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The Departed 2006 was Martin Scorsese’s return to the theme of masculinity as learnt on the streets. The film was full of little rhetorical interplays that revolved around the male’s relationship to his father, partner, work, death, and the lies that keep everything working together. The plot was tight (it was adapted from the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs 2002) and allowed Scorsese to work with themes to which he has consistently returned. In a review of The Departed an online critic stated that ‘what lingers long after sitting through it is that, in terms of a point-of-view, Scorsese’s fingerprints are nowhere near this film’.1 It is an odd thing to say given that it was an obvious return to his blurring of the good guy/bad guy characters pursued in Taxi Driver 1976, King of Comedy 1983, Goodfellas 1990 and numerous other films. Yet something about that quote rings true. Scorsese’s old themes are present but The Departed is also a pretty conventional action-cop-suspense film without a dominant sense of the author or auteur. Julie Fragar’s art practice operates in a similar way—a pretty odd conclusion to make, I know, given that she appears in a lot of her own work. In her latest show at the Griffith University College Gallery she was depicted riding a motorcycle in six large oil paintings as well as in ink paintings of family snapshots. But within her practice something is happening that makes me wonder where she is exactly in her work and why she does not give greater prominence to herself beyond an idiosyncratic formal presence?
The title of the exhibition was ‘DADISLIKEITTOO’ but, whilst there were two or three references to a father figure in the ink paintings, the title of the show remained abstract and elusive. Having said that, it also did not appear that Fragar was nihilistically abstracting the exhibition with an unrelated title; like some of her previous work there were distinct references to her family life, alluding to possible motives for the works and the exhibition as a whole. An element of Fragar’s practice—her wandering—compels the viewer to go along for the ride despite the occasionally ambiguous feelings her work projects. The motorcycle paintings, especially the triptych titled Stage Centre (Augmentative) 2007, reminded me of photos from the early 1960s of a young Bob Dylan riding around Woodstock on his Triumph Bonneville; the freewheeling folk musician who would subsequently wander in and out of musical genres and conceptual preoccupations.2 The other major elements of the exhibition were the text works, the letters of which were arranged in a manner akin to New York artist Christopher Wool’s text paintings. One read: ONEONONEONANDONANDON. Again, these works had a conceptually abstract quality that was not a nihilistic and abrupt type of abstraction but rather invited you to muse on its infinite sentiment without feeling you were ever going to completely understand what it was referencing or where it was coming from. One text however, in the ink paintings that were arranged as a collection of family snapshots, gave me a bit more information on how to understand the show as a whole. It read: ITISAMISTAKETOGIVEUPTHEDOMESTICLIFEFORTHEARTISTICLIFE. For me, this text rendered the ink paintings and the oil on canvas works as a dialectic between the servile roles of parenting and the creative freedom offered by art. Fragar’s own position within this dialectic, however, remained uncertain.
Whilst ideas and references were rhetorically played out in the exhibition, ultimately it was the performative quality and the material presence of the work that made the most immediate sense. The paintings, particularly the large yellow diptych titled A Couple of Tricks 2007, functioned as gestalts. At first they appeared to be in a gestural style reminiscent of neo-expressionism but on going up to inspect the abstract interplay of paint there was surprisingly not a lot going on that could be thought of as gestural or spontaneous. Rather, the execution was quite measured—sure there were blurrings, blendings and layering of pigments but up close it was a relatively static, three-colour affair that forced the viewer to keep getting another look from a distance.
In a program titled ‘Scorsese on Scorsese’ 2004 that screened on SBS earlier this year, Martin Scorsese discussed his movies in a way that made me understand his work for the first time as very heavily autobiographical. This was something I had never really thought too much about before because his films seemed to be immersed within the symbolic structures of Hollywood filmmaking through which he would methodically tell someone else’s life story, often in the form of a bio-pic. Julie Fragar’s work is similarly directed towards an Otherness even as she produces literal self portraits. Her practice can be understood as producing portraits of her own deflections, documenting a self-identification with people and things which are intrinsically, psychologically out of reach. In this exhibition, the paintings operated in a wonderfully enigmatic capacity and I suspect would retain their enigma even when separated from the series and context in which they were actualised. Failing that, the viewer will always return back to the materiality of the paintings themselves and to Fragar’s dextrous use of paint to create the controlled, shimmering quality of this body of work.
Julie Fragar, A couple of tricks (right), 2006. Oil on canvas, 150 x 225cm.
Stage Right (Augmentative), 2007. Oil on canvas, 195 x 130cm. Courtesy the artist.
1. Jay Antani, Untitled review of The Departed, Perihelion Journal, www.perihelionjournal.com.
2. The Triumph motorcycle was famously made into a signifier of cool by Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One 1953 and by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape 1963. Fragar’s paintings alluded to this cinematic portrayal of the motorcycle.