“The illumination of the human figure is an emblem of the divine, meeting and confronting mortal humanity.”
I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with the affable and insightful figurative painter, Noah Buchanan, about his latest ambitious and evocative work Symphony. The large multi-figural painting is in the finishing process. Noah Buchanan has released images of fragments of this work for this article before he reveals it to the public in its completion.
Buchanan, who began his artistic studies in 1994 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and later received a Masters from the New York Academy, brings great depth as he discusses his philosophy on art, and his latest work, Symphony.
Canvas: You are in the finishing process of a very ambitious painting called Symphony. What is the essence behind the inspiration of Symphony?
Noah Buchanan: Symphony is 96 x 70 inches and composed of a swirling assemblage of human figures, about 26, all engaged in a collective orchestration of music. The painting is chaotic in that it shows a wide range of individuals representing contrasts from sincerity to farce, birth and death, victory and failure, to name just a few. Despite the chaos, the painting is carefully composed and designed for visual harmony. So the painting, a paradox in of itself, depicts the chaos that is ordered.
The poetic meaning in the work orbits around the idea that Life is coming together. The root term ‘Symph’ means ‘brought together’. So, the painting is a bringing together of a wildly diverse range of existence, not only physically, but mentally and experientially; because whether we are experiencing success or failure in our lives, we are playing out the full score that is human existence for better or worse.
All of my paintings make use of heavy contrast of light and shadow, or Chiaroscuro. Working with light in a painting, or making paintings that speak largely of light, quickly and easily becomes an ordeal of the spiritual.
I don’t care what an artist’s beliefs are in terms of religion, faith, or non-faith. As soon as we have an existential moment with light, we know our world appears to us because of that light, the Sun’s light for example. We realize how much our lives, our existence, are built around that light. And as artists, we appreciate that our eyes are really just perfect little lenses and cameras, built around the idea of understanding and using light to understand our world.
For me, as an artist, it’s very hard not to load heaps of poetic meaning upon this idea. It would not be novel to say that Light in a painting represents the higher self, the divine essence of our human nature; the best that the human condition can offer. In a painting from Caravaggio’s era of the 16/17thth centuries, the light is thick, colorful, textured, replete with information, and luminous.
The shadow is equally compelling. The shadows appear dark, transparent, void of information and color, a void in and of itself really and it is the shadow-self that Carl Jung speaks of, the unknown lurking in our subconscious, the darkness of human existence.
Therefore, the illumination of the human figure is an emblem of the divine, meeting and confronting mortal humanity.
But further still, commitment to the use of light and shadow in this way ultimately suggests, within the same painting, that in the light we are not alone, while in the shadow: perhaps we are.
Canvas: Symphony seems to depict your own experience on some metaphoric level, how does the process of getting it down on canvas affect you? Does making these paintings change you at all?
Noah Buchanan: Painting a large multi-figure painting is like exploring a dream: You come to understand that each character is really a reflection of some part of yourself, that each figure is just yourself in costume, that you go around playing these different parts in some way, whether it’s an outward persona, or perhaps aspects of your inner, hidden character. So it’s deeply cutting. Honest work examines everything from the sublime to the deplorable in oneself.
Also, the trials of painting large, ambitious works affect me – I think the more I paint these large paintings, the more humbled I am. They’re challenging and they often feel like they’re on the brink of failure. In those moments it’s hard to know if the whole thing is worth it. I think that’s a part of the story behind my self-portrait in the lower right-hand corner of Symphony. But, it can be so mercurial, because I’ll find moments in making the painting that I feel are so successful and there’s an elation that comes with that. I feel both of these opposing feelings constantly while making the work. So it makes sense that in Symphony there are three self-portraits: one as the Failure, one as the Composer, and another as a Fool.
Canvas: Do you appreciate being asked about the meaning of your work, or do you feel the art should speak for itself?
Noah Buchanan: It’s a very quirky thing being a contemporary, representational, figurative painter because we tend to work in open-ended poetic imagery, crafted on the whims of our meandering interests and musings about life. This is in contrast to the old masters that worked strictly in narratives of Biblical mythological subject matter, historical events, portraits of rulers, or allegorical depictions, etc.
These were things that viewers could read easily and understand what was being illustrated based on common understandings of compositions, and symbols. In other words – no one had to ask, “What’s going on here?” But now, any given viewer who finds interest in contemporary painting will probably find that very question bubbling up, and so the artist is called upon explain.
I imagine that stage magicians feel the same way when they’re pressed to explain the logistics and workings of their performance. The moment the trick is explained, the magic is gone, and the audience doesn’t care anymore.
I think this is because the mystery is lost, and the audience craves the mystery more than anything.
I think the artist wants to conjure mystery and intrigue in the work, and to rope the viewer in, to investigate. The artist allows some things to be revealed while other meanings come about through the viewer’s own psychological dynamics and associations.
