Julia Rooney in Conversation with Jennifer Earthman

January 14, 2021
Julia Rooney in her studio at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, New York, 2021. Courtesy of the artist
Julia Rooney in her studio at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, New York, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

While based in painting, Julia Rooney’s work is interdisciplinary. The artist is interested in the use of nontraditional materials, such as dish-ware, newspaper, maps, and letters. She embeds these materials into her art in order to create complex, culturally significant multi-layered works. Rooney is also interested in exploring the ways in which painting can extend into three-dimensional space, prompting interactions with viewers. As Rooney states “The resulting paintings and sculptural forms I produce become palimpsests: fundamentally layered constructions of incompatible materials with diverse histories.” Her most recent work is invested in the pandemic’s impact: the artist has exclusively been creating six by six feet and two by two inch paintings in light of social-distancing measures and increased reliance on cell phones for communication and connection. Both of these scales result in the viewers’ heightened awareness of their own bodies. Rooney purposely used weak stretchers in order to fracture the larger paintings and mass-produced frames for the smaller paintings, resulting in cracks and imperfections that allude to the recently revealed weaknesses of our own socio-political and economic system. A visual artist and arts educator, Rooney obtained her Master’s in Fine Arts from Yale University. Rooney has held residencies as both an artist and arts educator, and has been included in numerous group and solo exhibitions.


In this conversation with Jennifer Earthman, the artist describes the path that led her to abstraction, abstraction’s pervasive history, and its particular relevance today: “In today’s world where the fact/fiction dichotomy is especially fraught, abstraction offers a third option—a way of thinking that does not foreclose thought, at the same time that it does not evade the messiness of debate.” She also discusses her belief in the psychological resonance of color, particularly through certain juxtapositions.


In a few words, how would you describe abstraction?  Also, what draws you to abstraction? What do you consider to be its relevance in today’s world?


I was trained academically as a painter, which means that the first part of my education involved learning how to render—to draw from life, to create a likeness using paint. Formal tools, like color theory and perspective, assisted in this pursuit of making a 2-dimensional image from a 3-dimensional form. While these early representational paintings would not be considered abstract in the art historical sense of that word, I came to see them as being precisely that—abstractions of something observed, made in paint. The first time I remember being aware of this was around age 11, seeing a Janet Fish painting in person. I had only encountered her paintings printed in books, and at that scale they appeared as photorealistic renderings of glass. Seeing the paintings up close though, the recognizable objects fell away, and her frenetic brushstrokes took over my perceptual experience.


Abstraction allows for this kind of focus on the internal structure of things—its DNA—rather than merely what they come to look like, or how we decide to name them. As humans, we have a proclivity for naming things, defining their meaning, fixing them into “the recognizable”, which confers us with a sense of control. Abstraction offers a more elusive relationship to things. It connotes rather than denotes. In today’s world where the fact/fiction dichotomy is especially fraught, I think abstraction offers a third option—a way of thinking that does not foreclose thought, at the same time that it does not evade the messiness of debate. A painting (an abstraction) does not propose to be accurate or inaccurate. Rather it offers itself as exactly what it is: a multivalent object with unfixed meaning.


Based on the evolution of abstraction, where would you say your work fits in the arc?


Abstraction has been around since humans began making art—certainly long before Western/Eurocentric art history folded it into its own canon. As a living American artist, I would perhaps be most visibly associated with the lineage of artists geographically and temporally contiguous with my own life—Sol LeWitt, Ellsworth Kelly, Jo Baer, Judy Chicago are a few examples of artists I have thought deeply about in my own formation. But inevitably, there are lineages which I will never be a part of that deeply informed how I think about abstraction. From 2011-2016, I worked in the Met’s Department of Islamic Art and was surrounded by curators and scholars studying traditions centuries past, across the regions of Southeast Asia, Northern Africa and Eastern Europe. The incredible fusion of language and architecture; use of pattern and symmetry; and diversity of materials from textile to ceramic tile are some of the elements which deepened my visual lexicon immensely, and have undoubtedly diffused into my work over the years. Art history often attempts to tell a teleological story of how movements emerged one after the other, but as artists I believe we have a much less linear path of thought in how we work, and where we look for inspiration. 


 Julia Rooney. OBJ_0724 and OBJ_0820, 2020. House paint, Flashe, acrylic and oil on canvas, 72 x 72 in (182.8 x 182.8 cm) each artwork. Image courtesy of the artist and Zeit Contemporary Art, New York


Much of your work is related to the viewer either through alluding to the body through a large-scale format or extending into the viewer’s space. Is the formation of a reflective encounter with the viewer an important aspect of your work? Relatedly, would you consider your work to have a social and political dimension based on the use of objects and materials?


Absolutely. In 2017, I started making large-scale paintings that abutted the wall—coming out perpendicularly from it, rather than hanging flatly on it. This developed into making freestanding screens and curtain-like structures suspended from the ceiling. All of the work was double-sided, and used translucent or transparent materials such as stretched spandex, mesh, glass shards and cut-out shapes. It was important to me that the work intervened in the contours of the room’s built architecture—prompting viewers to walk around the piece, consider all its sides, and rather than merely look at it, look through it. I come from a painting tradition—so while this consideration of 360-degree space is central to sculptors, I think it can be left out of the painting conversation. Especially as digital platforms have gained prominence, the flatness and image quality of paintings is privileged, when really paintings are 3-dimensional objects which must bear a bodily relationship to the person viewing them. My installation of these freestanding, double-sided works called attention to paintings’ object-ness and invited the viewer to experience a full-body relationship to the work, rather than merely an optical one.


My most recent work deals specifically with the measurement of 6-feet, which has permeated our society during the pandemic. It is a distance we have both been told to maintain and been made to feel—physically. These new works all measure 6’ x 6’ and are on slightly crooked “squares” due to the stretcher bars cracking under the strain of a taut canvas being pulled over them. My choice to use weak stretchers facilitated the cracking (even though I could not control the fault lines)—a choice which has parallels to the cracking of our social-political-economic systems under the immense strain of the past year. The triangular and curved forms painted on the canvas emerged from observing the crookedness of the very frame the canvas was stretched on.


Your work often features vibrant color. Do you believe certain colors relate to emotional or psychological states?


Color is an incredible tool. The legacy of Josef Albers was baked into my time at Yale, while the alchemy of color-mixing was part of my earlier education. I believe that color has the capacity to evoke emotions, but that it is often the placement of colors side-by-side or in an entire composition that does that work, rather than colors alone. Colors can also have incredible symbolic and cultural meaning, and can be used in a conceptual as much as a formal sense. As artists, we have all of these possibilities available to us.