David Noo­nan: Stagecraft

Art Almanac
David Noonan

In in-depth dis­cus­sion with David Noo­nan while the exhi­bi­tion is in hibernation.

You were born (and stud­ied) in Bal­larat, yet this is your first solo exhi­bi­tion in the city (I believe, please cor­rect me if I am mis­tak­en). How did this exhi­bi­tion come about, and what has the process of prepar­ing to exhib­it your work in the city of your birth been like for you?

It’s not strict­ly my first solo exhi­bi­tion. I curat­ed my own exhi­bi­tion in my apart­ment in the 1980s — prob­a­bly around 1987. My apart­ment was on Sturt St, a recog­nis­able build­ing that was built in 1865 (next to the old Thomas Jew­ellers shop). The exhi­bi­tion was called Indus­try and Arca­dia and fea­tured paint­ings from my sec­ond year of art school at Bal­larat Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege. All I’ll say is, at the time, I was very influ­enced by 1980s Neo-expres­sion­ism and the New Roman­tic movement.

I was invit­ed to show my work at the Art Gallery of Bal­larat by Julie McLaren in 2018 and was delight­ed at the prospect of exhibit­ing in my home town. In terms of the process, the ini­tial logis­tics were com­plex due to the fact that I’ve lived in Lon­don for over 15 years and my work is in many places. The show is not a major ret­ro­spec­tive nor is it a con­ven­tion­al sur­vey show, because these usu­al­ly cov­er a longer peri­od of time. It’s rather a mini sur­vey of my work over a short­er peri­od, and it is work that has nev­er been seen togeth­er. I decid­ed to use recent work from a show I did at Xavier Hufkens in 2005 in Brus­sels, as it rep­re­sent­ed the palette I want. I’m also using work from a recent show at Anna Schwartz Gallery (2019), and a recent film (20172018). The idea was to cre­ate a show of recent work that had strong, yet mate­ri­al­ly dif­fer­ent, qual­i­ties. I see it as more of a con­cept exhi­bi­tion than a survey.

The show is a home­com­ing in the sense that it is an hon­our to be acknowl­edged and recog­nised in my home city. But, much of my fam­i­ly still lives there, so I do have strong ongo­ing con­nec­tion to Bal­larat, as I vis­it at least once a year. I still have a strong asso­ci­a­tion with Ballarat’s his­to­ry, archi­tec­ture and its over­all sen­si­bil­i­ty — the town always had a melan­choly feel to me and that has def­i­nite­ly influ­enced my aes­thet­ic in both art and music.

To stay with place, you cur­rent­ly live and work in Lon­don, and much of your work, in my view­ing at least, explores the the­atre scene. When did you make the move to Lon­don, and how impor­tant has a Lon­don locale been to your practice?

It’s not so much the the­atre scene, but more a the­atri­cal aes­thet­ic from par­tic­u­lar moments in time. I am inter­est­ed in ges­ture and more broad­ly in the phe­nom­e­na of self-trans­for­ma­tion, which is why peo­ple wear­ing or apply­ing make­up fea­ture a lot in my work. I think grow­ing up in Bal­larat has some­thing to do with this. My friends and I did not fit in’ to the sta­tus quo, so we were almost forced to cre­ate our own real­i­ties that dif­fered from the ones we found our­selves in. We invent­ed worlds which often includ­ed dress­ing up or cre­at­ing elab­o­rate fic­tion­al scenarios.

This has undoubt­ed­ly found its way into my work. I am inter­est­ed in the idea of trans­gres­sion and trans­for­ma­tion, and aspects of mys­tery which is often asso­ci­at­ed with sub­cul­tures. As a teenag­er, I was fas­ci­nat­ed by cul­tur­al move­ments such as punk and new wave and also in per­form­ers such as The Sex Pis­tols, The Damned, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Siouxsie Sioux, The Slits, Steve Strange, Adam and the Ants, et al., all of who ques­tioned tra­di­tion­al notions of gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty. For me, L’espresso – a record/​café/​video store – was the cul­tur­al hub of Bal­larat at that time, and it still is after 40 years. It was a major influ­ence and the own­er Greg Wood, who employed me when I was 17, essen­tial­ly gave me an edu­ca­tion in art, music and cul­tur­al in gen­er­al — we are still friends after all this time.

I ini­tial­ly moved to Lon­don in 1995 on a two-year visa. I moved back to Lon­don in 2005 after liv­ing in New York City and doing var­i­ous res­i­den­cies. I start­ed work­ing with Foxy Pro­duc­tion in New York City, then I was picked up by David Kor­dan­sky in Los Ange­les, and through that expo­sure I was pro­vid­ed with the new phe­nom­e­na of inter­na­tion­al art fairs. I was signed to a gallery in Lon­don, and that inspired my move back here, not to men­tion my wife Renee So had a Lon­don res­i­den­cy for three months which made the tran­si­tion easier.

Mov­ing to Lon­don gave me eas­i­er access to Europe and USA, and pro­vid­ed me with many more oppor­tu­ni­ties. It was an inter­est­ing time to be in Lon­don as the art world was chang­ing in an excit­ing way with new younger gal­leries open­ing and a shift in part to the east end. There was an ener­gy there that had not been present since the late 1990s.