At the moment the artist translates their painting (a visual art form) into a spoken one, all parties involved must be aware that a translation is taking place, and with translation comes the cliché fear of being “lost in translation.” The verbal telling of the artist’s intentions can be given, but it loses the ineffable magic that comes from the strictly visual, and silent experience of the painting.
Ironically, the moment we realize that language will fail the decoding of the painting, we also realize that the very reason for painting as an art form is to dig into psychological dynamics in a non-verbal way: we are able to tap into aspects of our existence where language fails us or isn’t possible.
If I’m asked to explain my work, my first reaction is to feel flattered. Someone cares? Especially in times where we consume so much visual information at such a rapid pace. We don’t realize it, but our subconscious reaction is to find a moment’s delight in the stimulus of the painting, and then to fly past it onto the next thing, and who really cares what the artist is thinking. So, to be asked to talk about the work, I think most painters are honored; we figure we must have done something right.
The work shouldn’t be an unsolvable mystery. The idea of leaving the viewer stranded is to lack care, or it could mean that the artist has such an ego as to assume that the world will care enough to dissect the oeuvre of their work and decode the deep meanings in the imagery that they flung together. I feel we have some responsibility to weave our story, our poem, in a way that delivers the viewer into the narrative, psychological, or emotional destination, in which we wanted them to arrive. Once there, the work of the viewer is to decipher both the larger, universal themes of our existence and dwell on how those themes have played out in their own lives. This may circle back around and begin a wonderful fermentation process with the artist’s visual cues, and can often result in far more rich interpretations of the work.
All art requires an audience to be fulfilled, the audience is therefore a crucial participant; their interpretations are valid and important. The artist should not be thought of as a God, creating a perfect universe alone, steering and directing all outcomes. The work of creativity is far too big and awesome for us to control. An artist is the vehicle of creativity, not the other way around.
Canvas: Symbols, how do they function? How do you choose them, or do they choose you?
Noah Buchanan: I love working with symbols. I use them to add poignancy to the meanings I intend in the work. Ironically, I think most of my symbols arrive in my paintings well after the painting is composed and planned, and mostly already painted! Often, I have put them into the composition retroactively, to help balance the design. Also, many of these symbols have been used with common meanings for millennia, it makes the contemporary artist feel they’re part of something legendary.
It’s hard to say whether I’m choosing these symbols, or they’re choosing me. Often I’ll choose a symbol based on a subconscious desire to add the shape of it or just a gut-level reaction. But, the meanings of these additions always seem to end up supporting the meaning of the picture. So did the picture’s meaning suggest the symbol? Or did I subconsciously desire the inclusion of the symbol? Maybe those are both the same thing.
Ultimately, the artist has to take responsibility for their symbols. There are some universal ‘fixed meanings,’ for symbols that the artist has to obey. Artists can’t just say, ‘well, for me, the boat represents my childhood,’ when the symbol of the boat already has set meanings (commonly revolving around journeys, spiritual or literal). Luckily for the artist, most symbols have a range of possible meanings, which enables some versatility.
It’s important for artists to think about universality in communicating with their audience. When we make an image, we’ve got to find out what the core essence of the meaning is, so that it can communicate to the broader human experience. My mentor in graduate school, Martha Mayer Erlebacher, often said, “Don’t make a soap opera painting; Art is BIG, it’s about the big issues, not about our little problems.” And she meant that we can’t take the finite dramas of our lives and make art about them unless we can figure out what deeper issue is at work.
I continually address this with students. I might ask them to make a narrative composition with the context of ‘the break-up painting.’ The artist might be working through the emotions of a break-up, and they want to depict the literal individuals and actions of that break-up. This is exactly the soap-opera painting that Erlebacher talked about. Work like this often comes across as overly personal, embarrassing to the viewer, and no one cares. But, I’ve watched fledgling artists evolve before my eyes from self-focused, depressive, sad, lost ‘poets’ to empowered visionaries, compelled with a purpose to create meaningful art when they realize that their personal drama can be unpacked and broadened, to grapple with the larger topic of loss, abandonment, grief, and in doing so they can exalt and console ‘every person’ going through those experiences. The moment the concept of an artwork evolves to approach these larger aspects of humanity, it has surely expanded to a more powerful function. Now they’re making ‘Art.’
Another example is Surf Art. Living in California I encounter many people who want to depict the literal activity of surfing. They surf and they feel passionate about it. So, I ask them to explain their feelings about surfing, and all of the aspects that make it meaningful. They usually start to talk about spiritual feelings for the ocean, about freedom, harmony with Nature. When they can explain that, I ask them to make a figurative representation, a metaphor, of that, and it always takes them much deeper than they thought possible in their journey.
This is powerful because it helps the artist realize that Art is not about surface-level issues in an individual’s life, but about profound aspects of our collective existence.
Buchanan teaches painting and drawing at The Buchanan Studio at BACAA (The Bay Area Classical Artists Atelier) as well as other colleges and universities in the San Francisco area and will have a class available at New Masters Academy as well. His work is featured in private and public collections throughout the United States and Europe.