In the 1980s, photographs of missing children were printed on the sides of milk cartons in North America. Ubiquitous at breakfast tables, the cartons had a broad reach, but the campaign had limited impact. The images were mainly seen by daydreaming children, not harried adults. In 1996, the amber alert system – in which details of abducted children are promptly communicated via radio, television and, more recently, social media – made the practice obsolete.
The ‘milk carton kids’, as they became known, were on Megan Rooney’s mind while she was making the series ‘Old Baggy Root’ (2018–19): a grid of 40 faces, scratchy and strange, rendered in pastel, inks, pencil and charcoal on paper. In these portraits, eyelashes and cheeks leak outwards, while blotches, scratches, and smudged colours suggest the quickness of the artist’s hand. The foggy visual language permits ambiguous readings: are these aghast witnesses, or profiles squirming in resistance to the ubiquity of surveillance?
‘Fire on the Mountain’, the artist’s extensive solo show at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, is full of such moments of vulnerability. For Rooney, representation is a site of appearance and disappearance, in which identities are formed and then fractured. The exhibition takes its name from a vast mural, measuring 14 × 7 metres, which was composed – in waves of tools, materials, and techniques – during ten days of improvisational action. The mural formed the backdrop to a series of performances produced in collaboration with dancer Temitope Ajose-Cutting and musician Paolo Thorsen-Nagel. To see Fire on the Mountain is to feel swayed by a cosmos of brushstrokes as your body reads punctures of ochre and clouds of deep sienna. Edge forwards, and you notice paint scrubbed into a rough surface texture. Ebb backwards, and an impressionistic outline of coy eyelids becomes visible on the left-hand side: the suggestion of a figure haunts even Rooney’s most abstracted paintings.
In her inimitable 1974 thesis, Revolution in Poetic Language, philosopher Julia Kristeva speaks about the chora – the most formative stage of infanthood – when the subject is still connected to the maternal body. With no concept of inside or outside – the threshold of separation that defines the relationship between the self and the other – the infant’s needs are fulfilled. For Kristeva, this is the realm of the ‘not yet symbolized’, and ‘the place where the subject is both generated and negated’. Translated as ‘receptacle,’ the chora is powerfully associated with the mother, and delinks psychoanalytic theory from its foundational obsession with the phallus.
Receptacles recur throughout the exhibition, most literally in suites of sculptures assembled onsite. Clack-Clack-Bang-Bang (2019), an aluminium skip, glazed in peach (no surface goes unpainted in this show), squats disinterestedly. In Kaputt!, Kaputt! (Broken! Broken!, 2019), metal barrels are anthropomorphized by objects fished from the surrounding streets: one belches a dirty towel; others wear traffic cones like hats. A trio of sallow umbrellas, Three Graces (2019), references the eponymous dancing figures in Sandro Botticelli’s La Primavera (c. 1480). In this arrangement, Rooney collides the drabness of weathered patio furniture with early-renaissance humanism; the Graces carry discarded Coca-Cola bottles.
Rooney’s artworks, and their subjects, are in motion, whisked together – and apart – through dance, abstraction, assemblage, and fragmentary observation. Flushed with apricots, corals, hazels, and creams, Rooney’s palette is inspired – the accompanying catalogue explains – by variations of the pink that her mother painted the family’s suburban house during her childhood. And it is just such Americana – traceable not only in paint hues but in golf clubs, baseball caps, fantasies of European vacations and figments of missing children – that propels it all.
Main image: Megan Rooney, Old Baggy Root, 2019, acrylic, ink, pencil, charcoal, pastel on paper, 56 × 38 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthalle Düsseldorf; photograph: Katja Illner