Artist David Noo­nan weaves ambi­gu­i­ty into his lat­est tapestries

Stephanie Bunbury
The Age

Two pho­tographs sit above the desk in the Lon­don stu­dio where Aus­tralian artist David Noo­nan works. One is a black and white image of a face trans­formed by make-up into that of a fan­tas­tic bird or beast, pos­si­bly for a bal­let. Noo­nan likes to use found images in his work: this gen­der­less bird-per­son is one of his favourites. The oth­er pho­to­graph, also black and white, is a signed pho­to­graph of Ger­man con­cep­tu­al artist Joseph Beuys that Noo­nan found on eBay.

‘I was real­ly inter­est­ed in Beuys when I was study­ing,’’ he says. Beuys often played the shaman; he had tal­is­man­ic mate­ri­als such as felt and lead that he would put togeth­er in one piece after anoth­er. ‘‘I think that was what drew me to him ini­tial­ly,’’ Noo­nan says. ‘‘I’m inter­est­ed in mate­ri­als and how they behave, but in a dif­fer­ent way.’’

Noo­nan, 50, makes col­lages that he then trans­lates to large fab­ric for­mats: silk screen-prints, on sub­tly sepia-toned, nob­bled linen, enor­mous tapes­tries. Fig­u­ra­tive images are com­bined with abstract pat­terns, often tak­en from fab­ric prints: by set­ting up a dia­logue between the fig­ure and the pat­tern with­in the frame, he makes some­thing that is both for­mal­ly con­trolled and the­mat­i­cal­ly mysterious.

‘The pic­tures aren’t nor­mal­ly about any­thing spe­cif­ic, but more sug­ges­tive or atmos­pher­ic,’’ he says. ‘‘They’re not to be under­stood, nec­es­sar­i­ly.’’ To me they look like moments in a nar­ra­tive where we can see there is a sto­ry, but we don’t know what’s hap­pened, who the char­ac­ters are or what will hap­pen next. ‘‘Exact­ly,’’ he says. ‘‘That’s a very good way of look­ing at them.’’

How he picks his anony­mous sub­jects remains intan­gi­ble. Per­haps he just knows. He has a huge archive of mag­a­zine clip­pings and books har­vest­ed from sec­ond-hand book­shops that might only have one pic­ture he wants. The fig­u­ra­tive images he choos­es tend towards the the­atri­cal, but the bits of the­atre that inter­est him are the in-between moments back­stage: a dress­er ensur­ing a cos­tume is in place, or an expec­tant actor wait­ing in the wings.

‘I’m inter­est­ed in these ideas of bod­i­ly trans­for­ma­tion and gen­der shifts in terms of how peo­ple trans­form them­selves through cos­tume or make-up,’’ he says.

He nev­er uses colour, despite his inter­est in cos­tume. ‘‘I like the idea that it’s strip­ping back a lot of super­flu­ous infor­ma­tion. For me that’s colour; for oth­er peo­ple it’s not. But it’s also that a lot of the imagery I’m gath­er­ing is already black and white from books or peri­od­i­cals or mag­a­zines, so it’s stay­ing true to the source.’’

Anoth­er rule: he nev­er uses pic­tures of faces peo­ple might recog­nise. ‘‘It makes the images fall down if you know who they are, because they then become pinned down and can’t float in this ambigu­ous world that I want.’’

Noo­nan start­ed mak­ing tapes­tries 12 years ago. He had want­ed to work with tapes­try for years before that, per­haps since he stopped paint­ing and began trans­fer­ring mono­chrome images onto tex­tiles such as linen, but the Aus­tralian Tapes­try Work­shop didn’t know that when they asked him if he would be inter­est­ed in design­ing one.

Every day for six months, a room full of women stitched away at his vast – three by two metres – design. It sounds like some­thing out of Rumpel­stilt­skin, but it was more of a hip­ster sewing circle.

‘Lots of women wear­ing black with asym­met­ri­cal hair­cuts and inter­est­ing jew­ellery. They were real­ly cool Mel­bourne women. One of them hap­pened to be one of my mum’s friends actu­al­ly,’’ he says.

He would drop in to vis­it. ‘‘They did such a great job, so sen­si­tive­ly trans­lat­ing the image, because none of it is done dig­i­tal­ly at all, it’s all done by hand and by look­ing at the image.’’ Just as Goya would have seen his work made in the Span­ish court ate­liers in the final years of the 18th cen­tu­ry, in fact. ‘‘Exact­ly,’’ he says. ‘‘They don’t use any mod­ern processes.’’

