In his 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin provides a waltzing elegy for the art of storytelling, declaring it to be “reaching its end” amidst modern print media and the solitary forms of reading encouraged by burgeoning formats like the novel and newspaper. Yet what if storytelling never died, but instead shifted shapes, and now thrives not in stories, but in the form of institutions and identities?
It is in this vein that Megan Rooney’s waxingly lyrical practice has found its focus. Growing up in the suburbs of Toronto before gaining her MFA from Goldsmiths College, London, Rooney’s work, like the artist herself, moves between continents—the piazza-like malls of suburban America and the mall-like piazzas of grandmother Europe—and media, her practice spanning painting, sculpture, drawing, film, performance and text. Characters are conjured: women with acrylicly made-up pillowcase faces in her Opening Times-commissioned film Tilia Americana (2015); sleeping sofa bags with pantyhose heads in A Petit Maison, a contribution to the 2015 exhibition “Till the Stars Turn Cold” at Glasgow Sculpture Studios; ghosts, faces drawn like pillowcases, in paintings rendered on both canvas and Topshop magazines, displayed in her solo show “Piggy Piggy” at Croy Nielson earlier this year. As a playwright, Rooney is brilliant but forgetful—her characters are expertly summoned on stage but never told to leave. As a storyteller, however, she’s ruthless, eschewing easy narratives in favor of rhythmically franked observations. “It flowed out like milk and tits and the way your face feels after a good night out”—“Piggy, Piggy,” again. Precise as lipstick on a cigarette, she renders bodies stuck in and out of moments, smiles reminiscent of eyelashes in strokes warped by her hands.
Ruthless storyteller who eschews easy narratives, precise as lipstick on a cigarette
But still, what are these stories? A careful writer, Rooney often utilizes the space of a press release for original texts, or inserts these in installations through her voice, both live and recorded, played back through CD Walkmans, a tactile device grasped through any ‘90s coming of age, placed on the gallery floor as if for us to stumble across. One could be tempted to believe that these provide scripts for her painted tableaux and sparse sculptural propositions, in the mode of the “painter who writes” or the “sculptor who draws,” or even the tourist who scribbles on maps before visiting cities. No. Rather, as Rooney describes to me, a wall or a canvas is never blank, but infused with words, images and scenes—everything is there. Similarly her writing doesn’t precede or follow any other formal exposition, but is rather co-authored with, even or co-authors, the rest of her work. To pull from Last Days. Last Days. Last Days. (2015), an immersive, durational performance commissioned by London’s Serpentine Galleries in conjunction with last summer’s Duane Hansen retrospective: “Bring a mop for the broken toilet. Be a ghost. Mop, she said.” Everything is there.
Recently, Rooney has turned to painting in a wall-size, ecstatic manner. Wrought in palettes of pink, ocean blue, purple and brown, and touchingly gestural, as if painted by the protagonists themselves, these works deal with site and space, and the ways humans melt into these constructs. Neither in the foreground nor the background (though exploding into the room), these works manifest Rooney’s interest in the things, the characters, the stories that come out of a moment when you allow them to. Rooney draws from the world rather than upon the world. Paint dripping, still, like a memory barely completed—I find myself watching rather than looking at them. I find them watching me, too.
Megan Rooney (Canadian, b. 1986) is an artist who lives and works between London and Berlin. She is represented by Seventeen Gallery, London, and Croy Nielsen, Berlin.
Rooney’s solo exhibition “Animals on the Bed” is currently on view at Seventeen Gallery, London, through 23 July. Rooney will be part of “Project 1049,” an exhibition supported by the LUMA Foundation, held in Gstaad from 29 July–21 August.
Harry Burke is a writer who lives and works in New York, where he serves as assistant curator and web editor at Artists Space, New York.
Image: Untitled, 2016, Courtesy of the artist and Croy Nielsen, Berlin. Photo credit: Joachim Schulz