In the Popism show at the National Gallery Of Victoria in 1982, some screenprints by Robert Rooney were exhibited among works by artists such as Howard Arkley, Juan Davila, Richard Dunn, Maria Kozic, Imants Tiller, Peter Tyndall and Jenny Watson. One of the critical strategies in this exhibition curated by Paul Taylor was to link a fairly disparate group of artists who - despite the multiple generation gaps within the corpus - had specialized in presenting in their work certain views on how they as artists related to popular culture.
Rooney's main work for the Popism exhibition was titled Pilkington Predicts. It is a set of screenprints which are in fact direct and unaltered enlargements of a series of advertisments he designed as a young commercial artist for the Pilkington glass company. Of all the works in the Popism exhibition, this was perhaps the most `popist' - that is, the most self-consciously aware of the multiple and entwining histories of popular culture, Pop art and art culture. The oldest artist in this exhibition, Rooney had not only exploited his age but also his background as an original Pop artist and one who could be included in such an exhibition.
Pilkington Predicts might well have been titled Rooney Predicts, for this work functioned as both his return to painting and a sign of what that return implied and instigated. In 1982, Rooney had not produced any paintings since 1970. After the Popism exhibition and a new critical respect afforded him, Rooney returned to painting to conceptually regenerate and formally rework a number of key motifs, manouvres and methods he had established in his paintings up to 1970. It is this `return' that encapsulates and envigourates Rooney's ouvre, locating him within a Pop tradition that spans the last 30 years and is still generating vital work in our current Post-Pop environment. To elaborate upon this notion of a `Post-Pop environment' and to articulate the Pop tradition as something more complex than its intial populist critical reception throughout the 60s, this essay will move through Robert Rooney's paintings, detailing and qualifying how his `neo-conceptual' approach and `hyper-formalist' methods are integral to how Pop Art has been generated.
Robert Rooney's return to his past in the guise of a return to painting replicates a gesture common to Pop after the sixties. While many Pop artists started their careers in commercial illustration and graphic design and/or made open allusions to those fields and their techniques (eg. Andy Warhol's blotted line, James Rosenquist's billboard photo-realism, Robert Indiana's packing crate stencils, Peter Phillips' custom painting style, Ed Ruscha's straight typefaces, etc.), much Pop in the seventies made those kind of allusions central to its practice. Roy Lichtenstein's Artist's Studio - Look Mickey (1973) contains an image of Lichtenstein's own Look Mickey (1961), one of many painting Lichtenstein did in the seventies which contained self-references. Larry Rivers' Golden Oldies series of prints (produced between 1972 and 1978) collages images Rivers had made famous in the gallery (body charts, cigar boxes, dollar bills, etc.), thereby parodying his own historical status as a Pop artist. Andy Warhol's Reversal Series (1979) deployed similar artifice by reprinting a collection of his most representative works in negative. In Pilkington Predicts, Rooney made a statement about his own past as a graphic artist and how his history as an exhibiting artist converged with those of many international Pop artists.
A survey of Pop activity throughout the seventies reveals a type of regurgitation which suggests that once Pop Art had become part of popular culture, it was bound to cannibalize itself for new work. However this regurgitation, while seemingly unprogressive and uncreative, typifies much of what Pop was attempting throughout the sixties - namely, a kind of `dynamic stasis' wherein Pop artists were surveying the pivotal demise of modernism within the museum and noting that the compulsive progressivism of 20th Century Art had become a final series of avant-garde spasms. Pop's recourse - a fairly desparate catharsis at that - was to stand still and let things pass; to let time, history and art all pass into the transitory ephemera of the present. As an art movement, Pop initiated formalist explorations in what could be done with a certain vaccuumed or vacated subject matter and how one would formally do it. Rather than highlighting `popular culture' of its time, Pop focussed on what could be called the `abject contemporaneity' of its culture - a field emptied of romantic artistic discourse and governed by mass media communication. Robert Rooney's paintings are quintessentially Pop as they formally explore the means of absenting content by dwelling on issues and themes of domesticity, boredom, suburbanism and repetition - all of which connote the effects of living in the present.
