Love Rooney like Lee Krasner
In mid July, I visited the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf for Megan Rooney's first solo exhibition in Germany called Fire on the Mountain. I was so blown away that I decided to write some short reflections on what I had seen, felt, etc. But that never happened; the notes were cast aside and the artist statement remained folded in the pocket of my backpack. In late August, I visited the Barbican. It was the final days of their Lee Krasner retrospective, an exhibition I had been eager to visit but never found (or rather made) the time to go. I was so blown away... It was a gust that so captivating and it finally got me writing. Yet what I wrote was equally about Megan Rooney, despite the two artist from two distinctly different eras not having much in common upon first glance.
Rooney, who often using found objects to inhabit the human form, is a contemporary artist known for her fleshy tones and figurative allusions. Lee Krasner, who passed away over twenty-five years ago, was a Modernist painter part of the Abstract Expressionist movement in America. As female artists, they have both been scrutinised by society just because of their gender to various degrees, but what bonds these two artist together for me is that they are two of the most powerful storytellers I have come across who use the semiotics is abstraction. In this comparison, I do not wish to reduce Megan Rooney's work to the works of her predecessors but to express my admiration for her work through shaping likeness with the work belonging to one of my favourite 20th century artists, Lee Krasner.
Lee Krasner's works are swaths of seeping colours. While they foreground a mimicry of the imagination through the abstract, her works also offering a mosaic of 1930s Manhattan adrenaline, a time when New York swiftly became the art capital of the world. Born to Jewish parents, Krasner made the unorthodox choice to attend art classes as a young teenager. In the trialling years that followed, her schooling became laced with excellence and prestige - albeit spotted with misogyny and financial hardship. By the 1940s, she had gained respect as a painter and was working and studying in circles of artists like Hans Hofmann, Elaine de Kooning and her future husband Jackson Pollack. Throughout the decades, she continued to experiment with style, constantly finding a new place in the world and in art. Because of this, her artwork is difficult to tie down just one tone, mood or identity. This, her defiance of one artistic style, would become part of her legacy, part of why exploring her work is so euphoric, so eternal.
There were bodies on the walls, fleshy and grotesque, but soft and humble. Megan Rooney's work has a materiality both whimsical and gloomy, using domestic objects and road signs and dog toys and more to demonstrate the chaos of humanity, commodity and politics. Her colour combinations are related, various shades of melanin and blood. In the large-scale installation at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Rooney washed the main wall with the blue of deep veins with the pinks of cuticles and purples of scabs. This is Fire on the Mountain. As it bled gently over the left corner, my attention drifts to the Three Graces, umbrellas draped in the white robes of parasols.
And the colours of the walls bounce back on the concrete or the floors. In their broken shadows, I thought I saw what looked like a blue coryza in the Paying off the Angels.
I thought back to that blue, palm-sized blot when I saw Krasner's primary series from 1964. Located in the centre of the lower gallery space were her larger works, with the other guests circling the balustrades on the top floor. One of the smaller panels was a network of cobalt blue on the creme colour of canvas. Her brushstrokes were vigorous, but subdued through lively colours and fingertip spots.
These dote, however, were an accident. After falling in East Hampton and subsequently breaking her right arm, Krasner resorted to using her left hand to paint directly from the the tubes of paint she was using. In a pinch, she spread it out with her the tips of her fingers that peaked out of her cast. It was Lee Krasner's mortality, her humanity in these dots and I found those round traces again in Icarus. With tiny fingerprints, she had filled the negative space between the strong strokes of the red, black and raspberry colour. Their were dynamic, looser, more tactile for me that the other paintings. Something inside me made me antsy. It was almost as if I felt the desire to scratch my inching skin under a non-existant cast.
I am sent back to the Megan Rooney exhibition. It also has a balcony so you could see Fire on the Mountain from all corners of the West-facing gallery. It extended out so far I felt it was a living thing, bringing life to the rest of the exhibition through its all-encompassing presence.
On the top floor were more sculptures like Kaputt! Kaputt! and Renter's Paradise, which is to say: on the top floor were industrial barrels, traffic cones and golf clubs. These objects overlooked Rooney's abstract mural like other visitors in the space. One barrel had a mop sticking out of it, a hat resting on it's handle, a cloth worn like a durag. The human mind can't help, but to make a persona out of it, our of her artwork. With Rooney's departure from Realism, I found the human of her art - the humane in her art - taking shape from the rubble.
'I was aware it was a frightening image, but I had to let it come through.'
- Lee Krasner
It was a difficult time for Lee Krasner and her husband. Jackson Pollock's acute alchoholism put a strain on their reslationship and their work. This was seen in Krasner's 1956 paiting Prophecy. Using shades and tones I can only describe as coming from the pallet of Megan Rooney's East London studio, Krasner painted a disturbing fleshy form, looping and distorting within itself.
True to its title, the following painting she created were from a much darker time in her life. The Barbican had shielded them from immediate view. They built a panel in front of room like a trigger warning. Jackson had died in a car crash with a friend of his lover died with him. His lover, Ruth Klingman, did not. Now a widow, Krasner continued to expose some of her troubles in this 'frightening' style of Picasso-esk forms. It was a temporary exploration, but like a chapter break of a book, this wall marked the third phase of her triumphant artistic careers while simultaneously reflecting how they shamed her and 'disturbed' her enough to hide. This series were difficult to look at. They were iterations of the body, and expressions of the self, tormented. Human all the same.
In a way, Megan Rooney's work is similarly powerful, but almost in the opposite way. Krasner's work is deeply private, exposing, and not meant to be explained. It tells a story in feelings, experiences, with a strong mise en scene. It is so direct that it's strength comes precisely from how personal it is. This paradoxically mades it so relatable.
Megan Rooney, however, plays with the public, using objects and various skin tones to represent humanity as a whole. This distinguished the two artist for me. Rooney's effect comes from expressing the universal, Krasner's work is so specific to one person, both honest and complex, that it allows us to draw our own similarities when we see it. While this might be why it seems so strange to align these two female artists, but I feel that once an artwork is shared in a gallery, a museum, a public space, it ceases to belong solely to just one person. As a viewer, I pull what I need from the artwork that inspires me and I project myself, my memories, my own mortality into it as well.
This is more than just an aesthetic comparison. For me, viewing the Barbican's Krasner exhibition and reflecting on how powerful and passionate my reaction to her work was, has in hindsight made me feel more strongly about Rooney's work. While I had initially set out to write about Rooney's work and how she expresses humanity through abstraction, I somehow have found myself using the past to write my own stories that build a bridge between two aesthetics that I find appealing. And in doing so, it is as though I were filling gaps, painting my own fingerprints on memories and lifetimes that belonged to others. In this way, what I like about Krasner's work can still be found In Rooney's work, and (ignoring temporality and verb tense) vice versa.
I can't help wondering what Lee Krasner would think about Megan Rooney's work today...