From Genesis to Nemesis: New work by Mick Rooney RA
Amid the decline in foreign language studies in Britain, few people seem to have noticed the disappearance from our art schools of an international non-verbal language: the language of painting. Under the sway of conceptualism, a visual language developed in the early Renaissance—and enriched by generations of artists since—has fallen off the fine art curriculum, and students who want to learn it have to teach themselves. But it’s a language in which Mick Rooney RA, who studied at Wimbledon College of Art and the Royal College in the 1960s, is lucky enough to be fluent, not to say voluble. And as he reasons, ‘if you’re lumbered with it, you might as well celebrate it by putting everything you know into a painting’. Rooney’s loquacity may have something to do with his Irish ancestry, though his means of expression is visual rather than verbal. His art is ‘a sort of outpouring’, as he puts it, in which the ideas cascade onto canvas or paper in a babbling stream of consciousness, surfed by the colourful creatures of his imagination—human, animal and a whole range of life forms in between.
Sometimes, as in The Famous Siren Choir, they sing in unison, at other times they compete for attention. But in the paintings in this new show, as its title suggests, his motley flash mob is all singing from the same hymn sheet. Having attained what he calls ‘a new age of reason’ in his 70s, Rooney is ready to touch on some serious subjects. There’s nothing especially grown-up about his latest pictures—‘no one’s an adult’ in them, he points out – but they seem to carry a new weight of allegorical meaning. If titles like Spilled Planet or Rudderless Ark sound loaded, it’s because the pictures reflect their creator’s existential anxieties about the state of nature and the future of humanity. In the largest painting in the show, Waiting and Wondering, a huddle of apprehensive creatures—bears, dogs, a horse, a lion, an elephant, a parrot and new-born triplets among them—crowd onto an island as if hoping for rescue. Which direction might salvation come from? ‘It’s the handcart to hell idea,’ Rooney explains, although in his hands the ride to perdition is as gaily painted as a gipsy caravan. The atmosphere is all in the lighting.
As in a dream sequence, the action takes place in a penumbra between dusk and dawn, occasionally moonlit though more often illuminated by a mysterious phosphorescence that comes from within. With their jigsaw-patterned colours, these new paintings would make marvellous stained glass windows, but their abraded surfaces also suggest fresco, and their layered, sharp-edged forms recall collage. In his techniques as in his imagery, Rooney likes to mix it. His pictures carry a chorus of art- historical echoes, from the allegories of Brueghel and the nightmare visions of Goya to the haunting melancholy of Picasso’s harlequins, all crafted together with the grace and ingenuity of the Persian miniatures on which he wrote his first student essay. The combination is pure Rooney. That’s how language works: you learn the words and the grammar and you put them together in your own way. ‘It just evolves, one thing from another,’ is how he explains it; ‘after years and years of internalising images, the mind goes into the arm which goes into the brush.’ Such are the complex sources of Rooney’s dream-world dioramas, with their variegated populations of birds, beasts, aquatic creatures, cartoon monsters and androgynous figures, and their sets and costumes as surreal as a Diaghilev ballet staged in an extra-terrestrial element between air and water. The jigsaw pieces fit, but what does it all mean? We’re left to guess, with no shortage of clues to work from. The abiding hope is that it will all turn out all right; that, as in Making Friends, the human race will make its peace with the myriad creatures that share its planet (and, in Rooney’s imagination, with several that don’t). ‘They’re only paintings,’ he says reassuringly. The crucial thing, for the artist, is ‘not to get bored’. He needs to go on surprising himself; if he can do that he will keep the rest of us enthralled.
Laura Gascoigne 2019
UK art exhibition at Fosse Gallery
Private View: Sunday 3rd March 2019
11.00am - 4.00pm
The Exhibition continues until: Saturday 30th March 2019
[please click image for larger view]
They await a sign from the Gods
Gouache/tempera on paper
19 x 14.5 inches