Painter makes elegant art with remains of the day

Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006

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Photos by Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Chris Noel takes a second look at all the junk we accumulate, creating abstract paintings for his one-person show at BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown.

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Using debris from his gutted basement, before renovation, Noel created ‘‘Cellar series #5.”

Splintered wood, chunks of ancient linoleum, torn cardboard, rusty hinges and old electronic parts line the gallery walls at Germantown’s BlackRock Center for the Arts. But don’t worry, this cavernous art space isn’t ready for the wrecking ball. Rather, it’s all part of the exhibit ‘‘Debris,” the work of abstract painter and occasional garbage collector Chris Noel on view through Feb. 17.

The Montgomery Village artist created the 30 art pieces by mixing acrylic paint and tons of junk he had tucked away in his garage or found in a tempting dumpster. Noel swears he ‘‘dived” only once, when unable to resist a rusty car engine fan. He promises ‘‘never [to] do it again.”

With 20-plus years of experience producing everything from brochures to Smithsonian posters, the self-employed graphic designer sees the creative potential in just about everything. Who cares if it’s a torn up computer component, a bit of screen or curved molding given to him by a cabinetmaker friend?

Noel begins the process by moving discarded objects on pieces of plywood, bolting them down, then applying paint. Nothing is sacrosanct, with the artist more than willing to unscrew said stuff and move it around, or repaint his plywood canvases multiple times. His work and methods may sound chaotic, but there is nothing messy about his finished products.

And while Noel insists the textures created by the recycled materials make his work unique, he also knows his bold design skills – marrying strong graphic shapes and textures with brilliantly contrasting colors – elevate his works to serious stature. Still he is modest about his input, figuring ‘‘anybody could do” the actual painting and bolting down.

Prior to 9⁄11 when the economy was steaming full speed ahead, Noel’s graphic design business also was booming; with seven employees, he spent too much time playing art director and zero time playing artist. Searching for a creative outlet, he decided to paint abstracts, just like he had done during high school in southern Virginia. After smearing up a couple of canvases, he wasn’t particularly inspired. What he was doing he had ‘‘seen before,” and what’s more, all the art store purchases could become prohibitively expensive. But then one day, while ‘‘rummaging through my garage,” he says, ‘‘it dawned on me what cool stuff I have here.”

Noel isn’t the first artist to use found or common objects not typically considered art material in his work. Marcel Duchamp scandalized the art world by submitting a urinal to an art show in 1917. Now so many generations of artists later, with consumerism a national pastime, it is no wonder artists like Noel can’t resist exploring these objets trouvés. Also influenced by such modern artists as Robert Rauchenburg and Mark Rothko, he enjoys wondering what people will make of his debris in 2,000 years.

Noel hedges when asked about making social or political artwork. It is the finished design that matters, he insists, but then concedes he might be making some sort of political statement about our culture of consumerism and penchant for throwing things away.

While his artistic motives might be unclear, Noel has learned that making art is a welcome respite from his job.

‘‘In design, my voice always is geared to someone else’s product,” he points out. ‘‘In painting, you have no problem to solve. It is you and the stuff.”

Thinking of this weekend work as ‘‘therapy,” Noel says that once he starts becoming excited about what he is making, he creates a ‘‘done pile” and an ‘‘I don’t like it yet pile.”

Although his paintings are selling, Noel isn’t convinced about their future. He figures unless his refuse-worthy art finds a ‘‘good home,” the pieces still may end up at the county transfer station. If that’s the case, anyone interested in some dumpster diving?

‘‘Debris” is on view through Feb. 17 at BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Call 301-528-2260.