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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Fiona McMonagle, 2016 by Mark Mohell
Fiona McMonagle, 2016 by Mark Mohell

The year Fiona McMonagle turned eighteen, the hit song ‘Hand in my pocket’ listed a lot of contrary traits its scrawny singer comprised:

I'm free but I'm focused, I'm green but I'm wise
I'm hard but I'm friendly, baby
I'm sad but I'm laughing, I'm brave but I'm chickenshit
I'm sick but I'm pretty baby. 

It was the theme of many cultural productions of the 1990s: just because a person – male or female – looks as delicate as a fawn or a fairy, it doesn’t mean they’re not a tough little customer inside; conversely, just because they look like a vicious junkie and act like a banshee, it doesn’t mean they aren’t yearning for love under their brittle exoskeleton.   

Born in Letterkenny, County Donegal in 1977, Fiona McMonagle grew up amongst a large family in the exburb of Melton, west of Melbourne. With a sister and four brothers, she was a bit of a tomboy. She played netball and did athletics. Unusually, her father, who was a construction worker, was the one who often brought animals home. The family had a succession of dogs and cats; the dogs were shared, but whenever a cat found its way into the house it was understood that it was Fiona’s. Still, she longed to choose a pet herself, and she and her friend used to lurk around a local pet shop. On one occasion – as she tells the story the artist still has a guilty air – they hatched a plan to steal a mouse each. Fiona had already been to a craft store and bought a woven basket to accommodate the wee creature, imagining how cosy it’d be in there. She recalls putting her hand into a tank heaving with mice and letting one scurry up her sleeve. She took it home, where it immediately gnawed through the basket and ran around. Fiona’s mum was terrified, and she got busted. When her friend’s cat had kittens, Fiona wanted one badly but she knew she couldn’t just bring it in the front door; instead, her friend stole around in the night and thrust the feline scrap through Fiona’s bedroom window. Again, Fiona’s mum put her foot down and she had to give it back. Eventually Fiona’s brother Declan brought home a kitten – Stimpy – who was to become the main cat in her life. There was always a racket going on in the household; Stimpy was tense, scratching feistily when she tried to dress him up. Having spent years on edge, the cat grew placid after the young people left home. He and Chop, the family’s main dog, were both white; both died of skin cancer. Fiona can’t see herself being able to get a cat any time soon; but a while ago she gave one to her dad, for his own good.      

As a little girl Fiona was always drawing, and unlike most people, she never stopped. After school she went to RMIT for two years, completing an associate diploma in art before proceeding to the Victorian College of the Arts, where she was to finish her degree in 2000. In her second year at VCA she started using watercolour. Its difficulty appealed to her stubborn and ambitious character, and it still does; she hasn’t been particularly interested in oils for seventeen years.

In her third year at art school she made scores of watercolour portraits of staff and fellow students. If you look at Models 1994, by Marlene Dumas – an artist Fiona admires – you’ll get a broad idea of what they’d look like as a group on the wall. She has the stack of portraits in her studio now, alongside piles of other series she’s made (her last project called for more than a thousand paintings). Leafing through her art school collection you can see that, early on, she used pencil to lay down her outlines, and blocked some areas of paper from taking the colour by using masking fluid; as she became more confident, she mostly stopped that, using only the odd bit of watercolour pencil here and there. The faces in this early series of portraits are as distinct as people are. Yet the further you go in the sequence, the more fascinating the painted eyes become. There’s a shifting depth to some of them like you get when you layer three or four swatches of silk chiffon of slightly different shades.  It makes the eyes look a little like those of aliens or avatars of the very best kind.

Some artists relish setting themselves up to get a surprise, no matter how often it’s turned out, before, not to be the surprise they’d hoped for.  After all this time, Fiona still hasn’t come around to painting in watercolours like they tell you to in online instructional videos. Instead, she aims to create a dangerous situation with a flood of water on the paper, forcing each work to the point where it can fail, and then rescuing it.  Hovering around every painting are ghosts of pages she screwed up and threw out, but if she let herself worry about wasting costly materials, she’d never make a mark. In many of the works that succeed, you see paint that’s only partly collaborating with the artist. To a significant extent, in Curious cat, say, it’s following its own rules, spreading, mingling, bleeding and bruising within the outline of a cat she’s laid down; in this painting, the effect is less like fur than an unfocused image of a spectacular cross-section of agate. Fiona’s pictures invite the viewer to consider not only the subject matter, but the paint asserting its nature within the crisis situation she puts it in.    

