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.