Julia Rooney: @SomeHighTide

Published in the February 2021 issue of The Brooklyn Rail.

Julia Rooney, IMG_0821, 2020. Oil on linen, 2 x 2 inches. Courtesy Arts + Leisure, New York.

The scale and imperfect edges of Julia Rooney’s paintings at Arts+Leisure are remarkable. Affixed to the window, a handmade, colorfully agitating QR code on a two by two-foot square canvas welcomes the viewer into the gallery. Inside the space, the size of the canvases diminishes, but their impact remains. Thirty two by two-inch, mini, square oil paintings on linen hang on the walls, placed with no discernible pattern. In addition to these, there are 70 more paintings sorted into groups of nine and placed in a white frame on a large desk. The overall presentation is unusual in a white cube sense: canvases are not level, the distances between them aren’t uniform, and they pop up in unexpected spots. Three of them hang in a row right above a plug, maybe two feet off the ground. One is placed all the way up, touching the ceiling. Across the wall, a set of seven is grouped together in an uneven arrangement; one can sense there is a pattern, but it’s not self-evident, it’s instinctual.

Julia Rooney, a New York-based visual artist, sensibly utilizes the limited space of a two by two-inch field with geometric patterns, vivid colors, and an almost three-dimensionally thick layering of paint. The images, mostly abstract or at least highly abstracted, are dominated by shapes and bright tones as light and subtle oranges and dark blues contrast each other. Exhibited side by side, IMG_0821 and IMG_0702 (all works 2020) feature an almost neon orange-pink, a fleshy tint but heightened to an extreme frequency, and several tones of blue, meeting bulky patches of white paint. Thin lines of color frame their middle, a vaginal form in the center point of IMG_0821 and a white line dividing two triangular shapes in IMG_0702. IMG_0704 follows a similar color palette and framing within the painting, this time dividing the canvas into multiple sections of circular imagery. These bring to mind Hilma af Klint’s supernatural work in their simplicity and instinctiveness of color schemes, except for the vast change in scale from af Klint’s wall-sized surfaces, and in Rooney’s particular, layered technique. Some other pieces have more discernible figures: IMG_0506 is reminiscent of a landscape with forms of a fair and vibrant skin tone, hinting at a human element. IMG_0508 also has elements of flesh and evocations of erotica, conceptualizing nude images, or selfies, in the depths of the Internet. The titles, all starting with the familiar digital prefix “IMG,” intensifies the visible references to the digitization of the image.

Julia Rooney, IMG_0508, 2020. Oil on linen, 2 x 2 inches. Courtesy Arts + Leisure, New York.

Rooney’s format choices are also directly connected to the Internet and its image-sharing platforms, as her squares act like tangible Instagram photos. Unlike the clean-cut and bright frame on a screen, though, the canvases have imperfect, saturated edges that bend and extend out of the meticulous, curated Instagram reference. Rooney’s paintings obscure the borders between the digital and the physical, as the precision of digital pixels becomes the age-old, messy, textured oil paint: tactile and capable of leaving real stains, made with real hands. This approach alludes to the late 19th-century technique of Pointillism, as Pointillist artists used unmixed, meticulously placed “points” of pure color directly on the canvas instead of blending them on the palette, allowing the viewer to perceive the color physiologically. The printing process and pixel technology uses this same method. As Rooney borrows from the digital pixel, the cycle becomes full.

The duality of the virtual and material as it manifests in @SomeHighTide has been part of contemporary living under the pandemic for almost a year, where online versions have replaced almost everything else in social interactions. Looking at and presenting art found new venues in online viewing rooms and social media accounts, and art has proven to be a valuable relief during these times; the virtual stage has helped maintain much-needed representation for artists during isolation. Despite the sincerity of her technique and Arts+Leisure’s curatorial approach, Rooney’s exhibition nevertheless reminds the viewer how these new viewing options influence the art world’s habits of visual consumption, exhibition, and perception. The screen is ever-present like the “new flesh” in David Cronenberg’s film Videodrome (1983). The uncommon composition of the paintings in the gallery space, then, is a clue to understanding this new environment: Unlike the sterile photo-square, the white cube approach isn’t applicable to the forever-accessible means of the Internet. The places we usually check our phones—in crowded subway cars or under our comforters—aren’t exactly a trip down to the sunlit, wide lofts of Chelsea. And being physically there on Carnegie Hill, looking at @SomeHighTide, the large image in the window that lends the exhibition its name, isn’t the same as scanning a QR code to open the Instagram page in order to look at digital renditions of the paintings.

Rooney’s works open up discussions of the zeitgeist and consider the contemporary while using mediums both traditional and current. Whether the viewer sees them in person or zooms in with their fingers on a screen, there’s a turning of the tables.