Fiona McMonagle, Wannabes (detail) 2019, watercolour, ink and gouche on paper, 130cm x 115cm. Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery.
When I started studying art history, the connect-the-dots method (X influenced Y, A begat B) still held sway. So maybe I’m just showing my archaic roots when I say that Fiona McMonagle’s paintings of young women remind me of the watercolours of Constantin Guys. His hasty sketches of nineteenth century boulevardiers, coquettes and aristocrats are not so distant from McMonagle’s twenty-first century mall rats. In both, there’s an eye for posturing and preening, for that ritual street theatre of gender, class and status. So there’s your grand historical narrative; from the birth of the modern consumer in nineteenth century Paris to performative identity in suburban Melbourne today.
But the more interesting thing is what McMonagle returns to in Guys; that sense of an ambiguous, unstable urban identity. Young women strike bold, confronting poses yet they’re still edgy, nervous, a little unsure of themselves. They wield all the props—the mobile phones, the cars, the accessories—but, like their Parisian forebears, they handle them awkwardly, as if they haven’t quite mastered their social cachet. There’s more to this than immaturity (both physical and emotional), and that’s where McMonagle’s eye is sharp. Classy is easy enough, if you know how to shop. But class is a social marker you can’t escape, however well you pose.