The Human Event: On the Art of Anatomy with Noah Buchanan

By Cara Vincent

 

We are all humans, which is to say, every person on this good Earth is comprised of the same physical characteristics: a skeleton, 5.5 liters of red blood, sinewy muscles, lipids and proteins; organs and cells, eyeballs and a great, expansive flesh. On a more basic level, humans are mass made of oxygen and nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen and compounds shared with the core of the planet, making us inexorably bound to to the soil below our feet. But to wholly capture the true beauty, or essence, of our shapes on a canvas—with our own human hands—is an often elusive and daunting task. Unless you are a master. Unless you are, for instance, Noah Buchanan.

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How it happened was this: Noah Buchanan was a child in Southern California in the 1970’s and he really liked to draw. Mostly, he says, he drew “little kid stuff, like animals and Star Wars and dinosaurs”, but in the fourth grade—in what was perhaps his first foray into the wild shapes of humans—Noah drew a picture of his hand for a school project.

“That was sort of a turning point. It was the first time I had really drawn from just observation, and it turned out I was good at it. So, I mean, I was nine, but that was when I really started to get kind of serious about the drawing thing. By 6th grade I was telling everyone I knew that I would go to art school. More specifically, that I would go to the Rhode Island School of Design.”

Incidentally, Noah Buchanan did not go to Rhode Island School of Design, instead opting to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (Hereafter: PAFA) which was really just a better fit for him all around in terms of its classical background and training methods. Buchanan was happy to learn that the school put great emphasis on anatomical studies for art students and mused at finding “plaster casts of human cadavers in random cabinets around the school.” His interest in human anatomy began, as it happens, during his latter years of high school.

“There was a strong desire to have a better understanding of human anatomy towards  my junior or senior years. I was using the figure a lot but I had this feeling that I didn’t really know what I was doing. I needed to know more about how the body actually moved in order to really hone my skills. So,” he adds. “It was really fascinating to me once I got there [PAFA] to learn the art-world side of human anatomy, namely the musculoskeletal system.”

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If you ask Buchanan his favorite way to describe the human body, he will give you a metaphor which is, by and by, also his mission statement of sorts and goes as follows: “The human figure is an anatomical event that houses the spirit of the human condition.” He elaborates that the inception of this statement came from a criticism “by an artist whose work I absolutely love and admire” of his late mentor, a famous American painter named Martha Erlebacher at the New York Academy of Art. The criticism was that “Martha paints everything like it’s an anatomical event.” This imagery of the human as nothing more than an event, a thing that happens resonated deeply with Buchanan and while he understood the criticism, he also took to heart the inherent implication that this notion was what he had been trying to capture all along, and set out to do just that very thing, and successfully at that.

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Noah Buchanan’s body of work is literally that: works of the body; anatomically correct depictions of the human figure splayed out onto canvas, as art. It is hard to look away. Through his vast knowledge of human anatomy and his classical training, Noah Buchanan imbues the contemporary art scene with intellect and an elegance reminiscent of old-school techniques.

There is a mesmerizing, indelible quality to Buchanan’s art. The figures are nude, in positions of contortion that conjure within the viewer (yours truly) an acute awareness of their own heavy flesh, a stirring sense of wonder at what is, in appearance as it is created, the perfection of the human form. There is the resounding question: can my body move this way? And an almost immediate physiological response to answer. The shoulders roll, the arms stretch out until the elbows click and a slight twinge of pain passes through the inner arm and up into the neck, which tilts to one side and then reflexively to the other. The back arches, the fingers extend almost backwards until that hurts, too. The viewer attempts to count her own ribs, and to account for, shamefully, the lack of tone in many muscles. Noah Buchanan’s paintings illicit a corporeal response physically, but also emotionally, the true signs of a master at work.

Buchanan attended the New York Academy of Art for graduate school, he currently resides again, after a stint in New York, in California, and spends the majority of his adult life creating original works, commissioned works, and in what is no surprise another passion of his, teaches anatomical figure drawing at the university level. He has a studio—heavily crammed with books on artists he loves, afghan rugs, a maze of works coming or going, and ample plant life—on what is essentially a farm in Santa Barbara, that faces south, and through which windows he can see roughly two hundred yards of farmland before a cliff drops off into the ocean. He has spent nearly his entire life doing exactly what it is he had always wanted to do, with a passion for art that is both admirable and envious. In another universe, Noah Buchanan might have been a doctor or a scientist, but we should all rejoice that he is not either of those things and has effectually blessed us with his art instead.

To see what Noah Buchanan has coming up and learn more about his art, forthcoming and inchoate, you can visit his website at: noahbuchananart.com or his Instagram: @noah.buchanan. Buchanan is also a BP Portrait Award 2016 exhibited artist. Out of  more than 2500 applicants, he is one of 53 artists on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London. 

Buchanan is represented by John Pence Gallery in San Francisco, where you can see his work in person.

                                

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