Artist begins as mechanic before painting ‘idle’ cars

By Larissa Gula


709 Penn Gallery

709 Penn Ave. at… “Idle”

709 Penn Gallery

709 Penn Ave. at Seventh St.

Friday through April 3


For most people, a car is associated with travel and little else. Colin Noonan, however, had a different mentality when creating the 12 paintings in his “Idle” exhibit: The automobile became a private space, wherein the driver and the vehicle both sit still, doing nothing.

“Idle” features pieces that merge two classic genres of art — oil paintings and portraits — to depict people stalled in their cars. The exhibit, which represents a change in the artist’s work, will open Friday and remain open through April 3.

For Noonan, focusing on portraits was a switch from landscape paintings.

“Making stills become such a caged way of working that people lumped me into a category that wasn’t satisfactory,” Noonan said about prior pieces and exhibits. “People wanted to put me into a classical sort of mode. My new work is an attempt not to divorce myself from the classical model but to update it and keep the fashion of the day.”

Returning to Pittsburgh in 2003 after studying art in New York, Noonan felt burned out after dealing with “a stressful time in my life.” With school over, he felt the urge to work and found a job as a mechanic at the German Motor Werks Garage.

“I was interested in the art of mechanics because it’s similar to art,” Noonan said. “It’s something you can learn.”

Noonan’s interest in art never completely disappeared, and the artist now uses a corner of the garage as his studio. He occasionally helps with maintenance, but for the most part, he “tries to be a ghost and work in the space next to the workers.”

To help with his “Idle” portraits, Noonan asked people to model for him, including Eva Mueller, a junior at Chatham University studying interior architecture. She’d previously studied photography and knew Noonan through networking with Pittsburgh’s artistic community.

“He had talked to me about what his art was about and he was trying to emulate the still life portraits of people,” Mueller said. “He wanted them to be reflective of a mystery. If you are looking at an oil painting and you see a portrait of somebody, it tells a story. I think that’s what he was trying to do. And I’ve had some experience with photography and that was how he started his process.”

Noonan used photos he took to help build the art he created, but Mueller still came into the shop four or five times during the process to help Noonan capture just what he wanted.

“It’s hard just to paint from a photo, so he did have me come in for other sessions just to get that image in his head that the photo wasn’t telling him,” Mueller said.

Noonan’s studio setup also intrigued Sonja Sweterlitsch, the manager of community art with The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. After discovering some of Noonan’s landscapes on display at a cafe, she researched the artist and began to talk with him about doing a show.

Sweterlitsch said she was intrigued by Noonan’s current comparisons between the human body and the car as a machine.

In the exhibit there’s “a car being stalled as well [as the people], in a way,” Sweterlitsch said. “It’s a meditative moment and still moment, which is interesting because these are oil paintings. They’re layer upon layer and take time to work on and require you to slow down and look at the contemporary subjects in this quiet meditative way. You’ll wonder what they’re thinking or notice more about the shadows across their faces. It’s really filled with stillness. It really does match a car being idle as well.”

Noonan’s art brings something new to the gallery, Sweterlitsch said.

“They’re images based in the garage as well as people on cars and people as individuals,” she said. “It’s very figurative which is different from what we’ve shown recently. And traditional oil paintings are different, too.”

Mueller said she was impressed with the results of Noonan’s latest endeavor.

“I think they look almost scary for how real they are,” she said. “I didn’t expect them to turn out like that. I was just surprised and pleased. He’s very good at what he does.”

Noonan called his art something that can’t be described and has to be seen, explaining that the artwork “goes way beyond simple sad or longing. So [the title] refers back to the idea that I’m not trying to depict young people happily chopping wood in some propaganda. This isn’t a picture of people who are glorious. But it’s also not the worst thing in the world to be where they are and to be idle.”