Oil Painting: Online Exclusive: Scott Noel's Artwork and Books' Consumable Nature


by William Chapman Sharpe

In the July/August issue of American Artist, William Chapman Sharpe investigated how oil painter Ephraim Rubenstein used books as subject matter in his paintings to explore their meaning in society and to serve as an indirect method of self-portraiture. An interesting discussion of books’ consumable nature had to be cut from the print version of the article for space considerations; we present it here along with additional comments from Rubenstein.

Desire and Discipline
by Scott Noel. 2002, oil

Books are like people or food in their desirability. We have a taste or a hunger for books, we devour them. The saying "beauty is only skin deep" contains the same folk wisdom as the advice not to judge a book by its cover. But painting asks us to do just that. The luscious covers of Rubenstein's books make us want to get to know them better, to sample what they have to offer. They are a meditation on the intellectual/erotic appetite and the possible void left by its satisfaction.

In this vein, Rubenstein admires the work of Philadelphia artist Scott Noel, who paints erotically charged "laid table" still lives, often featuring pastries and donuts. These contemporary confections are subtly linked to the allegorical dessert scenes of the Dutch masters, who balanced the anticipated sweetness of heaven, the end of the meal of life, against more immediate earthly delights. In one picture, Noel sets the antagonism of spirit and body in an earthly context by inserting a hungry dog at the edge of a still life of donuts and cupcakes, while two canvases of sprawling nudes loom above the tabletop. Noel's title says it all—Desire and Discipline—a struggle for control. “In both of our work, there’s a desire aspect, a sense of appetite,” comments Rubenstein. “With me, it’s very pared down. But with Scott it’s right out there, it’s more prominent.”

These excursions into contemporary appetite indicate how much left there is to explore in terms of the objects that fill our daily lives. These days the worktable has perhaps become more important to us than the dinner table; e-texts prove how insubstantial books can be. Desk clutter, a computer, the stuff dumped out of backpacks or handbags, like cell phones, change, wallets, ID cards, and water bottles—these may be our emblems of worldly engagement. Yet the persistence of traditional subjects—fruit, flowers, cooking utensils, the kitchen counter-top—suggests that we have not outgrown the need to reflect on what sustains us: good food, time for repose, the valuable yet simple things in life.

Noel’s paintings compare and contrast with Rubenstein’s work in that the Philadelphia artist uses a sense of a certain space the way Rubenstein uses books. “He does these amazing interiors,” says Rubenstein. “There’s a lot of location in his paintings, in the surroundings he depicts.”

Read the feature article on Rubenstein.

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