IMG_0320 by Julia Rooney

Julia Rooney

IMG_0320, 2020, Oil on linen, 5.08 x 5.08 cm, Collection of the artist, © Julia Rooney, Image courtesy of Julia Rooney Studio

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The Tabernacle as Image

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By holding one of her original miniature paintings next to its online double, artist Julia Rooney stresses that although the two are related, they are not one and the same.

While the photo-sharing app Instagram faithfully conveys the original painting’s abstract geometric design and two-by-two-inch scale, it does not adequately show the painting’s three-dimensionality: the thick impasto warps the square into an irregular shape, giving it the semblance of a tiny found object.

In her right hand, Rooney tilts the painting slightly forward and to the right, making visible the upper and left edges of the canvas—she seems to want us to grasp the object’s tile-like density. In the app, however, the painting’s depth is somewhat diminished; only a thin shadow on the bottom suggests its bulkiness.

Rooney’s 2021 exhibition @SomeHighTide included one hundred of these miniature abstract paintings, each of which was also digitally reproduced on its Instagram page of the same title. The exhibition coincided with the global COVID pandemic. Tempered by health concerns and safety protocols, individuals who were unable to see the paintings first-hand at the Arts & Leisure Gallery in New York City could access digital reproductions of them on Instagram. The exhibition explores the gains and losses of visual experience when original works of art are photographically reproduced, digitized, and made widely available on social media.

By juxtaposing an original painting with its digital copy in this photograph, Rooney revives a central premise made by John of Damascus in his eighth-century apologia for holy images:

An image is a likeness of the original with a certain difference, for it is not an exact reproduction of the original…. Let us understand that there are different degrees of worship. (John of Damascus, On Holy Images)

The Israelites’ idolatrous worship of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1–20) was still recent history when God gave Moses the tabernacle instructions. By engaging the Israelites in the building of the structure, God was perhaps impressing upon the people through their embodied work and artisanal labour that the tabernacle was a crafted object—not divine in itself, but an ‘image’.

Exodus repeats the tabernacle directions three times, perhaps to emphasize the structure’s material and human-made nature. By involving the Israelites in the construction, God may have been honing their ability to distinguish between what is original and what is image; between the divine and a reflection of it.

 

References

John of Damascus. 1898. St John Damascene on Holy Images, trans. by Mary H. Allies (London: Thomas Baker), pp. 10, 13

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