Megan Rooney’s murals are in battle with the walls ‘Fugues in Colour’ opens at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
By Sean Burns
Megan Rooney constructs her colourful murals in intense dialogue with the architecture of a space. Immersing herself in the experience of a room, she extracts fantastical stories or myths, which inspire the gestural, labour-intensive work that follows. Here, she talks to Sean Burns about going into battle with the room, Michelangelo’s influence and how murals can upend the commodification of painting.
Sean Burns: The first thing I wanted to ask you about was the role of your own body, both in the construction of this work and in your practice more broadly.
Megan Rooney: So, for me, the murals are essentially an informal collaboration between my body, the architecture and the cherry picker machine which I use to move across the wall as I paint it. The machine is mentally fused to my body; it becomes an appendage. First I spend a lot of time tracking in the space, establishing pathways with my body. After I have a sense of the space, I move into the painting. But I don’t work with preparatory sketches or a plan as such; it really is a response to the particularities of the space. In Gallery 8, here at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the walls change direction, pace and size every time they meet. The viewer is thrust into the centre of the painting. With Sun (2022) has been conceived as a movement-based painting that tracks you through the space and out through the portal in the ceiling.
SB: How would you describe the process of learning about a space before you begin? Is that an energetic relationship?
MR: Yes, I think about it a lot; I dream about it. Every space is unique. Every space has its own characteristics; white walls are never just white walls. You must go in with enormous momentum because the architecture takes the first position, and as the artist you are coming in as a second position. If you falter and don’t launch a strong position, you will never get the painting off the ground; it will never fly. I try and keep the momentum for as long as I can to try to establish myself. This space fought me the hardest of any of the murals I have done over the last six or seven years. The architecture was a robust and dominant force.
SB: Can you speak a bit more about the Frank Gehry architecture here? It’s obviously a very specific design; how does that feed into your considerations?
MR: I imagine that Gehry wanted us to breathe in Gallery 8. It’s very unusual for a museum to have a gallery space open to the elements. We had a freakish range of weather in the time I was working here – it snowed at one point. The condensation comes in. This painting was the arrival of spring. I would lie on the gallery floor, attempting to get a feeling for what I wanted to create; I thought about a little myth that the moon was chasing the sun through the architecture when it gets dropped down the portal into my space. The act of storytelling in my work is something I think of when I’m painting; images and words generate languages attached to the painting. When I go out into the environment, I absorb all the visual information I can find, and then it comes out in the painting.
SB: I like this idea of it being a battle with the architecture. How does this work sit in the broader trajectory of your practice?
MR: I started making my first murals out of the back of my parents’ house in suburbia when I was a teenager. I also painted my room. I always had a feeling for being interested in colour and living in colour. Many years later I was living in London, about to do a show at Seventeen; I didn’t have a studio because I’d been kicked out of mine. I wanted to do something directly on the wall. So the housing and studio crisis reintroduced this side of my practice. It brought me back to painting, which is something that has continued.
SB: You conduct a process of retooling, going back into and scratching the painting; can you talk about the labour involved in that?
MR: The murals are created by hand, a very physical act – an epic seven-week journey. This painting took almost as long to create as it will be alive in the show. These kinds of murals are better suited to more extended life periods. I do these in museums because their ephemeral quality becomes a gesture towards liberation from the commodification of painting, the selling and trading of work. It can’t be bought or sold; it embodies the space on the wall for a short period. It’s my chance to do something directly for the viewer. I feel that we need to come back into our bodies and experience things that remind us of our own impermanence. I was thinking about Michelangelo, painting The Sistine Chapel.
SB: He did it basically all himself because he fired all of his assistants.
MR: At the time it was made, there was a lot of controversy because it was deemed homoerotic – all the figures were nude. Someone was hired to paint all of the trousers on everybody! Michelangelo painted The Last Judgment (1536–41) 25 years after he began the project, so you have old Michelangelo confronted with young. In With Sun, the crescendo moment is behind you when you enter. I had this a little bit in my mind because the way you get spat into The Sistine Chapel is backwards; it’s not the intended way.
SB: Where does a crescendo come in the journey of producing the painting?
MR: This painting evaded me in every sense. After four weeks of painting in this space, I painted white over two of the walls and started again. I’m going after a feeling, and I know if it’s present. It felt very tortured for much of this painting’s life; it looked very tortured. That’s obviously the antithesis of how it feels now, but you can feel the movement. The architecture did not yield for about six weeks. You understand this process in real-time – you see the path of the painting. The only way to change this is to paint out or into it.
SB: We need that tension; we need something to rebut against to produce art that can contain that feeling.
MR: You can’t fake it. It’s superficial if there’s no battle. But you must inflict the wounds that need the stitches. You have to impose the conditions which necessitate the response.
With Sun is on display in ‘Fugues in Colour’ at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, until 29 August 2022