How did you arrive at the title for this exhi­bi­tion (‘Stage­craft’)? In your view, what does this title say about your prac­tice, and the works of this exhi­bi­tion specifically?

The thing is, I rarely actu­al­ly see the­atre, I am more inter­est­ed in the con­cept and his­to­ry of the­atre. I love the inven­tive­ness of cre­at­ing oth­er worlds. It is like sci­ence fic­tion in some ways, but it has a lim­it­ed para­me­ter, which is deter­mined by the stage. These were my ini­tial thoughts in rela­tion to the title. There are so many pos­si­bil­i­ties that can be artic­u­lat­ed through cos­tume, act­ing, archi­tec­ture, props, etc, and it’s essen­tial­ly pre­tend­ing — it is an inter­pre­ta­tion of the world in a dis­tilled con­text. This is most explic­it­ly expressed in the film that I will be show­ing: A dark and qui­et place (2017 – 2018).

I had con­sid­ered the title mise en scene’, but it was a bit too pre­ten­tious for me. I start­ed think­ing about the con­struc­tion of the­atre, which is real­ly stage­craft – that’s what it is called, the effec­tive man­age­ment of the­atri­cal devices or tech­niques. This also relates to my process as an artist, how an artist cre­ates an exhi­bi­tion — that too is stage­craft — because it is a sense of trans­form­ing and manip­u­lat­ing an exist­ing space for a very par­tic­u­lar effect. As my work is so much about atmos­phere and mate­ri­al­ly sen­si­tive envi­ron­ments, it becomes as much about art direc­tion as every­thing else. It is about cre­at­ing a very par­tic­u­lar envi­ron­ment in which to expe­ri­ence the works on dis­play, even if those deci­sions often remain unno­ticed by the viewer.

This exhi­bi­tion brings togeth­er works of yours cre­at­ed between 2015 and 2020. How many works will be on show in total? Do you see 2015 – 2020” as a means of struc­tur­ing the exhi­bi­tion in any way, or is it sim­ply that it took five years to com­plete the works that would make up Stage­craft’? In oth­er words, what is the sig­nif­i­cance of this time period?

There are twelve works in total, and a pub­li­ca­tion with a lim­it­ed edi­tion print. The under­ly­ing con­cept of this body of work from 2015 – 2020 is the palette and the diverse mate­r­i­al real­i­sa­tion of that par­tic­u­lar tonal range. Direct­ly respond­ing to the exhi­bi­tion space, I con­ceived of using the three dis­crete rooms to rep­re­sent three aspects of my prac­tice dur­ing this peri­od: my bet­ter-known silkscreen on linen col­lages, my recent tapes­tries, and a recent film. Each of these approach­es, respec­tive­ly, have a dif­fer­ent mate­r­i­al ele­ment, but they are tied togeth­er inso­far as I used found imagery to cre­ate all of them, and they are all black and white (where­as before this peri­od my col­lages had a sepia qual­i­ty because they were print­ed on raw linen). The pure­ly greyscale palette is a dis­tilled aes­thet­ic that serves to cre­ate a tonal con­ti­nu­ity between the works.

This exhi­bi­tion brings togeth­er silkscreen col­lages on fab­ric, tapes­tries and film”, why did you decide to exhib­it more than one medi­um here? What is the rela­tion­ship between these dif­fer­ent forms? What is the process from found imagery to com­plet­ed work, and how does this change across media? For exam­ple, how do dif­fer­ent tex­tures and tech­niques impact on the cre­ation and mean­ing of your works?

There are dif­fer­ent types of col­lage and dif­fer­ent ways of col­lag­ing. The silkscreen col­lages require a com­plex silkscreen­ing process under­tak­en in a spe­cif­ic print­ing stu­dio, and are then assem­bled by hand in my own stu­dio. With the tapes­tries, the Jacquard loom assem­bles the works into dense mise-en-scène and trans­lates the flat­tened imagery into a tac­tile, sculp­tur­al woven medi­um. In the process, the ini­tial com­po­si­tion, which was made from hand­made paper col­lages, is trans­formed and the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the tapes­tries is brought to the fore. In my film, I drew from my archive in a very par­tic­u­lar way. The film’s for­mal qual­i­ties are organ­ised by select­ing and piec­ing togeth­er both fig­u­ra­tive and abstract imagery to cre­ate a con­ver­sa­tion between them. The film is cre­at­ed entire­ly from still images, not filmed footage, and col­lage tech­niques are rein­ter­pret­ed as filmic mon­tage. The rela­tion­ship between these dif­fer­ent forms is that col­lage is realised in three dif­fer­ent medi­ums using three dif­fer­ent processes.

What is the sig­nif­i­cance of craft’ to your prac­tice? The exhi­bi­tion descrip­tion men­tions your col­lab­o­ra­tion with Bel­gian weavers and how this facil­i­tat­ed the use of tra­di­tion­al craft tech­niques. And, of course, the nature of col­lage means that your works are craft­ed’ in a more obvi­ous way. Plus, your works explore sub­jects — i.e., the per­for­mance arts and of the stage’ — that are often defined as a craft’. So, what does craft mean to you? And what are the var­i­ous artic­u­la­tions of it that are on show in this exhi­bi­tion? Can you illus­trate via an exam­ple from the exhibition?

