Before and now

The work of David Noonan

Brooding owls stare with dark intent from the corner of a room. A solitary woman walks through windswept fields. A Tudor house beckons. Strange, theatrical mise en scènes, frozen moments that leave the viewer out of time and place.

David Noonan grew up in the 1970s in the regional city of Ballarat, in the Australian state of Victoria. The townscape is defined by grand English Victorian architecture and wide tree-lined streets, a result of the wealth of early gold prospectors in the surrounding area. When the gold ran out Ballarat remained as a satellite city, caught at particular point in time - a remnant of distant Europe misplaced in the Australian bush. ‘I have a strong aesthetical connection to the place through its history’, Noonan says. ‘In some ways it was very romantic, it had a very European feel.’

Noonan’s significance as an artist is based in part on his multi-disciplinary approach; Jarrod Rawlins, co-director of Uplands Gallery, Melbourne, where Noonan exhibits, has commented: ‘He’s a multitask master, old school and new school, not versus’. As Noonan moves across disciplines from oil on canvas to installation, and from film to collage, he draws attention to the way materiality contributes to the impact of his work. His art is never simply about visuals, and almost always about creating ambience. There is not a single point of definition, but a resonance; and a sense of immersion is created.

With this in mind it would be incorrect to label Noonan a painter. He is also a craftsman, a sculptor, a film director, and a set designer. The recent exhibition ‘David Noonan: Films and Paintings 2001-2005’ at Monash University Museum of Art demonstrated the scope of his artistic ability. Included in the show were black and white Super 8 films, oil paintings, gouaches, bleach paintings, screen prints, and collages. The gallery was transformed from an impersonal space to one with domestic ambience, as there were low viewing platforms covered with Afghan rugs and a freestanding wallpapered plywood wall which brought to mind the false interiors used on film sets. As Noonan used the space of the gallery itself, it became integral to the whole experience of his work. Through his installation he creates whole environments, rather than limiting himself to the stasis of visuals alone. As he says: ‘I don’t have a theatre background. But I do think of the room as an installation. When I’m making the works I am very aware of how they are going to affect the space when they’re installed.’

A thumb-worn collection of 1970s home decorating books and magazines purchased from op shops lines the shelves of Noonan’s studio. He often refers to this library when sourcing material for his work. Another inspiration is found in the endless catalogue of stills that lie in the shadows of film memorabilia stores, a silent grave for all those ’70s flicks, once seen but now forgotten.

Noonan grew up in the 1970s, so there is a strong personal resonance associated with images from that time. It was a period of great social upheaval, an ‘Enlightenment’ of the 20th century based not on rationalism but radicalism. Noonan was too young to fully experience the magnitude of change associated with that last, fractured, ‘golden age’, so when he does cast his gaze back to the 1970s in his art, his perspective is shaped according to a specific set of selective memories. His own sense of the appealing aspects of the era is brought into sharp focus, while unremarkable details are forgotten or forfeited.

They became what they beheld (2004) evokes the tragic romance of the early 1970s in the aftermath of the late 1960’s Summer of Love. The couple curled in the yin-yang symbol head to toe embody the principle of polarity epitomising this era. Deep in a forest under the shadow of moonlight the tops of the trees curve inward towards the centre of the canvas, making the trunks look like radial spokes of the iris of an eye. Through his fisheye lens camera effect, Noonan builds layer upon layer of visual representation, deliberately referencing both the photographic and the cinematic in his paintings. Viewed from the latter perspective, the canopy of bent trees becomes a point of view shot showing the audience what the skyward-looking lovers behold. Giving the impression they lie on the threshold between heaven and earth; above and below; the finite and the infinite; and interior and exterior existential states of being. As the title suggests, these characters inhabit a dreamlike world of their own making where their exterior environment is an extension of their interior perception of reality. The exotic patterns on the kaftans they wear evoke a back to nature idealism, an oriental craft aesthetic particular to the period resonating with Noonan’s images (and black and white Super 8 films) of Indonesian shadow puppets, and his painting inspired by the pattern on a Japanese kimono.

Seesawing between the content and the surface of his paintings, and exploring the mutual dependence of complimentary opposites further, Noonan uses diluted bleach to lighten the blackness of the fabric canvas, a method he devised when experimenting with traditional craft techniques. This creates a sharp contrast between black and white, which is a dominant motif throughout his oeuvre, speckling his images with a visible ambience, an atmospheric haze suggesting a glance back towards the past.

