Levels of Perception
[Originally published in the catalogue for Julia Rooney’s exhibition Some High Tide (New York: Arts + Leisure, 2021), pp. 64–68.]
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus in March 2020, New York City “the city that never sleeps”, seemed to be taking a long-overdue slumber. Just a few months ago, the presence of people amongst other people had decreased to a minimum of 6ft, and the casual presence of people amongst actual artworks in museums and galleries had decreased, and in many instances, it had ceased altogether. Because of health concerns, many more exhibitions have been viewed virtually, studio visits, and even entire studio art courses now take place on live video calls—through the digital screen. Whether it’s because of the development of promising new vaccines, or the public’s general weariness with their four walls and withering social lives, there has been a partial re-awakening of the city; public opportunities to view artwork in person have slowly returned and the pleasure of viewing art can once again commence.
When viewing art, there have always been different levels of looking. Between artists, privileged and non-privileged viewers looking at the same work of art, there are a range of experiences to be had. One can quickly tell who is who when visiting a gallery or museum. The artist, and at times privileged viewer, often break the pedestrian-distance by closing in on the artwork as they get closer and closer, intensifying the experience. When they approach a painting, they not only perceive its end as a work of art, but also the means of arrival (the record of material coercion), which is for many artists autotelic, having an end or purpose in itself. The painter-artist can often identify the substrate, the type of grounds and presence of an underpainting, the type of paint, the brushes and tools used to produce redaction, glazing, layering, and scumbling, etc. All of the material qualities of a painting, like all aesthetic decisions, lie in wait to be exhumed by looking. These qualities are seen in addition to the visage, and information the didactic provides. This series of paintings by Julia Rooney, despite their size, contain the content necessary for a generous aesthetic experience. The oil paint is generously applied to the linen stretched on wood frames, with brush marks recording paint pushed across the two-inch surfaces. In some of the paintings, the impasto is covered with a diaphanous layer of thinned oil paint, giving it an expanded function as an underpainting. The motifs present within these paintings range from biomorphic, to geometric, to a hybrid of both.
The vibrant, biomorphic, loose symmetry, of some of Rooney’s paintings, is very evocative of many circular and bisected biological organisms. Of the many that come to mind, some of the most resonant are a sliced apple that reveals its core and seeds, and the notoriously difficult Optomon, from The Guardian Legend, a 1988 Nintendo game, which also has an eerie resemblance to a scientific diagram of the structure of the Corona Virus.
Looking at other paintings from this series, the female vulva and the bisected ovary wall of a flower pistil come to mind. If one were to follow this thread, a painting reference of which they are also in conversation, yet contradistinction from, is the floral painting of Georgia O’Keeffe—specifically in the way that many of her iconic paintings (Black Iris, 1926) themselves perform as flower portraits as they depart from the genre of “botanical art,” and the history of “botanical illustration” as seen in “Magnolia à grandes fleurs,” by Madeleine Françoise Basseporte. Her “Large Flowered Magnolia” is an archetypal example of a botanical illustration, it faithfully depicts and represents the form, color, and detail of the plant so that its species can be identified.1
The intentional and formal distinction of Rooney’s paintings from flower paintings or any diagrammatic image is important here, as it emphasizes the exploration of the plastic, taking the viewer from mimetic images of the natural world, into the “natural world” of the artist.
Rooney’s paintings are very much about the “plastic arts” in its broader definition, specifically the act of painting and the act of looking. The intentional development of texture, presence of brush marks, and unidentifiable images is much more about producing a pleasing painting, and although many of them may resemble biological diagrams, they aren’t about the botanical accuracy of flower paintings; they are not scientifically correct as “botanical art,” nor do they enable scientific identification of a plant as seen in botanical illustration. The diversity of material manipulation might more readily lend them to being thought of as a collection of painter’s swatches—each one an example of what can be done within a grid of fixed parameters.
Another aspect of the works is scale. At two-by-two inches, the size of the paintings makes explicit the distortion produced when viewing these works in the digital space, a space where, so long as what is presented is meant to be seen by human eyes in the real world, when it’s seen through the oppression of pixels, something is lost. The ubiquity of digital images makes us forget that there is always something else, and hopefully, these works will remind us of the proclamation of John of Damascus, the first theologian of images. “The image is a likeness that expresses the archetype in such a way that there is always a difference between the two.” The recognition of difference is evident here, where the paintings can be seen simultaneously on an Instagram profile expressly created for the show, they must be seen in the show at that same distance. These works can’t be viewed from a distance of six feet, they must be seen from the vantage of the maker—a distance of intimacy. This distance is akin to studying the painterly marks of your favorite painting up close. For the pedestrian viewer, these paintings may be the initiation they need, an initiation into intimate looking, which is ironically the comfortable distance of the handheld smartphone—the last place so many people have been viewing art from recently.
