Tim McMonagle

Tim McMonagle intimately confronts both the fragile and robust nature of life. With an obsession for mark-making and the act of painting, he depicts humanised landscapes with whimsical contradictions of impasto and swathing washes. His paintings require a closer inspection, as dangling branches and wailing trees act like entwined torsos to question humanity’s relationship to the environment. Artist Profile spoke to McMonagle in his Melbourne studio for Issue 46.

In 1996, you completed a Bachelor of Fine Art from the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne. Would you have ever dreamed that twenty four years later, your painting, Michael Buxton Portrait (2012) would be hanging on the walls of the gallery next door?
To be perfectly honest … I never thought about it! It’s in a really prominent spot though, I am very proud to have it hanging there that’s for sure. I hadn’t seen the painting for roughly five years until recently. You never know when a painting is going to stand up or not after a few years, but I’m really happy with this work.

In your portrait of Buxton, left blistered from the sun and painted without a mouth, he is rendered somewhat vulnerable to a viewer’s close inspection. Is this a genuine character insight?
Yes, he’s voiceless with only a top lip showing. I was trying to look inside his head and paint his thoughts. Spending time with the subjects of my portraits is really important to me, I need to get to know them. I did one quick sketch of Michael beforehand and then we went fishing. He got a little burnt, so I portrayed that through the red splotches of paint.

The Idea of North (2016) shows dangling branches that deform, twist and rotate; anthropomorphised to appear as contorted human torsos or arms. What is your fascination with humanity and our relationship to the environment?
That’s a very good question. I don’t know, I think that’s why I keep coming back to trees. We have a place in the country where the red gums twist and contort because they have enough space to do it. They have so much rhythm and animation with their grey falling limbs and shoots of greenery; they depict life and death all at once. I’m definitely not finished with trees, I’ve become really obsessed.

Your works exist as a series of details that combine to make a whole, a gestalt. Pull the Cup (2016) is broken down into segments, where each section may act as a singular abstract painting with its own agency. Does the gestalt function act as an important method in your practice?
Absolutely. I labour over the picture plane and then I break it down one bit at a time. If I’m happy with its composition, I know I can rely on this as an armature to build a painting around. Then I create individual paintings within the painting, obsessing over their marks and making sure it’s dynamic. I make the mark, see its potential, rub it off, and then do this over and over again … maybe forty times! It’s spontaneous and controlled, in and out, back and forth.

In the middle (2016) depicts a large wailing tree intertwining its own branches to form one disembodied mass that becomes almost unrecognisable. This ‘in the middle’ tension is prevalent throughout your practice; can you explain this subsiding between the figurative and abstract?
I’m primarily concerned with paint; my subjects are just structures for me to hang paint on. I like that trees are completely random and nonsensical, they are made up of so many abstract marks and lines. I guess it is really just about painting, its poetry and the record of that.

Your works accumulate layers of impasto paint alongside sparse, gestural brushstrokes. Why do you employ a compilation of techniques?
Because it activates beautiful contradictions. The foreground is often made up of thin, transparent washes while the background is worked up and thick. In actuality, the background sits right forward and the foreground physically sits behind; which adds to the paintings’ playful and fragile nature. Nothing sits in the order that it’s supposed to be; I’m creating a painting, not a window. I’ll continue these thoughts with my next show at Edwina Corlette Gallery in May.

You often depict the beauty and hazards of our landscape. Shadow Captain (2017), a finalist in the 2018 Wynne Prize, renders fragile leafy green branches sprouting from broken, tangled limbs. Each is at odds to a desolate landscape. What do these allegories contemplate?
I definitely refer to decay, life, death and the fragility of these complicated notions. Both ugly and beautiful, my paintings draw in the viewer with a pleasure that shifts slightly upon closer inspection. Here, one realises the fragility of the painting’s construction. Parts of layered impasto delicately sit on top of one another, simultaneously exposing its making and potential undoing.

Your solo show at Caves Gallery in Melbourne early last year, ‘Flocked Smocks’, portrayed several whimsical figures curiously gazing at paintbrushes and palettes before them. They are at the mercy of their medium and deeply consumed with the act of painting. Are these self-portraits?
Yeah, in an abstract way! The figures are so transfixed. When I have a deadline, I go a bit mental. I really need to get into that zone to paint. The works in ‘Flocked Smocks’ were painted on velvet, there is something about velvet that has such a silence and stillness, and it soaks everything up. As soon as you make a mark it sticks. I had to commit to every gesture instead of overthinking my mark-making.
Your sister Fiona is also an artist. Both of your works evoke pathos through the depiction of, often, a lone subject with swathing, earthy brushstrokes. It’s interesting that you both grapple with these melancholic concepts.
Yes, that is so true. We both came from the same place, so that makes sense. We use fertile subjects from the everyday and disrupt it slightly to present an underlying menacing and decay. Our mark-making language definitely addresses the intimacy of life and questions our own mortality. It only takes a little bit to offset beauty.

Tell me about your relationship to painting.
I think about painting all the time, especially when I’m in full flight preparing for an exhibition. I have frantic dreams of making the same marks over and over again, it’s so bizarre! I’m consumed by mark-making. I just want to create fertile images that the viewer can take away with them.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 46, 2019

Tim McMonagle: Wonderful Things
17 May to 5 June 2019
Edwina Corlette Gallery, Brisbane

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