Noonan’s Paintings (2004) brings the gothic revival style of the 1970s back to life. In a series of gouaches on paper he sets his cast of curious characters against a looming geometric backdrop of stately Tudor manor houses. His use of a ’70s sensibility in this work is reminiscent of the pencil and crayon drawings of the German artist Kai Althoff, particularly Althoff’s images of characters with long sideburns and retroussé noses who wear bowler hats. These strange composite scenarios propel the viewer into an alternate reality by evoking an otherworldly narrative that is also reassuringly familiar.

To create these pictures Noonan carefully recomposes images from different sources, fragments from his catalogue of ephemera, hand drawing them into convincing collages of found photographs and film stills that are held within frames that he specifically designs for the work. The re-enactment of cinematic shots brings to mind the painterly film-inspired canvases of Scottish artist Peter Doig. The strong narrative element in these pictures, where the audience can imagine what has just happened and what will happen next, produces an overriding sense of continuity and coherence.

As Noonan reconfigures found images, and in the process severs them from their original context, they start to make sense in a different way. It is about taking ‘something from somewhere and re-presenting it, and the way in which it’s painted or represented changes the meaning. It’s about re-framing’, explains the artist.

Noonan would discount the idea that history never repeats. For him it is the things that happen over and over again that map time’s progress. He explores the circular nature of history, using cultural motifs that tend to resurface in different eras. The Tudor style houses in his gouaches and black and white Super 8 films exemplify this repetitive process. Tudor is a design aesthetic that recurs across a span of historical periods from its birth in the 16th century to its revival in both the 19th and 20th centuries. As the timber framing structure, which was integral to the original Tudor architecture, becomes imitative half-timbering applied more as decoration there is a move from utilitarian purpose to aesthetic function, and recognition of innovation within repetition.

It is not a matter of conforming to the cliché that ‘the more things change the more they stay the same’, an adage that tends to discount the possibility of progress. It is about recognising that although things may look the same, it is their context, historical or otherwise, that produces their significance. Nor is progress denied; but progress for Noonan does not entail a rejection of the past. For him ‘now’ is an elusive concept not separated from the past, but dependent upon it for definition.

The owl is another cultural symbol that spans different periods of time. Noonan says, ‘almost everybody has a personal association with owls, as did I. The image is already stacked up with meanings, but they are all personal. The loaded nature of the owl as a subject was what drew me to it. In cinema and literature the owl is often associated with the supernatural or is a foreboder of evil. It has strongly established symbolic meanings that are built up from folk tales and gothic fiction’.

There is a compelling gothic beauty to Noonan’s portraits of owls rendered in oil on canvas. These paintings are created with a dark palette, remarkable attention to detail and a sophisticated technique. The birds’ eyes are the focal point of the pictures. They emerge from the darkness to gaze back at the viewer with intent, just as the owl in his black and white Super 8 film also seems to acknowledge the audience. These birds of prey have a presence that extends beyond the canvas. They are painted with such convincing realism that their eyes seem to follow you around the space, like the eerie portraits hanging in the shadows of haunted houses in countless horror films, and you almost expect to see your own silhouette reflected back at you in the corner of their glassy pupils.    

In Noonan’s images there is an overwhelming darkness epitomised by his poetic owl motif, and by his highly atmospheric films that contain an unsettling air of the supernatural. Yet he does not confine himself to the shadows; there is also an enduring light that contrasts with the dark. While a certain degree of abstraction is created through Noonan’s process of mediation, there is also an intimacy created by bringing representations of the past, things that happened ‘before’, into existence in the ‘now’.

David Noonan, Untitled: from the series Waldhaus, 2002. Oil on canvas, 27.9 x 38.1cm. Collection of National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Courtesy of the artist, Uplands Gallery, Melbourne, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, and Foxy Production, New York. 

David Noonan, In the garden of Jane Delawney (Lake), 2005. Fabric painting: cotton, nylon, bleach, 61 x 49cm. Courtesy of the artist, Uplands Gallery, Melbourne, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, and Foxy Production, New York. 

David Noonan, Untitled, from the series They became what they beheld, 2004. Fabric painting: cotton, nylon, bleach, 103 x 78cm. Courtesy of the artist, Uplands Gallery, Melbourne, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, and Foxy Production, New York. 

Installation view, David Noonan: Films and Paintings 2001-2005, Monash University Museum of Art. Courtesy of the artist, Uplands Gallery, Melbourne, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, and Foxy Production, New York. 

notes: 

‘David Noonan: Films and Paintings 2001-2005’, was shown at Monash University Museum of Art, 7 April – 11 June 2005. 

Johannah Fahey is a freelance writer and a research associate at Monash University, Melbourne. This article is a modified excerpt from her recently released monograph entitled Before and Now: The Work of David Noonan (Thames and Hudson, Melbourne).