Fiona’s subject matter is very distinctive, but it’s not just her own personal history that’s expressed in it. Her portrait subjects have often been people of her own age; and like all of us, they’re children of their time. Fiona was thirteen when Sinead O’Connor whispered and wailed through ‘Nothing compares 2 U’. A year later Nirvana released Nevermind and River Phoenix starred in My Own Private Idaho. When she was sixteen, every teenager in the western world was sobbing along to REM’s ‘Everybody hurts’. In her senior years of school, River Phoenix overdosed and Kurt Cobain shot himself. Just as Fiona went to art school, Tracey Emin put up her ‘tent’ called Everyone I have ever slept with 1963-1995. As she progressed through her courses, Princess Diana was killed and Sophia Coppola’s film The Virgin Suicides came out. Sure, it’s a selective list – good things happened too – but Fiona’s bleak vignettes mostly imply that to survive youth, when you’ll be scared and soft and sad, you have to harden up. Looking through the pictures of people Fiona’s made since 2000, you’ll spot both girls and boys who have a look of Courtney Love, pallid frontwoman of the band Hole: her skunk-lined bed hair, her smeary red lips, even her trademark tiara. That’s not to suggest that McMonagle’s ever tried to make her portrait subjects look like Love, that wild phony.  It’s to propose, rather, that because the artist was caught in a particular criss-crossing, overlapping, intersecting and tangling matrix of sounds, conversations, sights, opinions, tendencies and trends of the 1990s, a cynical wiped-out survivor gene found expression in the appearance of her human subjects.

1 Perched, 2013 by Fiona McMonagle Courtesy of William Mackinnon. 2 The bird lady, 2013 by Fiona McMonagle Private Collection, VIC.

Fiona’s often used her friends and family as models, asking them to adopt a sullen or vacant expression, and she’s posed herself, using a camera on a timer, with a mean look on her own exceptionally sweet face. She’s painted people drunk, wasted, getting arrested; hanging around the city centre, torpid on a hot Saturday afternoon; she’s painted cars on fire. The pictures of young people in her series The ball convey a sense of viscid brain, inability to focus, denial of situation or self; the blurriness of the watercolour suits the stories she half-tells. The general spirit’s encapsulated in the title of one of her works from 2008, Do I look like I give a shit. Likewise, the subject of a painting from three years later, The bird lady, wears a classic McMonagle expression: she looks wounded, yet unapproachable. One eye’s a blur, the other’s narrowed; she squints either into the sun, or in a defensive reflex, or both. She looks arrogantly at the onlooker, yet tries, somehow, too, not to meet his or her gaze – not to connect. We’re shut out by her arm angled over her chest, her knees clamped together; we understand the birds – appealing creatures that both are, and aren’t, cockatiels – to be her protective covering. That said, some people are scared of birds, and find the thought of birds clinging to them repulsive; they’re likely to react more hostilely than sympathetically to The bird lady and Perched.

A lot of people are scared of German shepherds, too, either because they’ve never known one properly, or because they’ve known one all too well. The thick ruff of McMonagle's Tara materialises tangibly through the feathery diffusion of the watercolour; so, too, the wonderful hairs between her ears – infinitesimally indicated – and those on her haunch and side.  Tara's a beauty all right, but she projects an air that’s typical of the breed. However softly she’s rendered, there’s a jumpy sort of menace there; she looks smart and loyal, but temperamentally she could go either way. The straightforward appeal of McMonagle’s little fluffball owl is uncommon in her body of work. Usually, the softness of the medium and the toughness of the subject play against each other. Even when the artist paints a baby girl with brown watercolour eyes wearing a pink watercolour dress, she’s clinging to her daddy’s leg in a heartrending, muted painting called Every second Saturday.     

The artist’s first foray into animation depicted women boxing. She filmed – them then broke the film down into individual frames in her studio, and recreated each frame, more than 800 of them, in watercolour. Then she put all the watercolours in sequence and made them into a film again. It’s called The Ring; apart from a song track including 'Sheezus' by that wayward minx, Lily Allen, it has gym and fight sounds, and Fiona did the gasping on it, being no stranger to how it feels to finish a round.  As you watch the film, listening to the blows landing and seeing the blood bloom around the fighters' eyes, you nearly cry thinking of the artist's effort.  