If the grid “is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature,”2 what do these paintings do to that modernist sense of working, and what criticism do they thrust upon the contemporary act of looking? The following is a fragment of a conversation with the artist that explores some of these ideas, as well as ideas about the project and practice of the artist. . . .
Julia Rooney: This work is very conceptual. Nevertheless, I wanted this to essentially be a painting show: paintings that you want to see, touch, and feel, not just “think about” in a conceptual sense.
Ernest A. Bryant III: Viewing the paintings in person, because of their size, they call me closer to them. The contemporary display of most paintings doesn’t do that anymore for so many reasons, one of which is the exhibition space of Instagram. I was looking at some links that Gerald Sheffield II sent me today of an artist that should remain unnamed. The works were hyper-legible, and because the images were of a higher resolution, when you zoom in on the image, there were a lot of things going on, but they were uninteresting and uncomplex gestures. The paintings he shared with me only had the appearance of pleasure and visual complexity, which was primarily due to their participation in a trendy narrative.
JR: I think it’s about the way that paintings become distilled into images on Instagram. Paintings have never been merely images to me. They have never been images in history either. They have always been objects: surfaces that also have depth, width, texture, and scale. The thing about Instagram is that it reduces painting to something like a shorthand, which is counterintuitive to me because I don’t think a painting should be distilled down further from what it is. It is already such an effective and potent distillation of something both outside and within the artist, deposited onto a surface. But somehow a photograph of a painting put onto a website or a platform does further distill it, and in that process, you forget that it is a painting. It could not be a painting at all—it could be anything.
EB: Yes, and people have forgotten that objectness of it.
JR: Or people never knew, because the reality is, most people have never seen a real painting. And if they have, they have probably only seen a copy of one printed on a poster or a canvas. That’s not a painting. It’s an image of a painting.
EB: The way that I often talk about making paintings is, I’m trying to make the material do what it is I want it to do. And to do that I must get familiar with the material’s properties, its “material language.” And once familiar, I can communicate to the material, or at least coerce it. And that is present here, there’s a conversation with material. So much work made with Instagram in mind is found to be wanting of an intense material dialectic when seen in person. It’s like the difference between a photograph and an observational drawing you know. With the observational drawing, you have to do those calculations as an artist, you have to do the calculation of distance, volume, light, and shadow, to render a three-dimensional object as a two-dimensional image. With the photograph, it’s seemingly instant, with the calculations taking place in the “black box” of the camera. And those are two radically different spaces, they produce radically different images. They may look the same. But you know, there’s a difference. Even if it’s splitting hairs, there’s a difference.
JR: Yes, just as the difference between film and video is vast, the difference between acrylic and oil is vast. I actually started making these two-inch paintings in acrylic, and was like, “this is bad, these look like plastic shit.” Oil paint dries differently; it ages differently, it’s just different, and that difference is often undiscernible on a screen, but it matters when you’re actually in person. It’s like organic meat versus a McDonald’s hamburger. They’re structurally different. And it’s not just a perceptual difference experienced by the viewer—that is, the granularity of real 16mm film versus HD digital footage. It’s a difference in editing as well, the “behind the scenes” process that splices images together into a legible product. In the case of film, that used to mean physically cutting reels. Is that difference perceived by the viewer? Does it yield a different cinematic arc? I don’t think this is a question of one being better than the other, but rather them being structurally different or discernible. There is meaning in that difference.
EB: What you’re describing makes me think of this movie called Street Fight, the original name is Coonskin, from 1978, by Ralph Bakshi. It’s one of my favorite cartoons. The aesthetic difference you describe is present there. Materially, there’s film, there’s live action. There’s still photography, and there’s collage happening; it displays a very high level of visual intelligence and anachronistic beauty. Because it’s animation, there are actual animation cells present along with the live action. So, there are different forms of producing images that exist on different visual registers, yet they are all happening simultaneously. It’s very complex. The popular form was that film Who Shot Roger Rabbit? (1988), where the animated characters exist in real space. And then there’s another film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) a contemporary Spider Man cartoon, which attempts to do something with a similar level of anachronism and collage. It is visually stunning, but everything is made in the digital realm. So the characters, which are from different universes—each with its own unique form of image making, because they are actually all made digitally they appear as filters, a black and white filter, a manga-esque filter, a Pixar-esque filter etc., all to give the viewer the appearance of an aesthetic experience composed of different forms of image making through different style characters, from different time periods simultaneously.
Unfortunately, instead of a juxtaposition of various sources, I see it as an alteration of a singular drawing source through filters, which is very different from what the viewer sees in Coonskin. There’s a serious difference and material friction when you look at a film like that, because there are multiple material visual languages taking place. It’s like the difference between an actual Polaroid “Land Camera” photo, and a polaroid filter—in the digital space, Andre 3000 saying “shake it like a polaroid picture” loses resonance.
