Sheldon Rooney: a carnival of colour and motion

I’ve mentioned that the ongoing artist feature series that happens in The Sound is a highlight of my engagement with the Niagara cultural community. Not only do I get to sit down and talk with artists whose work I’m familiar with already, to learn more and expand my – and thus our readers’ – experience and enjoyment of artists like Emily Andrews or Sandy Middleton, I also learn more about artists whose work I might not otherwise engage with, due to time or opportunity. Sheldon Rooney‘s works caught my attention most recently when he had many small works in a group collections show at Rodman Hall: but I had a very enjoyable conversation with him when he last shared some of his eclectic and well executed vignettes at NAC.

He’ll be showing new works in that same space – the Dennis Tourbin Members Gallery (DTMG) – this month, opening on October 12th and on display until the 25th, with a closing reception on that date (7:30 PM). Titled Nuts: The Last Bag, it will continue some of the formal and conceptual aspects from his past works, but there’s also works that are very different. But all of it works very well as a larger installation of his artworks and speaks to his aesthetic and formative space.

Rooney is presenting several distinct bodies of work, but there’s overt – and sometimes very subtle – connections between them (some of his sculptural pieces could be interpreted as though the figures from his surreal drawings have emerged into three dimensional space, stepping out of the frame). Several of his images are filled with figures that suggest they’ve been collaged, but they’re drawn (with pastel and ink), and the colours and lines are rendered in a style that is intense and aesthetically adept. The tableaux he assembles, however, are a bit outrageous. Sometimes it looks like we’re being given a glimpse of a mad carnival, with odd players and eccentric costumes, as though we’re seeing a ‘theatre of the absurd’ or a quick excerpt from a larger – quite funny, perhaps unsettling – film (Fellini, perhaps). Or perhaps theatre – or a circus – is better, as the players are so active. As you gaze at these, there’s funny things happening in some corners, and I can’t help but feel each character has their own ongoing story. We just happen to be watching them, and you can spend significant time in front of many of his works, seeing what each of his people – and I use that term loosely, as not everyone is ‘just’ human, so to speak – is doing, or performing. When we spoke, Rooney described these as ‘easter eggs’, like you find in DVDs: tiny treasures that reveal themselves to you, if you take the time to look.

Hopefully you’re familiar with Rooney’s ‘wood’ works, as I think of them, where he burns and etches into wood to create scenes. Sometimes he employs the natural grain and texture of the wood itself, as with his ‘moonscape’ (with a rocket that is very 1950s vintage kitsch and a loving couple that, except for their antennas, could be from a ‘beach blanket bingo’ rom-com of that era). The moon is so often a motif for love and hope, and the natural grain of the wooden ‘canvas’ offers a ‘natural’ landscape for the young couple to ‘moon’ within. This smoothness is contrasted by the detailed and wonderfully articulated architecture within the landscape, and the ‘bolt of blue’ in the blanket. You can’t help but touch it. The marks so familiar from Rooney’s drawings take on a more physical, tactile form here.

However, to return to how I began this feature, in citing how speaking with an artist about their influences and ideas can be very enjoyable, when Rooney and I talked about his ‘notebook’ works that will also be on display at NAC, we found we shared similar approaches to art making and art writing. Literature and that the words and idea of authors like Mordecai Richler, or Ezra Pound, have shaped us both. When he was showing me one of this series, I immediately recognized a scrawled reference to Pound’s A B C of Reading, a book that helped me articulate some of my own ideas regarding art and art criticism. This ‘notebook’ series by Rooney is of large format images of simple spiral notebooks,with printed images on top of the notebook pages that he kept from 1999 – 2001 (the overall title of these works is Memories Series 1999 – 2001). When we were looking at some of his smaller works, Rooney pointed to a series of books on one of his shelves and described that as ‘my education.’ After seeing that – and the Memory Series – you can then return to the smaller colourful works (which are often inspired and referential to Guided By Voices, either more directly illustrative of GBV‘s music, or simply a visual soundtrack / inspirations from them) and see that the not quite appropriated references in those works are intentional and considered. They reflect Rooney’s diverse reading and research, as shown in the Memories ‘citations’. Along those same lines, when you attend the opening, Rooney can offer a more detailed and enthusiastic glimpse into how Guided by Voices – not just in terms of music, but the collage works produced by Robert Pollard – is integral to his artwork.

In our conversation about his works, and his upcoming show (Nuts: The Last Bag, which as I said will be at NAC, at 254 St. Paul downtown), several ideas came up, that flow from one body of work (whether defined by content or construction). Many of Rooney’s works are ‘painting to lose oneself in, full of surreal detail’, with a ‘playful absurdity in subject but never not serious in the execution.’ The assemblage of images and ideas are often intuitive: ‘don’t overthink it: don’t think too much, makes you think too much’, which is one of my favourite lines from Henry Rollins, and a good mantra for joyful, intuitive creation. When I made the analogy before that some of Rooney’s sculptures seem to have ‘walked out’ of his two dimensional images into our world, this is just an appropriate inversion to how he likes to ‘create a space for people to ‘walk’ into a scene.’ Even the ‘contested, conflicting, collaborative symbolism and symbols’ aren’t so much disrupting each other as offering multiple points of access for when you encounter Rooney’s visual constructions.

