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.