story / Gina Tron
images / Joel Sheakowski
Noah Becker is painter and jazz saxophonist. He was recently listed in NY Arts Mag’s “30 Artists to Watch.” He has been garnering a bit of attention in the last few years. He was featured in Interview Magazine in 2010.
This is Noah’s second run in the over sized Big APPLE, one that is much more successful than his previous one. His first infiltration into this fancy rat-infested metropolis was back in the mid-nineties. “I bounced around a lot living in people’s floors, people’s couches, getting evicted from this and that place.” After 10 years of other ventures, he came back to the city and he feels that due to his prior experience, it was easier the second time around.
I visited his studio in Dumbo to see where he paints, usually to the tune of jazz music. The walls of the large room were covered with his paintings in a manner that was pleasing to the eye. His selection of portraits of vintage women with super textured hair caught my eye. But what really caught my eye was the painting of the mid-century looking sexy pizza eating thug.
We talked art, art, and lots of art.The way Noah spits out art references and names makes me feel like a naive hillbilly. Which led me educate myself on anything he mentioned that I was in the dark about. At the end, I felt prepared to shed some light on the genius mind that is Noah Becker:
How long have you been interested in painting?
NB: I started getting into painting seriously when I was 15. When I was 11 I started playing the saxophone. I played saxophone, and then I started doing paintings of my saxophone.
Did you come from an artistic family?
Yeah. My parents were doing pottery. We were living in the wilderness of Canada.
What artists are you most inspired by?
I was really into Francis Bacon and then at a certain point, I kind of stopped using other artists for inspiration because I felt I needed to do my own thing. I felt I had internalized enough influences where i could just forget about [them] and do whatever I felt. But they [the influences] always pop up here and there.
I went into what I really wanted to go into. The meaning behind the Pizza painting.
This is based on a Caravaggio painting. I’ve never been into Caravaggio but I wanted to put Italian art in a sportsbar context. Like an old master painting in the atmosphere of like a Hooters or a TGIFridays or something like that. Something very American something that speaks of the lack of north american culture. Also [the painting is inspired by] something that John Currin said about painting which is that, “If you are an American artist influenced by European art you will always be an American artist. You will never be a European artist.” I’m identifying myself as a North American artist that has a European interest but also [addressing] the fact that the painting already happened so you can express whatever you want to without having to be academic or contemporary.
Also this [painting] is identifying that this is post high-culture and post lowbrow. There is no high and no low anymore. There is no alternative art. There is no insider art, no outsider art. If you look on an image search for Rembrandt there may be like Hertz rental car that comes up or the [Rembrandt] toothpaste. There aren’t clear signals anymore. I wanted to express that in a painting. I thought the interesting way to do it was to bring old master art with something of american trash culture.
As a Canadian, what is it like painting American trash?
Well, I was born in Cleveland. I’m a dual citizen. I haven’t really reconciled that.
Do you feel more American or Canadian?
I think I feel more comfortable with the American attitude but I identify with the Canadian one as well. I think its just a Schizophrenic feeling and I don’t know which one I’m feeling. I don’t know which country I’m representing from moment to moment.
You like the texture of hair a lot, I gather from your paintings.
Yeah, these[the portrait paintings] are supposed to look outdated looking because the hairstyles are outdated. 1960s and 70s, but then at the same time because of the vacancy in the background its supposed to be deliberately shallow and deadpan. Almost like a Samuel Beckett play where its limited to a very small focus and repetition of looking at the same thing.
You paint celebrities too sometimes. Why do you choose the particular celebrities that you do?
I just happen to like the image; its not really about celebrities. I prefer working with things that have a famous feel to them but are not necessary celebrity portraits. I think the painting has to be a good painting whether its a person or not. Sometimes even referencing a famous painting is ‘doing a celebrity.’ Painting logos and stuff like that is almost a way of addressing pop art without being a pop artist.
A lot of your work looks like pop art.
My 30x30s are the same size of all the Warhol paintings. Deliberately.
Do you like Warhol?