I have a prob­lem­at­ic rela­tion­ship with the word craft’. Isn’t all artis­tic prac­tice craft’, in terms of the ways in which artists assem­ble their work in gen­er­al? It is such a com­plex ques­tion and a com­plex term. His­tor­i­cal­ly, craft’ was viewed as a util­i­ty. And even after Anni Albers pio­neered the term tex­tile artist’ in the 1940s, craft’ was used as a gen­dered, pejo­ra­tive term. It is a term that has been reha­bil­i­tat­ed today, but it still rais­es ques­tions about what is con­sid­ered valu­able, and why, in the art world.

How do you go about select­ing the raw mate­ri­als for your col­lages? In oth­er words, what is your process of selec­tion? And why do you work in black and white?

It is a dif­fi­cult ques­tion because I amass mate­r­i­al that appeals to me. Rather than try­ing to place too much empha­sis on sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly putting things togeth­er’, my prac­tice is more reliant on serendip­i­ty and coin­ci­dences in time. It is not so much a process of selec­tion, but rather one of alche­my. As an exam­ple, I may have had an image in the stu­dio for many years, lying dor­mant, and then I final­ly find anoth­er image that acti­vates the one that has been lying around and some­thing quite spe­cial hap­pens – a piece may come out of that.

Of course, it’s not only alche­my, but avail­abil­i­ty. Nowa­days it is increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to find mate­r­i­al, as book­shops are clos­ing down. As my process changes it reflects wider changes in society.

The exhi­bi­tion descrip­tion says, Doc­u­men­tary images are trans­formed into fic­tion, sug­gest­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of the­atri­cal­i­ty and per­for­mance in the pub­lic realm.” Can you elab­o­rate on this? What is the role of truth in your work? And how exact­ly do you trans­form’ through your art? Can you give me an exam­ple based on the cre­ation of one work from the exhibition?

Truth does not ful­fil a role in my work. I pre­fer an approach that is much more ambigu­ous and that leaves inter­pre­ta­tion open to the view­er. I don’t like the idea that you have a spe­cif­ic agen­da that has to be unpacked to under­stand it. I pre­fer the notion of evo­ca­tion and sug­ges­tion, rather than any­thing empirical.

My favourite art­works are like songs — they affect you — but you don’t need to under­stand exact­ly why. You can be left with a feel­ing that oper­ates on an emo­tion­al lev­el or in terms of the sens­es and that I hope can be a mean­ing­ful encounter for the view­er. I hope my art also has a sen­si­bil­i­ty or ambi­ence that some­how remains mys­te­ri­ous. But, often achiev­ing this result involves a very dif­fi­cult, rig­or­ous process. It needs to strike the right cord with me for it to be suc­cess­ful as art.

Also from the exhi­bi­tion descrip­tion: Noo­nan repur­pos­es found pho­to­graph­ic images from his exten­sive per­son­al image archive to cre­ate images which are ambigu­ous, often with a focus on a soli­tary haunt­ing fig­ure.” Can you elab­o­rate on this soli­tary fig­ure? What makes you select this fig­ure? How does this fig­ure emerge through your work, how is this fig­ure con­struct­ed in your artis­tic process and what mean­ing, if any, do you intend those view­ing your work to draw from this craft­ed’ figure?

I see the soli­tary fig­ures in a num­ber of ways. The first thing to note is that there is not one so-called soli­tary haunt­ing fig­ure’, there are many through­out my work and not all of them are haunt­ing. I find it inter­est­ing that my work is often described in terms of the goth­ic or the nos­tal­gic as they can be all of these things and more — open to broad­er inter­pre­ta­tion. Often the soli­tary fig­ure in my work is one involved in an intro­vert­ed activ­i­ty, such as apply­ing make­up or being in some kind of lim­i­nal or in-between space, or involved in a poten­tial­ly tran­si­tion­al moment.

The fig­ures I use are rep­re­sen­ta­tive, more broad­ly, of the tra­di­tion of fig­u­ra­tion in art. There is such a dichoto­my between the fig­u­ra­tive and the abstract, that I want to ques­tion. I am inter­est­ed in locat­ing them in dia­logue and I don’t sub­scribe to a hier­achy. There is a ten­den­cy to priv­i­lege fig­u­ra­tive works because they are eas­i­er to under­stand, but I think that one informs the oth­er, that one can­not exist with­out the oth­er. I’m inter­est­ed in the his­to­ry of art and how these dif­fer­ent forms are val­ued or com­plete­ly dis­card­ed and why. Trawl­ing through sec­ond-hand book shop bins it is amaz­ing to see how much incred­i­ble art enter­prise has been metaphor­i­cal­ly thrown on to the scrap heap of his­to­ry. I look through it all and try to re-inscribe, at least some of it, with a val­ue that is deter­mined by my par­tic­u­lar purpose.

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