When you talk about things being discernible, one of the other things that is present is the different types of looking performed by people. The person who goes out and looks at the work in person, versus a person who just stays primarily on Instagram. The works that I was talking about with Gerald were made for Instagram. That’s the end thinking of the artist, which forecloses a level of aesthetic experience in place of a level of social compensation. The potential intense aesthetic experience in real life is no longer possible because Instagram, an exhibition space of pixels, is the goal.
JR: That’s my point. I think art is changing because some people are making art with Instagram as their goal. And I think that the kinds of images that are being made are being made with that platform in mind. It’s not only the visual aspect but also the temporal one that goes into determining what a painting is. When you’re on Instagram, “How often am I supposed to post?” may enter the back of one’s studio mind, and that weighs on the trajectory of a painting’s development. If I posted every time I thought I had finished one of these two-inch paintings, I’d be posting completely different works than what they ended up being. It took a year to finish some of these, and some of that was just living with them, looking at them in different conditions, waiting—no eyes on them. This waiting allowed the paintings to dictate whether they were done or needed more work.
They are hard to finish. I can finish a big painting and be done with it. But somehow these feel like they never end. I kept on adding things and changing them because they never felt like they were really done.
EB: You remember that work by Walid Raad, the one of the scaled-down installation (Part I Chapter 1 The Atlas Group (1989–2004), 2009)?
JR: Yes, he’s brilliant. That’s a very good reference.
EB: When you say that these paintings aren’t ever done, they’re asking for more, or you don’t feel that they’re complete—for me, that sounds like it’s a part of the presentation of the work, which is a way of asking “is it this or is it that?” And there is something that you’re trying to resolve, and I don’t mean that there’s something that needs to be resolved in the actual piece, but I feel like there’s something that you are still trying to resolve.
JR: Do you know the work of Stephen Prina, (Exquisite Corpse: The Complete Paintings of Manet, 1988–ongoing)? It’s this diagrammatic piece that indexes every single work that Manet made. One thing stands in for another thing in a way that is very unsatisfying for people who are real painters, but conceptually fascinating. It’s a piece of paper with a lithograph print standing in for an entire opus of oil paintings, which is both a ridiculous proposition and a sincere one at the same time—almost factual. He offers us a materially-sparse but information-rich kind of equivalent. I think it’s resonant with Walid Raad’s work and has a certain dry humor.
EB: I have another reference. Duchamp. The miniatures of his works, (Box in a Valise, 1935–41).
EB: You know those miniaturized replicas of his work, it’s that size of thing that you’re working with. And I don’t know that those are wholly similar conversations, but I think, again, there’s something about scale, distance, and reproduction. That is part of a conversation about something standing in for another thing.
JR: But the thing that’s interesting about these artists in comparison to each other is that none of them are interested in the sensuality of painting, at least in these particular works. They’re engaging with the history of painting, but they’re not using paint to do it. In my series, paint is central—and I’m using paint to talk about another medium altogether: Instagram and digital platforms at large. They’re not refined, like Indian miniature paintings. They’re funky and rather messy.
EB: Well, they are miniature and they do have the presence of the hand. There’s the impasto buildup of paint, and I can see where you’re pushing paint around. This one I saw online, and said to myself, “okay, that’s classic, wet on wet.” I can see the way you did this, (making a vertical gesture with his hand) and then you do that (making a horizontal gesture with his hand), and I know that was wet when you did it. There is a very particular way that you’re using paint that is similar to the way paint is used on a larger painting. And in that, to me, there’s a continuation of something. So, I would agree, Walid Raad is doing something that’s primarily in the realm of the conceptual, and Duchamp is also doing something in the realm of the conceptual . . .
JR: —even though he came from painting, which is fascinating to me. He was a very talented painter.
EB: Yes. I think these are different in the sense that there’s a visual compensation. While the scale of these paintings makes me think of these artists, they’re disconnected in a way from those traditions. Something different remains here which is the coercion of the material. Even at this size, it’s still about the coercion of the material, and that material is paint. And to think about this, in the conversation about Instagram: the repeated swiping through images misses what is happening in the material relationship between an artist and her work in her studio. That’s a material conversation. Instagram has to do with the speed and legibility of images, which is connected to the digital realm, and that digital realm is something that more and more artists have grown up with.
JR: Yes, our generation knew a world without Instagram, and now we know a world with it. It’s become so omni-present in the art world that even “abstaining” is a form of engaging. The two-inch paintings emerged from this dilemma. At this point as artists, I don’t believe we can ignore Instagram’s impact on making and seeing, but that does not mean we have to play by its rules. I think we can and must make a choice as to how we want to engage with it.