Gary Noel couldn’t leave St. Louis without taking the photo.
Whenever he sees a vintage car, even one rusting in a junkyard, he’s got to get a picture. The paint job was mostly gone and the chrome nonexistent, but it was a jewel to Noel.
This one was a ’57 Chevy, the kind of car he’s been painting for the past 15 years, and Ann Connelly Fine Art has put them together for the one-man show, “Vintage,” in the Gallery at the Manship Theatre.
Until then, the gallery’s walls are filled with 1950s and ’60s cars as seen through Noel’s eyes. Some were inspired by cars he’s seen at classic car shows. Others peered at him from behind front-yard fences.
“I stopped to take a photograph of one in someone’s yard one time,” Noel says. “My wife was nervous, because we didn’t know if someone might come out of the house. Then, there was the time I stopped to take a picture at a junkyard in St. Louis.”
That car is the subject of Noel’s painting, “St. Louis 57,” which leads off “Vintage.” Its headlights seemingly stare straight ahead, its windshield is cracked and the space where the grill once gleamed is stretched in a permanent, black grimace.
This is the only car among Noel’s paintings that doesn’t emit joy, perhaps because its glory days have given way to a slow disintegration. Yet, it lives in Noel’s work as a reminder of a different time in American history.
“My perspective of the ’60s was through the eyes of a child,” Noel says. “This era, like the outrageous chrome and paint colors, represented for me a time of hope, joy and whimsy. I hope to convey the tone of this era through these paintings.”
Noel paints his cars head on. “The headlights are like eyes, and the grill is like a smile,” Noel says. “I believe this era is the epitome of well-designed cars.”
Each of Noel’s cars has its own personality, and each is painted in a different style. Some are impressionistic, others reflect the pop genre. And one, titled “Shark Attack,” is reminiscent of New Orleans painter James Michaelopolous’ style.
“I’m always searching for a new and fresh method or perspective for my work,” he says. “In this exhibition, the subject is painted with acrylic paint, charcoal or oil pastel.”
Some are painted on a plaster substrate. Noel chiseld indentions into the surfaces of these pieces to echo a lifetime of scratches and dents.
And all of his paintings are large.
“I’ve painted some of these on canvas and some on boards,” he says.
He used doors for his triptych “57 Chevy” and Visqueen for the show’s largest piece, “Buick.”
“Vintage” is Noel’s fifth solo show, and his biggest, in Baton Rouge.
Past shows featured portraits, a genre to which he’d like to return. But his focus will be on people, set in the 1950s and ’60s to complement his classic cars.
Those are big plans for the artist, who works days as a contractor at the Buquet and Leblanc general contracting firm. He paints in the evenings while spending time with wife, Kathy, and son, Austin.
“They are my inspiration,” he says. “They also participate in my art. They critique my work and tell me if something’s going to work or not. If they don’t think it will work, I go back and work on it some more.”
But Noel doesn’t mind. His mission is to get it right so the rusty ’57s won’t be forgotten.