Outer Space: Monica Rohan

Monica Rohan / so it goes / 2018 / 46x61cm / oil on board

Monica Rohan’s paintings are colourful, intricately patterned and dizzying. They portray surreal scenes of figures overwhelmed by their environment; overgrown foliage swallowing bodies and swarming patterned fabric. At times it’s hard to tell if the figures are seeking shelter or hiding, or if these mass of dense colour and pattern is consuming them, exploring the anxiety and self-consciousness that comes with navigating an overwhelming world. In her latest series, most of which she produced during her time as a studio resident at Outer Space, she pushes her work into even more surreal territory.

From her studio at West End's Outer Space Monica Rohan chats to Sarah Thomson about ‘Monica’ poses, making things more wobbly in her recent work, and mixing together inside and outside worlds in her surreal paintings.

The figures in Monica Rohan’s paintings are based on preliminary photographs she takes of herself and close friends interacting with common domestic objects in unconventional ways. She tends to adopt poses that she describes as “hiding inward or a bit awkward” and remarks that even when she has other friends pose for her they still take on these ‘Monica’ poses that have become characteristic of her work. She takes these photos in her home, and garden and the homes of friends, soaking up selected details from these places like the pattern of a tablecloth or the foliage of a shrub and drenching the scene, and often the figure, in it.

Monica Rohan / unavoidable / 2018 / 92x61cm / oil on board

Monica Rohan / kitchen table / 2018 / 92x122cm / oil-on-board

When I ask her about why so often the figures are ‘misusing’ an object like a chair, a couch, or a table, Rohan speaks about the misuse of objects as a way of showing disconnectedness from things, of not quite fitting in or understanding how things are supposed to work. We shared stories of being shy children who liked to perch on the arms of chairs and couches and wondered whether this had something to do with feeling like we didn’t fit: physically with the scale of objects but also in a broader sense trying to find how we fit into the world. Rohan also saw this perching as a stance that is “always ready to spring up and leave, never quite relaxing”. It is this nervous, anxious energy that vibrates in the clashing colourful patterns of her work.

While Rohan is known for her lush, detailed renderings, she explains the importance for her to make seemingly beautiful things awkward or strange. While painting her 2016 Archibald finalist portrait of Pamela Easton and Lydia Pearson of fashion label Easton Pearson, she wanted to turn a straightforward portrait into something that was in her signature style. She had the pair stand on a chair in their design studio as a way of making them feel “awkward and weird in their usual space…” to make the resulting image “more uncomfortable or wobbly.” This wobbly-ness continues in her latest series in which Rohan depicts herself perched upon chairs with elongated, spindly legs. Rohan sees her recent slip into even more surreal territory as a natural progression from the last few years of her practice. She is interested in the contrast between highly distorted elements and elements that look quite real, pushing herself to make scenes more intense.

Monica Rohan / criss-cross / 2018 / 122x92cm / oil on board

While her exploration of the form of chairs is relatively new, Rohan likes to re-approach similar ideas and objects in her paintings. In her Honours exegesis from 2011 she wrote, “There is an inherent anxiety in watching from the distance of one’s imagination one’s body is physical peril.” She tells me about how in these recent works she wants to create a heightened sense of precariousness by not showing where the chair legs meet the ground. She likes the way they “seem less tethered, less stable.” For me, the way the figures climb on top of the chairs, reaching upward on such wobbly support creates a feeling of suspense in anticipation of the stomach-dropping feeling of a chair slipping out from underneath you. Rohan often cuts the top or bottom off of figures, trees and now furniture, choosing to conceal the narrative ‘how’ and ‘why’ to her paintings, letting the viewer’s imagination run wild with curiosity (or paranoia).

Monica Rohan / soft-touch / 2018 / 122x92cm / oil on board

In these recent works, Rohan says she “wanted to be able to really mix together inside and outside worlds—interior and exterior—into one image so that it was really confusing to look at.” By concealing where the chair legs meet the ground, it is as if the chairs walked right out of their domestic realm, blurring the boundaries between internal psychological worlds, signified for her by domestic spaces, into the outside world. While for the last four months Rohan has worked away from her usual home studio, her work continues to be drenched in the details of her domestic life. As an outside viewer, it may not be apparent how autobiographical these paintings are, not just though Rohan’s inclusion of herself in her work, but through her choice to use the chairs, tables, couch, tablecloths, dresses, trees and flowers that she sees everyday.

She intensely analyses the minutiae of her immediate environment, creating an imaginary world like a pillow fort kingdom. A large painting she completed earlier this year, Wait, was based on her couch at home, draped in her eclectic collection of colourful and patterned cushions, and hand-crocheted blankets given to her or picked up from op shops. For Rohan “everything was real and in front of me.” In this particular painting she also included a Persian rug that she saw at Monet’s house during her recent trip to Europe. She notes her interest in combining “something really beautiful and perfect in amongst our mish-mash of objects in our house.” So many of these domestic objects appear again and again in her work, which Rohan predicts will be a part of her work for a long time, as she likes “to pick something up and put it down again, then try it differently later.”

Monica Rohan / Wait / 2018 / 92x122cm / oil on board

Monica Rohan / Yikes Mountain / 2018 / 80x61cm / oil on board

Rohan grew up on a dairy farm in Kerry, just south of Beaudesert in the Scenic Rim. In hindsight she sees how her childhood spent on a property with “so much free time and space to roam around in” fed into her desire to be an artist. Rohan is the youngest of four siblings, with a sister ten years her senior and two brothers that tended to hang out together while she “trotted along after them or off on her own.” She describes with fondness coming home from school and spending her afternoons roaming around the paddocks, visiting her family’s horses and doing chores. However, she admits that it may have been a little bit of loneliness that drove her to draw all the time, making her own fun and enjoying being quiet with her own thoughts.

She also notes her formative experiences with her high school art teacher Taya Linder, who Rohan says “made it seem like being an artists was a possible and viable thing to do.” As a result of her encouragement four of Rohan’s small grade twelve art class are still practicing artists in their late twenties. Because of Rohan's success and commercial representation with Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane and Sophie Gannon Gallery, Melbourne, she is able to work full time doing the only job she would want—being an artist. She tells me with a laugh that every time she visits a cafe she thinks, “thank God I’m not working in hospitality anymore.”

Photo: Llewellyn Millhouse

This conversation is part of a series of studio visits with recent Outer Space studio residents. Read more about the project here.

Monica Rohan graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Art with Honours from Queensland College of Art in 2010. She has since exhibited in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. In 2016, Rohan was selected as a finalist in the prestigious Archibald Prize in her first attempt. Her work is held in private and public collections in Australia, including Artbank, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, the University of Queensland Art Museum, Mater Children’s Hospital and the Griffith University Collection. Her next exhibition nowhere near opens at Sophie Gannon Gallery, Melbourne this month. @monrohan

Sarah Thomson is an emerging arts worker and arts writer based in Brisbane. She is a founding member of In Residence.

Images supplied by Monica Rohan and Llewellyn Millhouse.
Outer Space is proudly supported by the Brisbane City Council.