Fiona McMonagle: Loud & Proud - Art Collector

Issue 53, July - September 2010

Fiona McMonagle is proud of her western suburbs heritage but she’s not exactly waving a banner for the people writes Ashley Crawford. Instead her work is simply a reflection of the fact that you can never forget where you grew up.

There is a long and substantive history of Australian artists tackling suburbia, from John Brack’s acerbic renderings to Howard Arkley’s less cynical pop-glow aesthetic. As seen in Chris McAuliffe’s 1996 concise history Art & Suburbia, it is a subject that any number of artists have leapt into.

This is also the world that has inspired Fiona McMonagle’s melancholia-tainted watercolours. But unlike her predecessors, McMonagle has honed in on the habits of the suburban limbo.

With her portraits of disaffected youth her work seems at times to border on a social realist streak such as that created by Noel Counihan in the 1950s. “There is a social realist element to my imagery,” McMonagle says. “Although I’m not jumping on a political bandwagon for the downtrodden, its just that my work is based around life in the western suburbs where I grew up and I do feel quite protective of it. But I’m not fighting a political cause and waving a banner for the people, I’m just portraying images that I have grown up with and want to use in my work.”

McMonagle was born in 1977 in Letterkenny, Ireland. She moved as a youth to Australia and studied at RMIT, where she gained an Associate Diploma of Visual Arts, and then the Victorian College of the Arts where she attained a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting in 2000. But she never left her memories of growing up in suburbia. The resulting pictures are rendered with a strange sense of nostalgia and melancholia, an aspect in part attributable to her use of watercolour as a medium.

“Watercolour does have softer, muted tones,” she says. “It’s one of the reasons I love working with it, I feel it really suits the mood of my imagery, although I am not sure that I necessarily look for a melancholia through the medium. The people in my work often find themselves in situations that wouldn’t be best described as happy moments. I’m not dealing with Julian, Dick, Anne and George from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, it’s not all sunshine, adventure and lashings of ginger beer; it’s life growing up in the western suburbs of Melbourne, sometimes there’s not too much to smile about. But I do feel that I try and bring a positivity to most of their situations.”

The results suggest a rendering of fading memories. “I know the characters that I am painting,” she says. “I know what they are feeling. I can relate to them. I believe that where you spend your adolescent years will mark you as a person and therefore as an artist. I use old photographs, both my own and found. I recreate scenes that I have stored in my memory, party scenes, boring Saturday afternoon scenes, issues and situations that are as relevant to today’s youth. The images I create in some way will always reference where and how I grew up.”

Watercolour is a medium that seems to be gaining popularity – its soft tones can be seen emerging from the work of disparate contemporary artists ranging from Cherry Hood to Viv Miller, Vito Manfredi, Rob McHaffie and Fiona’s brother, Tim McMonagle, with whom she shares a studio. But McMonagle’s work stands apart through the pure sense of pathos she injects into her subject matter. One immediately wonders what travails her oft-bedraggled subjects are facing. For all that they may be based on memories, McMonagle, despite her muted palette, brings her teenagers to blazing life.

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