Rooney's endless present is measured by the many collections he has amassed as a collector of culture, simultaneously keeping up with the present and methodically researching its multiple, ad hoc beginnings. Obsessively informed of global contemporary art activity and cultural phenomena since the early fifties, he has a formidable number of magazines, slide carousels, scrapbooks and clipping files. Some of them contain images of interesting things for personal pleasure - fragments on the run, caught by his eye; others contain images used to make collages, publications, paintings 1. Part diary, part library, part workbench. Input and output operate as a closed circuit, so typical of Pop.
Some of Rooney's earliest work parallels the early work of Warhol in this way. Among Warhol's set of black and white pseudo-abstract expressionist renderings of newspaper advertisments, dated 1960, there are a few works titled Untitled which are simply selections of small newspaper advertisments cut out and pasted on paper in the form of a mini ad page. Essentially, these `works' are source material sheets, grabbed on the run and filed away for future reference and/or application. Much Pop source material was catalogued this way, starting in the mid fifties with `diary library workbenches' like Rauschenberg's photos of commercial shop signs and Paolozzi's suitcases of American leisure and entertainment magazines. An early interest of Rooney's was juvenile delinquents - a new phenomenon which was pictorially splattered across many family journals of the late fifties. Some coverage in Life and Fortune magazines ended up in one of Rooney's many image files, and some of those images became the source material for a set of paintings between 1958 to 1959.
Trouble and Adolescents (both 1958) and Hero (1959) demonstrate a naive social realist tendancy. Groupings of crew-cut kids stand around and hang out within the pictorial frame. The banality of their execution (an almost text-book illustrative approach to juxtaposing and dissolving reds with blues) echoes the non-eventfullness of the figures' existence, ritually sipping coke and regularly taunting each other. A mock-mythical quality pervades another set of paintings - I Rise In Flame, Implication and Mortality Play (all 1958). Similar renderings apply, but these scenarios posit the adolescents as melo-tragic photo-journalistic representations of sweet birds of youth. Youthful energy - incapable of distinguishing between passion, aggression and frustration - is evoked in these symbolic tableaux, yet a strange ambivalence haunts these weird mutations of James Dean wannabes, an ambivalence possibly derived from their being sourced from Life magazine rather than `everyday life'.
The sourcing of newspaper and magazine articles in this bland way becomes more localised and focussed in a series of carcrash paintings Rooney did between 1958 and 1960. Sunday (1958) links cruising adolescents to derelict car wrecks. The title Sunday verges on the sarcastic with its reference to the great Australian `sunday drive' which was the ultimate torture to any aspiring delinquent (how embarrassing to be seen parading as part of the family display). The scene of Sunday presents the outsider delinquents - who routinely escape the sunday drive - impassively witnessing their sunday playground : the gutted and rusting car wrecks dumped behind the childrens' playground. This solitary contemplation is transformed into morbid voyeurism in the following carcrash paintings : Crash Victim (1959) and Accident and Red Death (both 1960, the latter uncannily prefiguring Warhol's titling of carcrashes like Five Red Deaths On Red in 1962). In a similar mock-painterly fashion, these paintings replicate the delinquents' impassive perspective on the spectacle of death, and thus run tandem to the then-increasing impassivity in photo-journalism, which in turn was very influential on both Rauschenberg's and Warhol's relation to and treatment of such imagery. Rooney's carcrashes also relate to a strong textual undercurrent in much work of the early sixties which fixed on the compacted automobile as the violent breakdown of America's main postwar boom industry (many Pop paintings and sculptures feature car parts, chassis, textures, attachments, etc.). Australia was caught up in the same propogation of the `ultimate leisure vehicle' with the patriotic GMH push 2, and Rooney's carcrashes - as conservative as they may superficially appear - are his terse contribution to late fifties `landscape painting' and their ghost gums. Rooney's ghosts are car wrecks.
An interesting feature of the carcrash paintings is that as they progressively featured more of the twisted metal, they appeared more like abstract expressionist paintings - an irony not lost on Rooney. As such they start to form a bridge between his early work and his peculiar `abstract' paintings throughout the sixties which explore how the representational perceptually dissolves so easily into the abstract. Available Form and Two (both 1966) are the first example of this. The main figure in both these paintings is just that : a figure of representation and abstraction; a `figure of vision' in the same sense as we refer to a `figure of speech' where we note language's ability to displace itself. Available Form and Two each feature the same rabbit/duck confusion between an alien hieroglyph and a human form, engineered by foreground being displaced by background. Hence one can see an infinte plateau of mimesis in their silhouettes : the Playboy bunny logo, barbed-wire, lips, an optical film soundtrack, breasts, buttocks, cheap curtain patterns, Arp, Moore, Giacometti and Tony Curtis in The Great Houdini. Two in particular pokes fun at this futile visual association : two what?
