David Noonan

St. Louis

at Contemporary Art Museum


The first solo American museum exhibition devoted to Australian artist David Noonan, this taut survey collects three bodies of untitled work dating from 2006 to the present: a group of figurative sculptures; a series of small, paper-on-linen collages; and recent large-scale silkscreen prints on linen and jute. Noonan’s obsessive focus is photographs appropriated from ’60s- and ’70s-era experimental theater and utopian collectives, in which brief moments of ambiguously truncated performances are captured mid-act. It’s a dark world of kohl-rimmed eyes, hooded cloaks and grand gestures from high experimentalist or occultlike rituals, all rendered in black on soil-toned surfaces of rough woven substrates.

The museum’s spacious main gallery is devoted to the large silkscreens. Created by layering Noonan’s source photos with printed patterns from exotic and oriental fabrics, the pieces juxtapose flat, shadowy figures with abstract motifs and clear tactility. A group of looming, black-clothed figures, for instance, appears like wavering specters beneath an overlay of white halos. Recalling Japanese Boro textiles, the linen and jute has been patched together from frayed fabric, fracturing the imagery further with intermittent tears, erratic folds and enlarged dotted lines of hand-stitched seams. There is a heightened sense of the works as costumes, with an emphasis on the slippage between a false, constructed world and material reality.

While the photo-on-linen collage series (2011) in a smaller gallery expands the viewer’s understanding of Noonan’s approach to his larger works, the sculptures of silhouetted black-clad dancers, trapped in modest contortions, do the most to complicate and animate the artist’s project. Arranged in the museum’s open performance area, the just-larger-than-life-size pieces exude a strange realistic presence at the same moment that their artificiality is laid bare. Composed of silkscreened linen affixed to pieces of wood cut to the figures’ silhouettes, the emotionless bodies appear to walk, bend their knees and raise their arms in minimal movements that typify modernist dance. In their everyday quality, the poses recall those of the visitors who interact with them, directly implicating the museumgoer as dancer and the museum itself as a theatrical platform.

A square, low-lying polished marble table on steel legs-the newest work on view-was fabricated on site in response to CAM’s modernist building. Placed on it is a carved wood sculpture of an owl-a recurring motif in Noonan’s oeuvre. The accent table’s presence in the center of the main gallery subtly transforms the museum into a more intimate, salonlike space, not unlike the kind one could imagine Noonan’s performance collectives gathering in.

It is Noonan’s sculptural works that functioned most assertively in the exhibition, drawing the present into direct confrontation with his insistent obsession with midcentury avant-garde idealism. As such, Noonan emerged from the exhibition as a figure in transit from conjurer to instigator, pulling us into haunting scenarios.

Photo: Partial view of David Noonan’s untitled installation, 2008, screen-printed jute, plywood and metal stands; at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.