The six tapes­tries he will be show­ing at the Anna Schwartz Gallery from next week are pro­duced dif­fer­ent­ly. They are woven on a jacquard loom in Flan­ders – that one loom is used by most tapes­try artists in Europe – from dig­i­tal blue­prints pro­duced by spe­cial­ists based in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia. Talk about niche busi­ness­es. ‘‘Incred­i­bly niche!’’ Noo­nan says, laugh­ing. ‘‘I design the image com­plete­ly. Then it’s scanned and then trans­lat­ed through these dif­fer­ent process­es that essen­tial­ly pre­pare the file for the loom.’’ Where the hand-stitch­ing resem­bles pix­els, the jacquard tapes­tries have an even, vel­vety fin­ish that can repro­duce a wealth of pic­to­r­i­al detail.

This recent work includes vis­i­ble signs of scis­sor-cut edges in the orig­i­nal col­lages. ‘‘I delib­er­ate­ly made these pieces in a hand­made way, phys­i­cal­ly cut­ting them out and past­ing them, a lot like some of my ear­li­er works,’’ Noo­nan says. The loom pre­cise­ly repro­duces that rough­ness with­out adding any rough­ness of its own. The wool is every shade of grey.

‘The sort of palette I was look­ing for was like a pho­to­copy, on this very cool grey scale,’’ he says. He nev­er exhibits the orig­i­nal col­lages, even for the pur­pos­es of com­par­i­son. ‘‘I dis­card them. They’re a means to an end. Also it’s real­ly to do with scale. The fig­ures in the tapes­try are life-size so that when you see them in the space, you have a bod­i­ly rela­tion­ship to them, where­as the col­lages are about the size of an A4 sheet of paper.’’

He did try set­ting up his own sce­nar­ios with actors and pho­tograph­ing them, he says, but it didn’t work very well. ‘‘I feel like I’m much bet­ter, feel more excit­ed and more inter­est­ed, when I find pre-exist­ing things. Actu­al­ly, that’s one of the rea­sons I went from paint­ing to work­ing with found images. A lot of the paint­ings I was mak­ing, I was set­ting up these sce­nar­ios and then pho­tograph­ing them and trans­lat­ing them into paint. And they just weren’t as inter­est­ing, as strange, as what you could find that already existed.

‘Actu­al­ly, peo­ple often say my work draws from cin­e­mat­ic imagery. It absolute­ly doesn’t. I’ve nev­er tak­en one image from film, even though they have a very cin­e­mat­ic aes­thet­ic because I am using a cin­e­mat­ic trope, which is the dou­ble expo­sure or super­im­po­si­tion – like a dis­solve – which evokes that idea of a transition.’’

Dis­solves are a com­par­a­tive rar­i­ty in films now, which con­tributes to the waft of nos­tal­gia in his con­struct­ed images, but they are intrin­sic to Noonan’s vocab­u­lary. In 2017 he made his own film, A Dark and Qui­et Place, using a suc­ces­sion of images from his archive, where the old-school dis­solve came into its own.

Noo­nan began study­ing art at what was then the School of Mines in Bal­larat, where he grew up. ‘‘Grow­ing up in Bal­larat was tough, you know. I just didn’t fit into that world of foot­ball, it was dif­fi­cult for any­one who was a bit of an out­sider to that cul­ture. Find­ing art was a kind of rev­e­la­tion real­ly, and then I was just obsessed with it and kept going.’’

Next up, he moved to the Vic­to­ri­an Col­lege of the Arts to do post­grad­u­ate work. He found an inter­na­tion­al audi­ence in his ear­ly 30s when he spent a year in an Aus­tralian stu­dio in New York. ‘‘I kind of got a break in New York just by being there, by spend­ing time there,’’ he says. He curat­ed an exhi­bi­tion and was reviewed in Flash Art; he had a dealer.

When he came back to Aus­tralia, he start­ed plot­ting ways to get back to Lon­don, where Britart was peak­ing. ‘‘I loved being in Aus­tralia, but I did feel the iso­la­tion in some ways. To be con­nect­ed with an inter­na­tion­al scene [from Aus­tralia] is very dif­fi­cult. It was back then, any­way. It’s prob­a­bly dif­fer­ent now.’’

What is cer­tain­ly true is that both Mel­bourne and the East End are now pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive for artists. He makes his work­ing space, Mack­in­tosh Lane in Home­r­ton, East Lon­don, avail­able to oth­er artists as an exhi­bi­tion space when it’s not full of tapestries.

‘Mel­bourne has such a great his­to­ry of artist-run spaces,’’ he says. ‘‘That’s how we all cut our teeth in a way. I think doing Mack­in­tosh Lane was def­i­nite­ly look­ing back to my first exhibit­ing expe­ri­ences but also a sense of com­mu­ni­ty in the art world. It’s not about com­merce, it’s about show­ing and mak­ing work and dis­cussing it with your peers.’’

At which point, with a nod to Joseph Beuys, he goes to pack for the next day’s flight to Australia.



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