Having used a cut-out stencil to generate the figures of those two paintings, Rooney then hit upon the cunning idea of using the pre-designed shapes kids cut out from the backs of Kellogs Corn Flakes packets to make up funny masks and animal assemblages. Here was a more succinct way of colliding abstraction and representation; of flirting mimesis while disavowing reference; and of incorporating the utterly domestic into the dreadfully artistic. These templates - perfect tools for serialization - became the main means of production in a series of works which through their childish origins outwardly mocked the preciousness with with Australia tackled the hard-edge revolution of the late sixties 3. While a Duchampian pun can be detected in the play between `cereal' and `serial', the supreme irony is to be found in the innate abstractiveness of the cereal box shapes, marking Rooney's works as even more hard-edged than the `real thing'. The first two series - Kind-Hearted Kitchen Garden, Nos.1-4 and Slippery Seal, Nos.1-5 (both 1967) - are centred on a play with illusionistic depth. Kind-Hearted Kitchen Garden employs meta-grids through which one perceives an interlocking of shapes, structurally reinforcing the dimensional relationship between the cut-out commodity and the fine-art object. Slippery Seal extends this play further by creating an Op effect which dissolves the perceivable meta-grid of Kind-Hearted Kitchen Garden. Both clearly replay the paintings Available Form and Two - especially if the viewer tries to distinguish the shapes mentioned in the titles. Collectively, these paintings between 1966 and 1967 testify to the strong immergence of a neo-conceptual strain in Rooney's hyper-formalism, in that they are as much about the conceptualization of perception involved in defining hard-edge abstraction (and all its desperate measures to escape signification) as they are about the practical means and methods employed in the production of such painting.
Canine Capers, Nos.1-7 (1968) fortifies that neo-conceptual strain. The paintings in this series more directly illicit a hard-edge aesthetic minus the parodic method employed, as if the end starts to nullify the means. Viewed as a sequential series, each painting works through a complex set of rhythms by establishing a meta-grid made up of a repeated motif aligned vertically and horizontally. Each successive painting simply alters the angle of either all the motifs or some of them in alternate sequence, suggesting a virtual cinematic animation in each painting's slight deviation engineered by quite complex internal structuring. Visible through the lattice holes created by the meta-grid, a contrapuntal series of secondary shapes spreads in and out of spatial synchronization with the main motif, thereby creating a polyphonic play with shapes, motifs and their interlocking grids. Cereal Bird Beaks, Nos.1-3 (1969) continues this approach to complex spatial relationships. Comparing Cereal Bird Beaks with Canine Capers, one can observe that the internal placement of secondary shapes against the main motif grids in both these series of paintings seems highly illogical and anti-geometric while nonetheless generating a feeling of extreme spatial logic. This series suggests the modification of tightly structured frameworks by the aleatory placement of micro-structures. The implicit irony in this arises from juxtaposing the high plane of structural/spatial logic with the base reality that anything sequenced in such a way takes on the appearance of such logic (one could call it the `wallpaper effect'). Both Canine Capers and Cereal Bird Beaks thus deflate the importance of such rigourous methods while exploring the complexities unleashed once such processes are set into motion.
To demonstrate and demystify this illusion of systemization in hard-edge abstraction, Rooney's final series of hard-edged abstract paintings - though not as sumptuous as the aforementioned cereal box cut-outs - seems intent on paradoxically rejecting all attempts at executing painting. Superknit, Nos.1-6 (1970) posits the plain, dull and decidedly un-chauvinist activity of knitting as the sublime production of structuralist abstraction. The most conceptual of Rooney's paintings up to that point, the Superknit series proposes that painting can be reduced to working out a time scale purely in order to pass it, to exist in its passage of time in the manner of dynamic stasis. Pop's `abject contemporaneity' here becomes exquisite boredom, almost as if one could give up painting in order to knit. A terse solipsistic subtext is thus woven through the Superknit series, making it no suprise that they will be the last major paintings Rooney does for thirteen years 4.