Nuts: The Last Bag opens on October 12th and has a closing reception at NAC on October 25th, at 7 PM. There are many other works I’ve not even touched upon – such as what Rooney called ‘New York on fire’ – and several sculptures that will augment and enhance your experience of his work. Visit it when it opens, and come for the reception. All images are courtesy the artist.

Thompson’s we know more now: experience rendered in mark-making

In the interest of full disclosure, Bruce Thompson and I speak quite often, on a variety of topics that often centre on, but are not confined to, visual arts. Like many I’ve come to know in the cultural community here, I was familiar with his practice before we actually met. His large ‘cityscapes’ in a group show – the first exhibition in the VISA Gallery space, when the MIWSFPA opened, in 2015 – were vibrant and active, and very large. That curatorial project by Emma German (hopefully you caught her Up Close and In Motion series at RHAC last year) also introduced me to other artists, like Candace Couse and Carrie Perreault, who are – like Bruce – engaged and engaging components of the visual arts here in Niagara.

Right now, along with having a work in the Transformations exhibition at City Hall in downtown St. Catharines (on the 3rd floor), Thompson has a new body of work on display at Rise Above, on St. Paul Street in downtown STC. This is a series that he’s just completed, and you can see the entire grouping installed at RA. A quick side point: Rise Above – along with fine food, mmmm, seitan, mmm – has featured some excellent artists over the past year. Geoff Farnsworth, for example, had a number of large works on display there that frankly looked more impressive on the rough brick walls than they did on the gallery white where I’d first seen them. I must mention again that there’s a number of places in the downtown – Beechwood Donuts, Mahtay Cafe, among them – that exhibit quality work by excellent regional artists.

Thompson’s most recent pieces are less dense than the works I saw years ago in the VISA. Perhaps that’s because those pieces were more about cumulative experiences (looking out at the city from his window, and building upon the larger works as he added / looked each day) whereas the works at RA are more like vignettes. Unsurprisingly, these new works have a point of origin in looking out the window while exercising, on a track / loop, and thus are more singular, even if seen again and again as Thomson exercises: the walking in between allows for a consideration of the image, which translates into how some parts of the ‘window’ scene are emphasized, others are not, and the work becomes as much about the experience of the memory as any ‘snapshot’ of the window view.

Here’s Thompson’s words regarding the works, titled we know more now: In this series of works, I am transforming the everyday into the phenomenological, recreating moments of my day into an essence of experience. Is there any meaningful relationship between the wear lines on my plates and cups at home and my weekly trips to exercise at the gym? As we are aging and striving to stay in the world, we are also contemplating, positioning, seeing the same world everyday in new ways, changing and morphing as we go about our daily routines. These landscapes are the poetic, if impossible to imagine, space between my trips to the gym to exercise and the cracks and lines on the plates that I use everyday. Drawing and painting from photographs and memory, I recreate these everyday spaces filtered through a process of mark-making. The cracks in the plates become overlaid lines on the views from the windows of the gym. I transform this view into a moment of visual form; amalgamating, tracing and carving lines into the canvas, then reconnecting them into the layers of the composition. Each new mark becomes an additive iteration and a record of the process, building a new visual experience from the integration of drawing, painting, and memory.

Works like i only look for lost days or i only imagine the rain put you in Thompson’s space: the lines are alternately weathered webbing or more direct, with colour laid down in solid blocks. Many of the ‘moments’ are framed by a white ‘border’, suggesting a peephole ‘outside’. We are kept at a distance, looking outwards, stuck within, in a laborious space. When I sat down with Thompson in the RA space, several ideas came up in our conversation. Later, when we picked up the conversation, an idea from David Milne (a well known Canadian painter, often associated with the Group of Seven, but separate from them), seemed relevant: “The painter doesn’t try to reproduce the scene before him… he simplifies and eliminates until he knows exactly what stirred him, sets this down in colour and line as simply and as powerfully as possible and so translates his impression into an aesthetic emotion.” Thompson conceived of these images as a group – a sentence, or story, if you will – and that they can be seen ‘all at once’ in the RA space is fitting. An aforementioned seed of germination of we know more now are plates (‘dinner plates as elements of time and memory’) with the finer, grayer and more subtle lines that intersect with the landscapes. There’s also an ‘aspect of interruption’ at play here: the fragmented image, the ‘broken’ lines of the ‘plates’, and that these are detritus of a memory or action by Thompson that are encapsulated in the images hanging in the space. Painting is, after all, a creation of a moment, whereas photography is a capturing of one. Some titles reflect this: between not for certain and solid reflection or the view from here, for example.

In some ways we know more now is a visual notebook of experience (both immediate, with the windows, and more indexical, with the ‘plates’). On display until the end of October, this is a show you should visit several times (as its installed on facing walls, if you sit in opposing spaces you can ‘be’ with both walls of the show).

Bruce Thompson’s exhibition of new works we know more now is on display at Rise Above (120 St. Paul Street, in downtown St. Catharines) until the end of October, 2019. Bruce is an artist who lives and works in St. Catharines, Ontario. He completed his BA in Visual Art from Brock University and his MFA from the University of Windsor. His recent work is mainly focused on bringing the everyday happenings – walks, objects, and the phenomenological, to visual form. Previous work dealt with LGBTQ couple’s portraits and gatherings. He is also a professional actor and singer, having performed all over North America as well as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and in touring productions of Titanic and Forever Plaid. He has won several awards for his acting work in San Francisco and was in the Broadway production of Les Miserables at the Imperial Theater in New York. All images are courtesy the artist.