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.