Yet through its negation of painting, Superknit is an important series of works which links Rooney to the dada legacy carried by Pop Art. It was Marcel Duchamp who first seriously averred the acquittance of painting as a means of dealing with the abject contemporaneity he found so inspiring. Chocolate grinders, snow shovels, hat racks, coat racks, bottleracks, bicycle wheels, twine balls, urinals. Duchamp took the ultimate `everyday' decision : to collapse into the present. No past, no future; but simply chess, spaghetti, and a job in a library. A dynamic stasis engineered and maintained by the decision to remain in the present. His most `negative' work Dust Breeding (1920, documented in Man Ray's photograph) shows The Large Glass neglected, gathering dust in Duchamp's New York studio; an object within which nothing happens but the accruement of the present and the material mark of time. Pop formalized this legacy of the everyday void (and the museographic processes of mummification) by making manifest what Duchamp conceptually projected.
Pop was thus inevitably engaged in high modes of formalism as well as intricate conceptual flows due to its realization and actualization of much of what Duchamp and the dadaists forecast as the end of art. In this sense, Pop can be viewed as the implosive sound ("POP!") of modernism becoming postmodernism; of 20th Century formalism being serially reworked as hyper-formalism; of the theory of art becoming the practice of culture. Just as much Pop Art regenerates dada's views of the art/culture collapse, Pop Art prefigures much of what has been occurring in postmodern art throughout the eighties. Broadly speaking, this is what we could term the `Post-Pop environment'. Just as it is responsible for prompting critical re-investigation of Pop Art and its continuing practitioners, so has it nurtured a new generation of artists with new perspectives on the relationships between art and culture, modernism and postmodernism. The Popism exhibition was one of many exhibitions around the world throughout the eighties which explored these relationships, and Robert Rooney is one of extremely few artists in Australia who not only could be classed a `continuing practitioner of Pop' but who also produced a large body of work throughout the eighties which allows us to open up these issues for critical discussion.
Three important paintings signal the start of Rooney's regeneration: The Death Of James Dean, Nos.1-2 and Clue To Abel's Character (all 1983). Together, they rework and `re-appropriate' his early adolescent paintings. The Death Of James Dean is a perverse lyrical ode to the deathly attraction of hip iconography, expressed through the incongrous mix of El Lissitsky, James Dean, Kurt Schwitters and Lana Turner. This mix of references was typical of the early eighties when not only was popular culture again invading the gallery, but also art was invading the advertising agency. Rooney thus plays on his own past - as teenager and artist - and the way in which it had passed into these rengenerated pseudo-nostalgic Post-Pop zones. Despite this, these paintings manage to recoup their base reference, for each is a cut-up of magazine headlines and intro-lines which at the time were clustered around the tragic death of James Dean. Just as the James Dean Foundation economically deploys the Jimmy Dean mythology 5, Rooney employs the same mythology within a pseudo-high art framework. Clue To Abel's Character (1983) - a strange one-off painting - similarly returns to fifties' delinquent/rebel mythology, this time by enlarging a fragment visibly torn from a magazine of the time. An illustration of a forlorn figure (rendered in a style reminiscent of Warhol's early blotted-line technique), sitting with head in arms and angry at the world, is captioned with a text that clearly recalls Rooney's own mock-mythical set of adolescent paintings : "Clue to Abel's character are [sic] his sketchbooks which are full of drawings of lonely men like this one, burdened by life yet and resigned to it." As such, Clue To Abel's Character makes clear the ambivalence of Rooney's early adolescent paintings and the distanced melancholy they evoke.
Rooney's first solo exhibition of paintings since Popism was held in 1983 and titled As You Were. Tinged with Rooney's new Post-Pop self-referentiality, the title is lifted from and refers to Australia's patriotic feelings during WWII as depicted in popular magazines of the time. A few stark black and white paintings apply the method of direct enlargement first used in Pilkington Predicts to grossly enlarge some iconic wartime illustrations (marching men, flying planes, etc.). In What Price Victory? and Speed Victory (both 1983) the rough outlines exaggerated by the magnification of the cheap printing of the source images replicate the nostalgic impulse which throws the viewer back into an era that cannot be recaptured - whether you were there or not. This nostalgic impasse (hinted at previously in the adolescent series) generates a full and total blockage through the compaction of similarly sourced images in the collaged tableaux of a set of paintings which carry through to 1984 (most of which were shown in the As You Were solo exhibition) and whose titles are drawn from the editorial copy which framed the images used : As You Were, The Way To The Stars, Functional Dress For Men, The Home Front, The Art Of Illustration and Child's Journey (all 1983) and The Second Front and The Setting Sun (both 1984).
