top of page
Installation view WINDOW.jpg

in the weather of it

Julia Rooney and Anne Marie Rooney
Below Grand, 53 Orchard Street
By Logan Royce Beitmen, 4/4/2024

Below Grand is one of the few artist-run spaces in Manhattan to have survived the pandemic, and it deserves our praise—and continued patronage—for daring to show such thought-provoking, visually engrossing, and decidedly non-commercial exhibitions as in the weather of it. A uniquely fruitful collaboration between the artist Julia Rooney and her sister, the poet Anne Marie Rooney, In the weather of it is a multi-layered installation that’s something of an off-key love song to Lower Manhattan, past and present, as well as a self-deprecating but ultimately sincere exploration of what it means to live an artistic life today. In the weather of it has the same funky, rough-hewn energy of the best collaborations between the New York School poets and their painterly peers, or Amy Sillman’s more recent collaborations with the poets Lisa Robertson and Charles Bernstein. More than that, it reminds me of the work of the late, great Belgian conceptualist Marcel Broodthaers. Like him, the Rooney sisters mix anarchic humor with an almost Proustian antiquarian sensibility—a combustible combination that lends itself to the creation of precarious archives, rusted and weathered, that hang together by lyric threads.


The exhibition consists of two parts. In the street-level window, which is about as deep as a standard NYC kitchen, fifteen of Julia Rooney’s small abstract paintings in thrift-shop frames hang in a cluster next to and above chalk-scrawled passages from Anne Marie Rooney’s poems. One poem, written on the chalkboard-painted floor, alludes to the physicality of her sister’s process. “I loved the mark its making,” it begins. “Rubbed the mark while it flipped off my skin, sun scrubbing white from the upscabbed mark.” 


Most of Julia Rooney’s paintings contain colorful squircle or lozenge shapes that balloon outward toward the edges of their frames. How inflection looks, I move my thumbs, and Every situation discusses a line that conveys illusions of convexity and luminance reminiscent of glass-fronted cathode ray tubes from the pre-flatscreen era. All of these paintings could be stand-ins for TVs, and stacked together on the walls as they are, they’re like an old-fashioned oil paint rendering of a Nam June Paik installation. Smartphone apps are squircle-shaped, too, and paintings like Cobble weave and stitchery and Every situation discusses a line bear a striking resemblance to the Instagram logo. 

Installation view INTERIOR.jpg

Left: Julia Rooney and Anne Marie Rooney, Video projection of Walking inside the wedge like a leaf or a clock turning back Right: Anne Marie Rooney, Abstraction

Despite these clear references to TVs and smartphones, Julia Rooney is at heart a painter’s painter, and there’s nothing tossed-off or gimmicky about these compositions. Each is imbued with real emotions, and it’s evident that the color effects she achieves are the result of many hours of painting and thinking. In addition to looking like screens, the works also belong to a lineage of spiritual abstraction which would probably include Hilma af Klint, Forrest Bess, Mark Rothko, and Agnes Pelton, among others, and next to whose work, I believe, Rooney’s would hold its own. The fuzzy shapes and sense of movement in paintings like Out in coldness light falls, Small becomes large, and The squirm before the thought also call to mind Walther Ruttmann’s Opus series of charmingly hand-colored, soft-edged abstract films from the early 1920s, as well as many “expanded cinema” films of the 1960s that he inspired. 


On the floor, a badly rusted iron object—not a radiator, but almost—is being used, quite absurdly, as an upright file organizer for a sparsely curated selection of poems and works on paper, two of which the sisters originally sent each other through the mail. One poem, “ESP,” provided the titles for all the paintings in the show. I am later told that this weird found object sculpture, titled Spidering (right now), was part of a collapsing coal vault at the Rooneys’ family home in Tribeca—but more on that later. The small paintings and works on paper in In the weather of it are a welcome change from what’s on view in other New York galleries, where “bigger is better” remains, more often than not, the game of the day. 


There is one large painting in the show—the six-foot hinged canvas, Bluescreen—but it is presented as part of a Light and Space-style installation in part two of the show, and it is literally “weathered,” having been carried, dropped, and dragged by Julia along a three-and-a-half mile trek from Tribeca to Below Grand on the Lower East Side/Chinatown border and back again. Below Grand shares its home with a decades-old restaurant supply shop with the matter-of-fact name Japanese Restaurant Equipment and Food Wholesale, and one must brush past metal shelves teeming with ceramic sushi plates and soy sauce decanters before arriving at the speakeasy-like inner chamber—open only on Saturdays—where the exhibition continues. In that darkened space, Bluescreen stands upright like a privacy screen, and light shining through its fist-sized holes casts squircles of light on the surrounding walls, mirroring the shapes in the paintings from the front window. Opposite, a projected video (shot by Anne Marie) shows Julia carrying the cumbersome Bluescreen through the streets of Lower Manhattan. At times, the artist is reduced to “a V-shaped roof with walking legs,” as Amanda Millet-Sorsa writes in her curatorial statement, reminiscent, to me, of the walking tripod in Man with a Movie Camera or the disembodied legs in Léger’s Ballet Mécanique—both films from the 1920s. It’s an arduous, Sisyphean journey, although it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously—an homage to “the artist’s struggle,” performed as a slapstick Stations of the Cross


