David Noonan’s Ges­tures in Time

Sophie Knezic
Frieze

The artist’s solo show of tapes­tries at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Mel­bourne are invo­ca­tions of an erst­while era

In his essay on the ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Ger­man his­to­ri­an and writer Max Kom­merell, the Ital­ian philoso­pher Gior­gio Agam­ben explores the nature of ges­ture, under­stand­ing it as a form of expres­sion close­ly tied to spo­ken lan­guage. Ges­tures are a phys­i­cal imprint of a person’s attempt to make them­selves under­stood, but also expres­sions of an inner, silent dia­logue. In oth­er words, beyond nec­es­sary com­mu­ni­ca­tion, ges­ture has an inher­ent self-reflexivity.

David Noonan’s new series of six jacquard tapes­tries com­prise moody black and white images of life-sized fig­ures, excised from their orig­i­nal pho­to­graph­ic sources and set into new con­fig­u­ra­tions. Each of the char­ac­ters is cropped into a dis­lo­cat­ed ground, their idio­syn­crat­ic ges­tures con­vey­ing a sense of absorbed intro­spec­tion. In one image a fig­ure stands immo­bi­lized, her eyes closed as she faces the sun, lost in a pri­vate rever­ie. In anoth­er, a woman stretch­es out her arm in a light stand­ing twist, head fac­ing the cam­era with her eyes obscured by dark, vel­vety shad­ows. A third tapes­try focus­es on a cos­tume assis­tant adjust­ing a performer’s skull­cap, his eyes shut and hands clasped togeth­er, almost in sup­pli­ca­tion, whilst lean­ing towards her.

The body lan­guage of these fig­ures sug­gests a moment of arrest, a pause in action before a series of move­ments recom­mence. Most of the fig­ures, who would seem to be mime artists, actors or dancers, are clad in leo­tards or vests, their faces accen­tu­at­ed through stage make up and spot light­ing. Drained of colour, the stark tonal con­trasts of the images height­en the sense of dra­ma, the pale fig­ures inverse­ly sil­hou­et­ted against lus­trous black grounds. Yet, the back­grounds are not the audi­to­ri­um inte­ri­ors one might expect but abstract fields of enlarged brush marks, inky splotch­es and cray­oned lines – as if the fig­ures had been dis­placed into an over­sized Ab Ex paint­ing by Robert Moth­er­well or Franz Kline.

For sev­er­al years Noo­nan has pro­duced col­laged images com­posed from a mis­cel­lany of sources: books and mono­graphs on the­atre, stage design and dance from the 1960s to the 90s. The anony­mous fig­ures often have a retro allure, their gar­ments and svelte bod­ies index­es of a bygone era of under­ground avant-garde per­for­mance. While Noonan’s ear­li­er work focussed on cos­tumed fig­ures and masked faces screen-print­ed onto earthy tex­tiles such as Bel­gian linen or jute, he cre­at­ed these grayscale tapes­tries in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Flem­ish weavers. Void of the warm tones of nat­ur­al fab­rics these images are aus­tere: both more for­bid­ding and less oper­at­ic than pre­vi­ous works. The mono­chrome also evokes the tex­ture and tones of ear­ly Xerox pho­to­copies. At times, the stark­ness of the white sec­tions dis­rupts the illu­sion of col­laged ele­ments: it’s as if the imagery was con­struct­ed from three-dimen­sion­al layers.

These trans­fix­ing, mer­cu­r­ial fig­ures seem to both resist and court being looked at – a para­dox that lies at the heart of ges­ture. As Kom­merell not­ed, ges­tures speak first­ly of the subject’s rela­tion to them­selves: only by virtue of this do they become com­pelling for oth­ers. Noonan’s com­po­si­tions cap­ture this enig­ma – of phys­i­cal expres­sions that are simul­ta­ne­ous­ly elo­quent and mute, pub­lic in com­mu­nica­tive func­tion yet inter­nal and deeply private.

For Agam­ben, his­tor­i­cal epochs vary in their breadth of ges­tur­al lan­guage: like oth­er forms of lan­guage, some have been lost over time. Noonan’s deploy­ment of vin­tage pho­tographs fil­tered through the super­an­nu­at­ed tech­nolo­gies of pho­to­copy­ing and mechan­i­cal weav­ing folds into this cul­tur­al read­ing as sal­vaged frag­ments from oth­er worlds. His tapes­tries are invo­ca­tions of erst­while eras, the lex­i­con of bod­i­ly ges­tures their distillate.

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