Robert Rooney’s out-of-the-ordinary photography
In 1977, during the month I was born, a capsule of images and sounds was sent into outer space in the hope of communicating and representing “us” to hypothesised extraterrestrials. This was the Voyager Interstellar Mission – an event I learned about some years ago, leafing through the latterly published Murmurs of Earth (1978) in the dark corner of a second-hand bookshop. While the capsule was intended to provide a definitive view of all things earthly, the book documented the failures and successes of its production. As a kind of “making of” addendum, it provides a fascinating account of that action known as representation – specifically how and what we choose to leave out of the picture when representing ourselves.
The event of the Voyager and its accompanying book inadvertently raised a question with which artists around the world happened to be simultaneously grappling. A local example, Robert Rooney, might have framed the question for his scientist contemporaries thus: putting aside issues in communication with the unknowable entity of extraterrestrials, shouldn’t this collection of wonderfully mundane murmurs, conversations and conjectures form a key part of any package representing us? More broadly: how can we expect to represent things truthfully, in their fullness and realness, given the indwelling prejudices of any demarcation? More challengingly: how do we represent our compulsive, self-consciously representing selves?
We know Rooney might have asked such questions because of the time capsule his work is – representative of both his life’s thinking and several decades of Australian art. From early colour field paintings incorporating cutout shapes from the back of cereal boxes to his experiments with the camera as a “dumb recorder” of the most ready-at-hand patterns of daily life, before a return to painting, his output spans, perhaps bookends, a specific period of art history. It is a period in which the challenge of where and how to draw the frame around art, where and how to let life into those boundaries, was the cause for greatest concern and pleasure. More specifically in Rooney’s case, it was that tidal drag into and away from painting.
Rooney is a fascinating figure for cross-generational conversation: in addition to the comprehensive time capsule his work provides, he is also the distiller of his zeitgeist as archivist and art critic. Part of this output is a series of photographs he took of his friends, mostly artists and art figures in Melbourne. Until October 11, Portrait Photographs 1978-1987, a collection of digital prints developed from the original slides, will be on display at Melbourne’s Tolarno Galleries.
My first impression when encountering these images was that they looked refreshingly unlike art. In an era when the prized package is the one most tightly shut, it is refreshing to see murmurs so personal and ordinary; to have their simple documentation welcomed out of monographic sidelines and into the gallery. The compulsive, pre-emptive production of the monograph is curious to think about in relation to Rooney, his work encompassing as it does much of the ephemera and events with which we like to pack those tomes. While his would be a prized addition to the bookshelf, it is perhaps the capacity of his art to talk for itself, about itself – to write the book rather than relying on the noise of connoisseurship – that hints at the substantiality and meaning of his work.
In making his Portrait Photographs Rooney only asked his subjects to choose a place to be photographed. The glow of success or death evoked by the names rubs up against the unexceptional, haphazard truths of Weet-Bix boxes, haircuts and the masks of affectation. While the images often have an individual drama – Howard Arkley’s insistence on being photographed on a particular chair in front of a particular painting wearing a finely choreographed pair of socks and shoes, Peter Booth wearing a devil’s mask, or Jenny Watson looking like an ’80s pop singer in thickly caked-on make-up – their effect, like Rooney’s other photographic works, is as a group or series that disarms portentousness.
The Portrait Photographs are an example of the conversational qualities perpetually in and around Rooney’s work. For a very different example of this disposition it’s worth looking at some of his recent paintings, currently furnishing a back room of the gallery. The French Laughter paintings provide an unlikely stage on which cartoons from the satirical magazine Le Rire (Laughter) – specifically the volumes from the year of his birth, discovered by chance in a second-hand bookshop – find much to talk about with hard-edge abstraction.
The subject of cartoons is consistent with Rooney’s ongoing fascination with childhood, dating back to the Box Brownie photographs of schoolchildren and his book of nursery rhymes, both created as an art student in the 1950s. The French Laughter paintings are less rhythmically steady than those from the ’70s; thinking of his earlier activities as a jazz musician it might be appropriate to bring to mind the freer “late work” of musical pioneers of that genre when considering this transition.
Of importance to the photographic work is the localness of Rooney’s gaze, made plain by the fact that the artist hasn’t moved since the age of two – from one street in Hawthorn to another. The artist’s claim that “during that period [the ’70s] you inflicted boredom on yourself” is suggestive of the slackening of the brain required to awaken to the things most familiar to us, those that we invariably take for granted. Like the drivers of the Voyager mission, who were trying to imagine what extraterrestrial intelligence would make of their Frisbee among other things, artists from this time were intent on getting fresh eyes on their most ordinary worlds. In Rooney’s case this resulted in serialised photographic works documenting a parked Holden, the corners of rooms, scorched almonds, configurations of folded clothes, and the state of his bed.
The portraits, equally conversations with everyday life, have a different stamina: less the instamatic dumbness inflicted on the serialised works, more the aesthetically controlled framing of the Box Brownie images, they mark what merely, and with time more powerfully, amounted to an exchange between two people. Portraits of artists, usually those caught between the familiar landscape of now and the distance of a canon, can have a stale crust; yet as Rooney’s generation pointed out, the leanness bordering on dullness of actuality can lead to interesting results.
The subtle stamina of these works relates in part to one of the more taken-for-granted aspects of an artist’s work. Like the schoolchildren wagging and messing around in his Box Brownie images, the portraits seize on a crucial negative space. In the case of art-making it is the conversations about art, however fleeting – after bumping into somebody on the street or chewing the fat in another artist’s studio – that point to the boiler room of its endeavour. In Rooney’s work, the momentum offered by these exchanges is both foregrounded and extended: the conversation now, with us, being what distinguishes and completes the work. Quite unlike the Voyager’s ambitious trajectory, still floating out there in search of its recipients, Rooney’s work insists on being on the ground, among us, then and now, casually lassoing and implicating his cohort.
After looking at the faces belonging to the names belonging to history, a strange sensation followed me down Melbourne’s laneways. A few minutes later in a cafe, sitting and talking with a friend – an artist at the younger end of the Portrait Photographs age bracket – I felt like I was seeing his face, before its backdrop, with a different lens. Perhaps the weird, unexpected gravitas of Rooney’s portraits – and other examples of art from that period – is in their angle-widening foresight, their ability to take stock of the outlying murmurs and offcuts so carelessly tossed into the maw of history.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 27, 2014 as "Out of the ordinary". Subscribe here.