Fiona works her arse off. Every day she gets up at seven and comes in to the city from Sunbury on the train. Since art school, she’s worked at a picture framer’s in Abbotsford; currently she works there Monday to Wednesday.  On those days, she’ll go to the Melbourne City Baths after work to do some boxing or pilates. For the past year, she’s been working for about half an hour a day on perfecting handstands. As night falls she’ll go to her high-ceilinged studio, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. The other four days a week, she might go to the gym at lunchtime for a change of temperature, because it’s freezing in her studio in winter, and hot as hell in summer. She admires the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, who uses imagery from newspapers, television and film as the starting-points for his paintings, and she, too, collects images from the web and old magazines like National Geographic for hers. A few years ago she often bought magazines from a second hand bookstore on Elizabeth street; it’s closed, now, but the city library’s nearby, and when she’s frustrated by painting, or it gets too painful, physically, to continue, she goes there looking for inspiration.

Fiona spends a lot of time alone, listening to music as she paints and paints. That said, for many years she’s shared studio space with her artist brother, Tim McMonagle, and their friend the painter Amanda Marburg; her brother Declan McMonagle assists her with her animations. In conversation, her affection for her crew comes through. Resting is a view of her friend Stefan and his cat, Fuji. Many of its elements, including its hint of griminess, are characteristic of her body of work.  Let’s see: its figures are mostly the dull grey of a woollen school jumper, though pink comes through the grey of the man’s top like sweat on a hippopotamus; there’s a touch of yellow in his grey pants and there’s a bit more yellow in Fuji’s right eye (the other eye’s a worry:  was the big cat blinded in a fight?). The animal has a large, angular head on a sinuously twisted body; the artist’s left tiny areas unpainted on its paws, so the white paper does the job of representing white patches of fur or highlights. Although there’s a line delineating belly and haunch, the watercolour’s run outside of it – and rather than detracting from the work, the fault only makes it look a bit cooler. The artist’s chosen to make the cat’s hide look more like a seal’s, particularly towards the tail end, where it starts to look a bit like an eel’s. It’s a moody picture. Some viewers might be attracted to its air of languor; others may be depressed by its air of stasis. Some may say it’s saved from being depressing by the title, which is a reassuring one. Some may say that if the white area were just extended, top and bottom, to make a square, it’d make the perfect artwork for the cover of an album.

Between 2000 and 2010, Fiona was selling a lot, and she got used to it. In 2010 she had a residency in London, and she planned all her days so that she could wring out of it every art-related thing. That year, though - a few years into the global financial crisis - the market for art got a lot tougher. She’s got used to that, too, taking a break from commercial shows to focus on ambitious works for invitational exhibitions. In 2015 she won the Queensland-based National Self Portrait Prize; in the years either side, she had a people’s choice award-winning animation and a mixed-media installation in the Basil Sellers Prize. For the 2016 Adelaide Biennial, she animated a series of about a thousand paintings she’d made of the park at the end of her road. In such undertakings, she gets lost in the making: she exists purely to get the work done.

In 2001, the year after McMonagle graduated from art school, she painted six heads on bare paper sheets that were acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria two years later. The eyes on the female subject amongst this half-dozen are blue, but they don’t sparkle; they’re cloudy, soft and hazardous like river water. Fifteen years later, Fiona positioned Ginger tom in a rough lattice of vertical, horizontal and diagonal branches. You get a strong sense of the roundness of the little animal’s chest and tummy as he half-sits, half-stands in the tree (his right leg is extended, with right foot on a cross-branch below). His delicate nostrils, philtrum, mouth and whiskers – comprising, surely, the cutest bit of a cat – are painted very precisely.  By contrast, his blue eyes are hazy, occluded and private. The striking structure of the work reflects Fiona’s evolution as a painter in the last decade, but its beautiful subject remains true to her long-term theme. All rolled up in the figure of this pretty, surefooted, mean-looking little tomcat are the little girl who yearned for a kitten; the hungry young artist who slips along her own paths, resilient and resolute; and the wily animal of Kipling’s fable who lives a double life:

When the moon gets up and night comes, he is the Cat that walks by himself, and all places are alike to him. Then he goes out to the Wet Wild Woods or up the Wet Wild Trees or on the Wet Wild Roofs, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone.


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Fiona McMonagle

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