3.12 / Review

From Chicago: Ain’t No Reason to Hang My Head

By Randall Miller March 29, 2012

After spending an afternoon with Joseph Noderer’s paintings at Linda Warren Projects, I couldn’t decide if I should go and watch children play with puppies or down a bottle of bourbon. Viewing his work can be an unsettling experience; the paintings have a sketchy quality, and his quick brushstrokes describe the lonelier aspects of life in the disregarded corners of the rural South and the southwestern United States. Noderer paints dilapidated houses, shacks, and mobile homes, placed centrally in the composition and surrounded by encroaching trees and foliage, which gives them the appearance of solitary figures embedded in hostile environments. His works have a moody quality more commonly found in psychologically charged portraiture than landscapes. The artist’s deft paint-handling suggests an intimate knowledge of his subject matter—Noderer currently resides outside of Austin, Texas—yet his skillful brushwork also conveys a sense of urgency, as though he feels a need to capture what is essential and move on. Far from constituting a love letter to Dixie, these images are stand-ins for the same bleak state of mind that birthed the blues and the sorrowful “lost my lady, lost my truck, and lost my dog all in the same day” lyrical sentiments idiomatic of early country music.

Untitled (2011) is a prime example of Noderer’s anxiety-imbued landscapes. The painting features a weathered cabin glimpsed through—or being swallowed by—a dense emerald-green jungle. The naturalistic light suggests a tangibly humid climate, compounding the work’s suffocating atmosphere. Trees and post beams create alternating vertical lines redolent of prison bars, while a bleached-white tree branch bisecting the image blocks the viewer’s point of entry into the precariously structured cabin. In Noderer’s work, a man-made home, with its promise of rooted domesticity, is no rival for nature’s power of reclamation.

Joseph Noderer. The Nights Progress, 2012; acrylic on wood panel; 30 x 38 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Linda Warren Projects.
Joseph Noderer. Brushy Creek Belle, 2011; acrylic on wood panel; 36 x 38 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Linda Warren Projects.

Rather than infusing his paintings with dark hues to convey a depressed mood, Noderer uses naturalistic mid-value tones to create a complex range of emotional nuances. Works such as Big Puddle II (2010), Sunday (2010), and Store II (2010) rely on color and light to produce an almost Impressionistic sense of atmosphere. The flat, even light depicted in Big Puddle II—an image of fenced-off pink and yellow houses pressed between the edge of a wet street and two looming trees—replicates the diffuse haze common after a midday shower. In Sunday, bands of chromatic temperature alternate: a cool grey road, a warm brown plot, an icy whitewashed shed, under a rusty warped rooftop, below a cool grey-blue sky. The effect is a fleeting moment of stark beauty.

Noderer hones this moody atmosphere in Gregory House (2012) and Brushy Creek Belle (2011). In these works, oddly colored skies begin to veer from naturalistic representation. The peach-toned sky in Brushy Creek Belle could capture the glow of a setting sun, but the color is too flat—seeming more like a wall than open space. The green sky over Gregory House is equally impenetrable; it combines with the leaning bungalow and shabby overgrown yard in the foreground to create a discordant feeling to the work, though here Noderer intensifies the psychological aspects of his work beyond his earlier mimetic representations of the environment. But why not alter more than just these few elements? The introduction of these manipulations suggests Noderer is in a transitional phase of his landscape/mindscape exploration. Though this direction is promising, the balance between nature and otherworldliness rests too comfortably in its current iteration. In taking this slight detour away from naturalistic description, the artist draws viewers deeper into his vivid interior world. But the small to medium scale of the paintings is an impediment to their visual and emotional impact.

If these recent landscapes are a bit too cautious, two portraits in the show fly in the face of that restraint. Subtlety and nuance are abandoned altogether in The Nights Progress (2012), for example. In this work, two green heads are connected by a tangled mass of organs, which could be spewed intestines or spilled brains or both. The gory heads float over one of Noderer’s shack-in-the-woods landscapes—perhaps an exaggerated conceptualization of the artist’s own practice. This image trades too freely in blunt shock value. The atmospheric, slow burn of the artist’s 2010 landscapes conveys mood without slipping into the didacticism of his more recent forays into surrealism and portraiture. Noderer is clearly a talented painter and, as evidenced in Ain’t No Reason to Hang My Head, he has produced interesting and divergent images in what appears to be a phase of experimentation.


Joseph Noderer. Ain’t No Reason to Hang My Head is on view at Linda Warren Projects, in Chicago, through April 21, 2012.

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