‘The thing is, I rarely actually see theatre,’ David Noonan admits to me when setting out his initial thoughts behind the title of his exhibition, ‘Stagecraft’, which brings together 12 works created from 2015 to 2020. ‘I am more interested in the concept and history of theatre,’ he says. ‘It is like science fiction in some ways, but it has a limited parameter, which is determined by the stage.’
Noonan was born and studied in Ballarat. In 2018, Art Gallery of Ballarat curator Julie McLaren invited him to return home to show his work – Noonan has now been based in London for more than 15 years. ‘The show is not a major retrospective, nor is it a conventional survey show,’ Noonan says. ‘It’s rather a mini-survey of my work over a shorter period, and it is work that has never been seen together.’
‘Stagecraft’ is more a ‘concept exhibition than a survey,’ Noonan says. ‘The idea was to create a show of recent work that had strong, yet materially different qualities.’ To this end, he draws together recent work, such as from a 2019 show at one of the galleries that represent him (Melbourne’s Anna Schwartz Gallery), and from a 2015 show at Xavier Hufkens in Brussels, that was chosen because ‘it represented the palette I want’. As it does on-stage, space plays a leading role. ‘Stagecraft’ serves as a direct response to the Art Gallery of Ballarat exhibition space, with Noonan utilising three discrete rooms to represent three ‘approaches’ from the past five years: silkscreen on linen collages, for which he is best known, are on show with recent tapestries and a film (A dark and quiet place, 2017).
‘Each of these approaches, respectively, have a different material element,’ he says, ‘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.’ The decisions that go into how an exhibition is ‘staged’ are especially evident in this show. ‘How an artist creates an exhibition,’ Noonan says, ‘that too is stagecraft. 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.’
Noonan’s silkscreen collages are created via a printing studio and are then assembled by hand. For his tapestries, ‘the Jacquard loom assembles the works into dense mise-en-scène and translates the flattened imagery into a tactile, sculptural woven medium.’ The initial composition for the tapestries – made from handmade paper collages – is transformed through this process, and ‘the materiality of the tapestries is brought to the fore.’ The film in the show directs viewing of Noonan’s archive in a particular way. Using only still images, it selects and pieces ‘together both figurative and abstract imagery to create a conversation between them.’
On his collage process, Noonan says, ‘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.’ He illustrates this for me via an example. ‘I may have had an image in the studio for many years, lying dormant,’ he says, ‘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.’ When asked whether ‘Stagecraft’ is a homecoming, Noonan says it is ‘in the sense that it is an honour to be acknowledged and recognised in my home city.’ He also explains that the city has ‘always had a melancholy feel’ that has ‘definitely influenced [his] aesthetic.’
During our discussion, Noonan tells me that his ‘favourite artworks are like songs’, ‘they affect you – but you don’t need to understand exactly why’; and while he acknowledges that creating his art ‘involves a very difficult, rigorous process’, he also tells me that he holds a particular hope for the works created. The hope Noonan holds – and to my eye, realises through ‘Stagecraft’ – is that despite their meticulous assemblage, these are works that also possess a more ethereal quality.
In the artist’s own words, these are objects with ‘a sensibility or ambience that somehow remains mysterious.’
Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, magazine editor and media scholar based in Far North Queensland.
Art Gallery of Ballarat
14 March to 28 June 2020*
* The Art Gallery of Ballarat is closed, effective from Monday 16 March until further notice. ‘David Noonan: Stagecraft’ will be available for viewing when the Gallery re-opens. In the meantime, a catalogue essay and video of the exhibition can be found on their website.