jeremiah Johnson, the big resurgence of that stuff around the time of the bicentennial. I was born a few years later, but I grew up with people who were very influenced by that time period. There’s a lot of visual evidence of that here. By way of that stuff, I found my way back to images of home. I guess I had to go through it, conceptually.
I had the same impulse -I got to get across this country, I got to see it and participate in it. There’s some suspicion or skepticism about that and I think that’s reasonable. These ideas come full circle to the original displacement [of native peoples] and nation building, when I think about the people I associate with those [western mountain] places, now, which can be white supremacists on compounds, Ted Kacynski, Ruby Ridge -to me, that’s the mountain men now.
We just went up north for a couple of days and it was like Trump this, Trump that. Just sign after sign -big, hand-made signs saying “Love America, Vote for Trump.” This is really unfortunate because we’re in this beautiful environment. This is a place that you should expect more harmony. I’m sure there are pockets of that, but it seemed like the impression one would get from the folks living out in nature is that they are a bunch of angry conservatives. I know that’s not true, but it does seem like you have to contend with that now.
It’s complicated since we are all dealing with a set of stereotypes and mythologies. Our conception of nature is formed in cities where ideas are different and social or cultural norms are different. Out there, in the country, ideas they form about cities are just as wrong.
But it does play into the artwork, to some degree. I do not look at your work and think this is representative of that. It does seem a bit of a critique, the portraits. Maybe that’s putting it too academically.
I know what you mean.I think that is part of why I am drawn to them; it is because they do make me uncomfortable. They tap into different feelings than I usually tap into when I’m making my work, which are usually harmonious, good feelings. A lot of the portraits started out, honestly, to be critical of people here. People who are backwards. But I don’t think that it is fair or right to project that onto people. That’s why they are often filtered through self-portraits because, really, that’s what it is anyway.
You are a part of it, in maybe not an obvious way, but you are born of the same place.
I can love it, its backwardness, or I can be really irritated by it and think I should have stayed in Chicago where there is more of an arts culture.
By making it your image, you are implicating yourself in being the thing that you are criticizing.
Yeah, it’s good to hear that may come across. I’m still working on that with the portraits. Because the complexity needs to come across, not just be out-rightly critical.
What happens to your work after you finish it? Do you have an outlet for them?
Not currently. I was showing at Linda Warren Projects, in Chicago, but she closed her doors awhile ago. It’s the place that I consistently showed. I was lucky, right out of grad school, I got a show in her back room, the start-up place. That went well and she said “How would you like to have a show in the main gallery next year?”
Yeah, I would. [Laughs]
Yeah, exactly. Right out of school like that? There’s no way I’m gonna say no. That’s an interesting thing, too, because my experience was different than a lot of people. I started showing right out of grad school. I also had to work, I wasn’t selling and making all my ends meet, but I didn’t have to hoof it.
You weren’t applying to shows?
No, not really. Honestly, Instagram, visually at least, is my primary outlet just as far as getting things out there [now].
Do you sell work that way?
I’ve sold a few things, here and there, with it. If someone wants to buy something they are free to ask. I think my Instagram does say they’re for sale, but I don’t put a price on them. I don’t even wonder about it, unless somebody asks.
Linda had a sense of what she could get for something at her gallery. She had a clientele and had been in business for awhile. I was really lucky to connect with Linda because she is such a strong supporter of her artists. Without that person, without that guidance, I don’t know. Plus. that was in Chicago, this is Pittsburgh. I sold a painting to someone a couple of years ago, in Brooklyn, NY, and I’m sure they are used to seeing, if not paying, high prices. There’s so many different contexts that it’s hard to come up with one...it’s almost a case by case, I imagine.
Should a painting be the same price in Pittsburgh as it is in New York City? If you don’t have a facility in New York, say.
Why not? Assigning a monetary value is just that. I don’t believe that things that cost a lot are more worthwhile than things that don’t. In fact, I probably think the opposite. It’s a struggle because I kind of cut my teeth selling things through a gallery and I could get a couple thousand bucks for a painting.
Is that after her take?
Yeah, and that’s nice; I am not going to lie. But at the same time, maybe because of my upbringing, I don’t always attribute value to money. I think of it more as, if someone is interested in my work, if they’re getting something out of it, if it moves them, as corny as that sounds, that’s more important to me than making a buck off of it. Because I am fine, I am making money. I actually don’t think I would like to just make money through my paintings and just paint all the time, just be an artist all the time.
I sold a few paintings through Instagram; intentionally putting them up for sale and pricing them to help support BLM. I felt that was the best way to do it, because the money was going almost entirely to an organization that I think is doing good. The people that bought them wanted to support that organization and they wanted my work, so they were supporting me. It just felt great; it was a significant amount to give to an organization, wasn’t a loss on my part, and a person is getting a piece of mine. Why not let that be how I sell things? That’s possibly good enough.
After moving back up here, I had to take a look at how I define myself. I feel more like myself, in terms of how I approach thoughts like that, than when I lived in Chicago. There’s a reality to being here that I didn’t have there. I don’t want to work at Trader Joes for the rest of my life, but there is something, I get a lot out of work that isn’t artwork. I need that to a certain extent.
When Justice Ginsburg died, her quotes started coming out and one of them was about how she needed to be a mother to create the the space for her law work. That one demanded the other and made the other one possible; it made the enjoyment of the other one possible.
Yeah, I think that’s true. On days off, I can’t wait to get in here and paint. I’ll paint sometimes after work. It definitely helps me appreciate it more that I don’t work as much in that field. When I teach, that’s the closest I get to feeling as if there is a seamless connection. I was teaching two nights a week at PCA, prior to the pandemic, so that has changed a little bit. I have been doing that less; just started doing that once a week, yesterday. That’s good enough for me, that little bit. I still get to share insight with people and get that genuine connection and help people at PCA. That’s enjoyable to me, as enjoyable as painting. For me I need to have both, not just one of those things.
What’s the future look like for you?
I have as show in Chicago in spring of 2022, at the Riverside Art Center. Judith Mullen reached out a few months ago to ask if I’d be interested in a show there. Otherwise I don’t really know, especially now with everything going on. I’m waiting to see how we’re going to move forward. So I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.