I know a lot about Warhol. I know a lot of people who were friends with him but I’m not entirely influenced by him as a painter. Warhol has become a big mainstream thing. It’s to the point where its rediculous. You go to American Apparel and buy Edie Sedgwick clothes and whatever. It’s very redundant. They’ve made it very redundant.
Are you disgusted by it?
No no its fine. But in the case of these paintings [Noah’s portraits] especially the ones that are square format there is an esoteric colorfield approach taken by Warhol, there is an esoteric color field approach taken by Francis Bacon, there’s an esoteric abstract approach taken out of [Jean-Michel] Basquiat. A lot of those artists from that time were working in a way where they had to address the fact that abstract expressionists were all the rage. More so Warhol and Bacon than Basquiat. But with mine instead of making the colors psychedelic, I wanted to betray pop art. [The paintings] are earth colors so it became more like looking a sculpture. Strangely artificial.
What’s your opinion on Mr. Brainwash?
I’ve met Mr. Brainwash in Miami. He has a huge show every year [at Art Basel.] He’s the most shameless self promoter. Most shameless pseudo-Bansky pop artist. He doesn’t feel anything about doing whatever he can to get people’s attention and make money off his art. I don’t think all of his art sucks. But I think in a lot of ways most of his art is a bit cheesy. I don’t think Bansky is as cheesy as that. Some of Mr. Brainwash’s stuff I really like. Every artist wants to gets people’s attention to their art to an extent. But you don’t have to get their attention by entertaining people. Sometimes you can just get attention for doing something very selfish. Art doesn’t necessarily have to be entertainment. I think every artist struggles with how far they want to court money and fame. I think Warhol and Mr. Brainwash have a lot in common in that way. They both were okay with just courting the spotlight and money at the expense of their art.
Do you have trouble riding that line yourself?
Well, I’d like more attention and more money. I have more than I did a few months ago and it seems to be improving and improving. I think if you do painting, that theres something a lil bit crazy about the idea of doing painting. Most people don’t do that thing because they are afraid they won’t be able to make a living or whatever that is. I feel especially in a place like New York you can meet people who appreciate what you are doing.
Any odd jobs?
I applied for a security guard job at the Guggenheim in Soho and it was just after 911. There was a missing space in my resume so she was like “We can’t hire you.” She said it was a red flag. Just to stand in front of paintings with a walkie talkie all day. I applied to a job in Cpnnecticut too in the 1990s at a toy factory. My job was painting miniature likenesses of the NY Jets football players with a one hair brush. I couldn’t really do it and the [boss] kept coming in and yelling at me.
Did you doodle a lot in school?
Well i didn’t really go to high school. I just went to art school and music school .
What were they like?
In art school I was a prodigy. I was really excelling at it. And music school I was doing classical music and jazz so it was quite rewarding.
Were they set up like high schools?
No. I didn’t go to highschool.
Oh. You mean, you went from elementary school right to college? (I wasn’t understanding this concept, apparently)
Yeah. I didn’t get much formal schooling at al. most of my schooling is creative so its very important that I’m involved in creative work. Because that is my area of expertise and I almost feel like I’ve had to develop skills to relate to no- creative thinking and socialization because I didn’t have the basic socialization that people that go to public school [receive.]
Do you feel like you missed out?
I missed out on getting drunk, on getting my ass kicked in the afternoon because someone was frustrated. That whole aspect of peer pressure and juvenile fantasy is something that appeals to me but would have stifled me creatively. I don’t believe the education system works. I belive its a factory to pump out people who are as worthwhile a person as they can. But as everyone knows no amount of school can prepare you for real life. As a kid your parents tell you school is the answer to a future. And I’m not certain that it is.
Anything you been in recently?
I just finished being in a museum show. It’s in the Oakland University Art Gallery in Detroit, Michigan [in a show called] “Aura and the Contemporary Portrait” curated by Dick Goody.
How do you feel about that and being listed in NY Mag’s 30 Artists to Watch?
I think I’m working really hard and i think that through hard work stuff can happen. I don’t think its a fantasy. I think stuff can happen.
Bucking the trend and getting around the normal way of doing things is a great way in. You have to create your own unique way in. Unless you’re part of a system that is already in place.