Em Rooney, A Lock, a Hotel Room, 29 Palms at 6:00 a.m., 2017. Photo credit: Jenna Westra
Em Rooney, Two Soldiers and a Book about Color and the Land, 2017. Photo Credit: Jenna Westra
Installation view: Em Rooney and RJ Messineo. Photo credit: Jason Mandella

What I noticed first about this body of work is your attention to the seam, or to moment of transition between one kind of surface and another. It seemed to me that these places in the work were also moments of intensely quiet transgression. Can you describe how you see this?

Transgression makes me think of sin (like The Original Sin) first, and social radicality second, both of which I love thinking about in relation to this work. But I see those moments you're noticing where the surface meets a corner or where a seam is created not as a subtle offense but as a subtle union. I think about the way Anne Truitt labored to create the surfaces of her sculptures— the idea, on the one hand, that if something is touched enough it becomes venerated or, inversely, if something is left alone (its Sontag who, in The Image World, points out the innate sacrilege of tearing up a photo) it can become—or it just innately is—sacred. I think the same applies to a well worn tee shirt, or the carefully made cardboard packaging for an image wrapped in glassine. Those seams have to do more with the moment your belly is held by the hole at the bottom hem of your jersey, and less about the moment the hem got detached or was torn from the rest of the fabric.

Some of your works have photographs imbedded in them and some have small sculptures of bodies or body-like things. How does each kind of thing relate to the 'real' or to some objective experience of the world?

1. The Santa Maria del Popolo isn't the Vatican, for instance, but it's big enough for a massive Caravaggio—my mother’s little cabin in Vermont however is not.
2. One of my favorite stories is about this ladder in Marina Abramovi’s bedroom. I saw it when I was visiting a friend (the child of an art dealer) who was staying at her apartment in Amsterdam in 2003. The ladder was connected to and slid along a track the length of her wall, but there were no books and indeed no shelves for holding books behind this ladder. So — How can an object or a space hold meaning when nothing is even there, when there are no books to open, no pages to turn, no images to look at, no words to read. The space becomes a place-holder for something imagined.
3. The objects are like a lost (and then found) key: it's real and it relates to the real size of a door, the real size of a lock, but it also symbolizes the imagined, because you can only imagine what the lock might look like.4. You might see these vanity-sized architectural pockets carved out of the wall, in certain places inside of the Santa Maria del Popolo and if there is a candle being held there then you know that candle belongs there, if there is not then you can imagine that it (the candle) or something like it (a mortar of myrrh) might belong there instead.

There is tension created in your choice of leather as the material field for these works, a tension between its blankness and the acknowledgement that it is skin. What's important about this tension for you?

Leather surfaces, waxy surfaces, and soiled cloth all have this organic quality to them as they relate to the body. Again, to think about Sontag’s idea about the violence of ripping a photograph: it’s violent because of the way a traditional photograph becomes an extension of life through the tracing of form, as though there is something alive about light itself. So because this thing is alive, this photograph, it is and it can be and it will be touched the way we touch other living things. Just as your fingers leave greasy streaks across your phone’s screen they also leave impressions on the face of a photograph, also on the face of a person. There was a period of time in 2013 where I was dunking all of my photographs in linseed oil, and then letting them sit around my studio and get stuck to like fly traps—So yeah, I think about skin a lot. Skin is everything, it holds our bodies together, it’s our biggest organ, it determines our cultural and racial identifications, it holds dirt, produces oil, absorbs oil, and it changes or ceases to exist at crucial entry points. It’s also this thing that we decide to eat or not, to wrap around paper to hold it together, and to wear. All of these later engagements with skin, are, shockingly blank. Whereas everything that happens before death is expressive, that is an interesting tension to me.

Em Rooney with NM Llorens

Em Rooney received a BA from Hampshire College in 2005 and an MFA from Tyler School of Art in 2011. In 2012 she attended the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture. Recent exhibitions include group shows at Motel (Brooklyn) and Simone Subal (New York). Recent two person and solo projects include: The Vanity East (Los Angeles), Raising Cattle (Montreal), Bodega (New York), Columbus College of Art and Design (Columbus), The Good Press Gallery (Glasgow), Vox Populi (Philadelphia). Her writing has appeared in Art Papers, Performa Magazine, and The St. Claire. Rooney was a resident at the Shandaken Project in 2015, and in 2016 she was part of the Center for Experimental Lectures annual Labor day performing her piece Deep Black Lakes.