Julie Fragar: The Painting and the Photograph

Julie Fragar’s images begin as digital sketches built from photographs, but in their evolution to paintings they mine personal experience, garner layers of fiction, dally with darkness and engage with a level of sociological capture to become artworks almost universally relatable.


feature by LOUISE MARTIN-CHEW MAY 2023

Image credit: Julie Fragar, Managing reality, 2021, oil on board, 70 x 90 cm. Courtesy Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney



“Silence isn’t always the same as voicelessness,” Julie Fragar writes of Shhhhh (2020), a self-portrait produced among the frenetic noise that characterised the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. In this painting, an index finger hovers near the subject’s mouth, her eyes masked by largely opaque glasses and head partly obscured by another sinister hand that reaches up from the darkness. A cocoon-like line, with the transparency of snakeskin, surrounds the figure, as though sealing her within the space. Paintings don’t make sound, but they can speak volumes – and across Julie Fragar’s oeuvre meaning is multilayered, often enigmatic. Ghosted images overlay the tones of grey and black in this painting, a reaction to a level of shrillness that Fragar described at the time as “a limited capacity to listen.” It is, perhaps, a plea for quiet. She writes, “Painting can be a way to recalibrate internal dialogue, and to share this thinking quietly.” When we speak, it is clear that Fragar is not averse to talking about her work – she is open-faced, youthful.

Fragar was always going to be a painter. She tells me that, as a child, her drawings were praised. “I guess it didn’t occur to me to do anything else. After I did okay in the HSC, I saw that maybe I could do law or something, but that only lasted a minute. My mum was an artist. It was around us as a thing that one could do.” She went to art school in Sydney, and realism and figuration, the verisimilitude that attracted attention in her early years, stayed with her. It is a style that may be resisted in academic circles yet, some two decades later, she is Head of Painting (and Program Director of Visual Arts) at Queensland College of Art. Her work was profiled in The National: New Australian Art (Carriageworks, Sydney, 2019) and GOMA Q: Contemporary Queensland Art (QAGOMA, Brisbane, 2015), and is in Australian institutional collections nation-wide.

Fragar’s painting process is mediated through the camera. “I always work with photographs. Sometimes it’s just a convenient way to get an image. I might make quite magical scenes, but I’ll always make sure that there’s something very concrete and photographic – like a sneaker – grounding the image in reality. That’s what I really like about [photography]. It’s like a tether to the ground.”

Her first survey exhibition is currently touring Queensland. Titled Biograph and curated by Jonathan McBurnie, it traces the development of her work since 1998. McBurnie’s title for the exhibition plays on the “complex intersubjective relationships implicit” in Fragar’s work, the interplay of biography and autobiography. He writes: “Part of what makes her body of work so fascinating is its tendency to both offer up something that appears in the first instance to be almost diaristic, only to obfuscate ‘authentic’ details.” Yet their apparent veracity has caused problems, with McBurnie describing the “withdrawal of key works” he sought for the exhibition, comparing Fragar’s art practice to the writing of Helen Garner and the inherentdiscomfort it can evoke.

In recent years, Fragar’s paintings – despite notable tethers to her own apparent reality – are constructed as often-speculative fictions, becoming a place where her perceptions of the real and the magical are swirled around, layered over each other, fused. Earlier, she was more inclined to paint life around her (equally unstinting of her own) with less disguise. When photographs become paintings, frozen in time and space, the image is hard to refute. “I tend to be a part of things but also slightly sitting outside them. These things are quite personal, but they’re also a type of curiosity. I don’t feel like I’m expressing as much as watching.”

The exhibition depicts elements of her journey over the last 20 years and the increasing complexity of the layers, the “psychological realism” and sociological capture that exists within the paint.

A key image, The Single Bed (2017), records her 40th birthday, newly single. Again, hands dominate, naturalistic and supersized. Other layers, including children’s toys, overwrite the bedclothes as though memory and imagination have embarked on a dreamscape of nightmarish proportions. Flagyl, New Year’s Eve 2000 (2000), another image, depicts a wan face in a hospital bed, glaring light reflecting off stark surfaces evoking the out-of-body experience that an infection may simulate. Realist paintings refract, images cut and spliced (her own with classical sculpture) as in Kind of woman (2010) and Polygraph (2010). Text works take the form of run on sentences without spaces, divided only by colour and deduction, or overlaid on figurative images that relate to other potential stories, like Not Your Fault (2013), which flattens over a maelstrom of dogs, teeth bared, bodies jumbled. Then there are the paintings with portals and translucent layers described as “ghost skins” which, McBurnie writes, achieve a deliberate distancing for the artist, a “tectonic shift” away from “direct autobiographical referencing.”

Fragar defines her body of work as running along two train tracks. “On the one hand is the content, which is human-based and human-themed. And the other track concerns: What is painting? What is an image? What does the visual or a painted thing specifically reveal? What does it do to that content? So, each painting has a relationship depending on exactly what the content is.”

What becomes evident is that Fragar has a restless imagination, an interest in human darkness and a dispassionate ability to mine her own experiences to create an image almost universally relatable. Her most recent exhibition, Wash Your Face in Cold Water (Sarah Cottier Gallery, 2021) included Managing Reality (2021), a conglomeration of pipes imaged up close and variously spraying, gushing, at the tipping point of catastrophe. Recent projects have also included institutional studies; she spent a period of time in the courts of law, observing people’s lives collapsing in slow motion. Currently, Fragar is working on human rituals, rites of passage like weddings and funerals. “It’ a form of managing crisis, a social crisis, so that people can step through from one particular state to another. Rituals are a form of institution too, and they of course double back to the sort of biographical trajectory I’ve been going through.”

Biograph, a survey of 23 years’ work, offers Fragar the opportunity for a personal review. “It is a lot, to see all that history concentrated into one room. The biographical history I found confronting, rather than the actual work. [Going forward] what could be an issue is getting too strong of a sense of my own personality. Some people have said that the work is brave. I don’t think it’s brave as much as human-focused.”

Death is another thread that runs through the work – the frisson of mortality used like an invigorating touchstone. Slipping Through Your Fingers (2021) is hand painted in deep blacks, streaked with wetness, partly covered and surrounded by hair. The wet fingers reflect light, a flag that suggests nothing can be taken for granted.

Julie Fragar Biograph, a Perc Tucker Regional Gallery Touring Exhibition curated by Jonathan McBurnie, is at University of the Sunshine Coast Art Gallery, Queensland until May 27, 2023 before travelling to Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Centre, Murwillumbah from June 9 to August 27, 2023 and Rockhampton Museum of Art, Rockhamption from December 8 to March 3, 2024.

Julie Fragar is represented by
Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney.


Image credit: Julie Fragar, Not Your Fault, 2013, Oil on board, 50 x 60 cm, Collection of Selina McGrath. Courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney



Image credit: Julie Fragar, This is Not a Dress Rehearsal: A Catalogue of Final Options, 2019, oil on board, 270 x 200 (framed). Courtesy Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney



This article was originally published in VAULT Magazine Issue 42 (May – Jul).

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