These paintings restage the collapse of the respresentational into the abstract cited previously in Available Form and Two (both 1966) by foregrounding an array of imagery which obviously represents certain objects while at the same time abstracting those very objects. Rooney's eye for detail makes these paintings fascinating because he has selected from hundreds of possible images only those that resonate with this formalist confusion; those repleat with an overwhelming amatuerism and awkwardness in their depiction. All together, these paintings strongly evoke an era of rationing, not only in the wartime images of leisure activity and consumption depicted, but also in the off-white backgrounds simulating pulp paper printed with black and one colour. While the finished paintings achieve a dense effect through careful and streamlined juxtaposition, a nostalgic impulse enlivens what would have otherwise been a clinical postmodern exercise in `image pirating', imbuing them with a genuine ambiguity which acknowledges the farce of remembering the era (lest we forget) while accepting the fact that the era was lived (as we were) 6; painting a portrait of wartime life that recalls Abel's character : "burdened by life yet and resigned to it."
The compacted approach to the collage of found imagery which typifies the As You Were collection announces Rooney's eighties work and positions it in line with other Post-Pop work. This `compaction' is a regeneration and re-evaluation of the original precepts of collage as propounded by the dadists. The major difference is in the erasure of dimensional demarcation in the finished pictorial plane. While Rauscheberg introduced his `combines' as an extension of Schwitters' `merzbaus', overlaying torn image fragments so that they violently ruptured each other's homogenous textures and surfaces, much Pop and Post-Pop art applied what is now recognized as a postmodern technique : the cancellation of material difference. The pictorial plane in some of the Post-Pop work of, for example, Komar & Melamid and Thomas Lawson (American-based artists whose multi-planed collages of visual references bear certain relations to Rooney's work) and Imants Tillers, Peter Tyndall and Maria Kozic (Australian artists who exhibited with Rooney in Popism) is one of semi-detached, ironically faithful reproduction. Their found imagery is treated impassively and `sealed' through the act of appropriation, confronting the viewer with a marked lack of artistic personage or identity. The point, though, is that this type of compaction (where the found is fixed, as opposed to collage where the found is fractured) is neither a frivolous trend nor an oppressive movement which binds the artists mentioned, but rather a broad base from which one might historically relate to modernist deconstruction and issues of popular culture.
Rooney's 1985 solo exhibition carried a flagrantly ironic title : One Complete Abstract Painting Included In Every Picture. This collection of works more openly interrogates Rooney's key perceptual thematics of collage and compaction; appropriation and ambiguity; sourcing and sealing; and nostalgia and negation. A second series of wartime paintings, this collection strikes one with a harder propoganda edge and specifies the Asian Invasion (WWII and the Korean War) as the prime energizer in this mythology of patriotic hysteria as expressed through media of the time. Understand The Weapon and The Missing Man (both 1985) employ the basic processes of the 1983-84 paintings, but through an expanded colour range their scenarios more immediately construct a proto-cinematic narrative within the frame. Understand The Weapon, for example, suggests cathartic victory through collaging the child's war-toy pop gun; the blitzkreig spotlights (or are they Hollywood arc lamps?); the singing military; and the strewn confetti (or is it demoralizing propoganda dropped by the enemy?). These paintings do not confront one with alien imagery, but rather `naturalize' that imagery to tell a story of national conflict, marking them as a manifestation of the iconic, symbolic and narratological material latent in the first series.