Occasionally, the puddle-shaped blue gradient in the center of the canvas is chroma-keyed out, and replaced with images of the same locations as they appeared a century ago. One is struck, often, by how little has changed. Many of the buildings in Lower Manhattan were already old in the 1920s, and many are still standing today, looking newer than ever. Even some of the cobblestone streets are still with us. But there are moments when the frottage between old and new proves particularly instructive. If you look closely, for instance, you can make out Yiddish signs in one of the old photographs, and when Julia later pauses in front of a halal cart, it’s an opportunity to consider the lives of refugees, past and present. The personally-directed but historically-minded nature of Julia’s walk owes much to the Situationist International’s ambling explorations they called dérives, which were meant to uncover hidden “psychogeographic” ambiances in the streets of mid-twentieth-century Paris. It is up to each viewer to decide how seriously to take Julia’s dérive, whether to regard it as a work of endurance art, a subtle living history tour, an absurdist exercise in purposeful purposelessness, or all of the above.


Installation view, In the weather of it, Below Grand (front gallery), Julia Rooney & Anne Marie Rooney


Anne Marie Rooney, Spidering (right now), 2024, Rusted steel with mixed printed matter, glass Dimensions variable

I met up with Julia and Anne Marie at a busy downtown breakfast spot to discuss In the weather of it, and we dragged a metal café table into the springtime sun and sat down. As if on cue, the sun vanished, and a relentless, chilly wind forced us inside. By the time we came back out, it was sunny again, making us feel like those sad-sack cartoon characters who get followed around by rain clouds. In reality, weather is one of the least personal things we experience in our daily lives, but don’t tell anyone who’s “in the weather of it.” There’s a reason so many writers and artists across the centuries have associated weather with mood. When it ruins your morning, it's hard not to take it personally.


“It's actually the last line of a poem I wrote directly after our walk,” Anne Marie says of the exhibition title. “In general, I am interested in this sort of process, reflecting on a thing while still in its weather, a not-too-precious playfulness.”


I tell them the video of the walk has a deadpan absurdist humor to it, and that there are moments—as when the unwieldy canvas snags on a tree, sending Julia toppling to the ground—that reminded me of Buster Keaton films. They both nod. “We had to edit out a bunch of footage where I was laughing too much,” Anne Marie says. I ask if those moments were as funny to Julia at the time. “No,” Julia says, “they weren’t.”


The Rooney sisters then take me to visit the old coal vault outside the building on Hudson Street where they once lived and where their mother, an art therapist and poet, still lives. Completed in 1887, just months after the Statue of Liberty was unveiled, the nondescript brick building was originally a garment warehouse but changed ownership and function many times before becoming an artist co-op in 1974. While there, we chatted with a construction supervisor the Rooneys had befriended who had agreed to save chunks of salvaged iron from the site for them to upcycle into art. He showed us the new structural supports his team had installed and explained that the entire vault would eventually be covered by shiny new sheets of diamond-plate steel. While he spoke, Anne Marie rummaged through a bucket of rusty iron scraps, looking for treasures. “Don’t worry,” she told her sister. “I just had a tetanus shot.”


The Rooney sisters used to walk to the subway together, although Anne Marie admits that by the time their family moved to Tribeca, she was already in her last year of high school and starting to feel “too cool” to be seen in public with her middle-school-aged sister. “You’re less cool now,” Julia says. Anne Marie shrugs, and they both laugh. From these snippets of teasing banter, one gets a taste of what makes their artistic collaborations so magical. Both sisters are extremely serious about their craft, and the ideas that inform their work, but their playful camaraderie keeps their collaborations light and fun. Like the Dada and Fluxus artists whose textual and artistic experiments inspire them, there is a rough-hewn, provisional, even game-like quality to the work they produce together. (Anne Marie, separately from her sister, makes poetic, Fluxus-like games.) And, although Anne Marie is the poet and Julia the visual artist, in practice their collaborations are much more fluid than such a division of duties would suggest. They source found objects together, share in the process of composing their installations, and make mail art that’s as materially evocative as it is textually rich.


“It really does feel like, when I'm collaborating with Julia, we're ‘in the weather of’ so much history, both personal and local, that there is this shared language between us that is both very studied and very instinctual,” Anne Marie says. Studying but instinctual is a good way to put it, for the sisters wear their learning lightly. “The last thing we’d ever want to be is didactic,” Julia says. 


If anything, In the weather of it sometimes risks the opposite—verging on being almost too opaque, too immersed in its private language, for outsiders to fully fathom. I say almost because in the end I believe the Rooneys give just enough clues and references for us to gain footholds of understanding, even as they remain fully committed to following their intuitive wanderings. Shows like In the weather of it are hard to describe and perhaps impossible to explain but a joy to experience. They take us on an open-ended journey, as much great abstract art and lyric poetry does, which neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can keep us from enjoying. 


The last day of the exhibition is this Saturday, April 6th, and it’s well worth experiencing in person if you can. Both Julia Rooney and the curator Amanda Millet-Sorsa will be on hand for most of the day to answer your questions. If you can’t see it in person, be sure to check out the video walkthrough below.

"In the weather of it" an art exhibition at Below Grand on 53 Orchard Street with work by Julia Rooney and Anne Marie Rooney curated by Amanda Millet-Sorsa​Video documentation by Saori Ichikara-White

bottom of page