A dominant visual motif groups together the paintings in the One Complete Abstract Painting Included With Every Picture collection : camouflage. Three paintings feature airborn dog-fight explosions - Born To Die, Tumult In The Clouds and Against The Sun (all 1985). The latter two especially blend flames and smoke, camouflage material and paint, military maps and charts, all at once in a dizzy swirl of shapes. The pictorial frame becomes awash in a patterning of wartime iconography, as Rooney does another take on the seriousness of his subject matter by reducing it to the flattened plane of bland visual association. The remaining paintings - With Intent To Deceive, Beans & Bushido and Juke Box Jungle (all 1985) - take the camouflage motif further. With Intent To Deceive is a self-reflexive tale of a seductive Mata Hari figure in `Jade Woman' repose, rendered in naked outline on top of a camouflaged plane whose door half-conceals a `live ammunition' symbol. Beans & Bushido carries a similar veiled threat as a handful of contaminated beans are thrown against what appears to be either a miltary map or an op-abstract background, but which in fact is a grossly enlarged and distorted image of two undetected Japanese factory workers. Juke Box Jungle is a crazy clash of 50s juke-box stencilled figures dancing against a vibrating enlargement of an illustration of jungle growth, recalling the tension between those that went to war and the spivs who stayed at home; of the jungle beat (from be-bop to swing) that played while loose lips sank ships in a juke joint and big bands tried to make everyone march to the same drum. One complete abstract painting hidden in every picture.
The title of Rooney's next solo exhibition (in 1988) made it impossible to not recognize how he had been replaying his duplicitous involvement in hard-edged abstraction as a signal of his Pop status, now clearly decipherable in the Post-Pop environment. Titled Silly Symphonies, or At Last, The 1968 Show, Part One : New Paintings, the show sardonically referred to the The Field exhibition of hard-edged abstract painting held in 1968 at the National Gallery Of Victoria. Far from being nostalgic, Rooney is questioning his involvement with the show, for he probably was as relevant to that exhibition as it is to the current Post-Pop environment.
The seven paintings in the Silly Symphony series (all 1988) provide us with the most recent regeneration of Rooney's Post-Pop work to date. The motif of camouflage once again dominates as the prime means of compaction, plus it also works to perversely camouflage some of Rooney's early abstract works in a self-reflexive Duchampian manner. Whereas Rooney used the cut-out cereal box shapes as templates to construct his early hard-edged abstractions, in the Silly Symphony series he uses the whole of the cereal box animal as a monotype template. Psychedelphant, Zebra Special and Morocco Bound each feature the animal of their titles in full form (as opposed to the fragment from them used in the late sixties paintings) but not only are they painted in wonderfully revolting colours which render their formal contours almost invisible, they are also positioned either on their side or upside down so that one has to at first look hard to decipher the figure. While their crazy Op kitsch backgrounds clearly clash with the central figures, supposedly un-camouflaging them, one still has difficulty in making sense of the shape and its surroundings. Other paintings in the Silly Symphony series - Jumbo Jungle, Camel Cuts and Zebra Slices - feature those same animal figures cut up into jigsaw segments and thrown them against a wash of flat, bright colour, leaving the viewer with even more difficulty in putting the puzzle together.
These latter works from 1985 on foreground the construction of a critical `play space' wherein Rooney is looking back at his source material and the ways in which he used that material in order to then regenerate a self-referential exercise in formalist deconstruction. As figured in Pop Art throughout the seventies and heralded in his own Pilkington Predicts screenprints, Rooney approaches his own work in the same displaced way he originally approached his subject matter, indicating how tightly fused the `diary library workbench' has become - in fact, as compacted as his visual surfaces and as camouflaged as his perceptual processes. This type of fusion, of closed circuitry and replayed figures, marks Rooney as a Pop artist who has successfully passed into the Post-Pop environment - a transition which aids toward the clearer critical evaluation of Pop as theory, practice, legacy and vital creative force. A study in motion of Pop's integral dynamic stasis, Robert Rooney is as he was and was as he is.
1 See Spons, Documentations, Prott Inc. etc.
2 See Holden Park photo series.
3 Hard-edged abstraction - including some of Rooney's parodies of the genre - was showcased in The Field exhibition at the National Gallery Of Victoria in 1968.
4 See the chronology for a listing of the photographic projects and works which Rooney mostly worked on during this period.
5 The James Dean Foundation has been raking in an estimated US$50-75 million anually worldwide since 1984 from licensing images of Dean for promotion of anything.
6 Some of the original source material for this exhibition was displayed uncredited as such in the exhibition Innocence & Danger - An Artist's View Of Childhood at Heide gallery in 1987, curated by Robert Rooney.