Reaching toward an unknown destination, Monica Rohan’s new work recasts our view of nature and our role within it.

Words: Louise Martin-Chew

Monica Rohan’s paintings have a giddy sensibility; swathes of fabric incorporate vertiginous figure studies, ostensibly self-portraits, that rarely show a face or touch the ground. In Back drops, a new exhibition for Melbourne’s Sophie Gannon Gallery, the female figure has become further elevated, draped and cloaked by textiles, with the landscape increasingly overt. “The pattern of the fabric is taking over,” says Rohan. “The figure is, instead, pinning the backdrop to the foreground.” In these paintings the slipperiness in the zeitgeist and increasingly present nature reach around the human elements to describe the ecological crises toward which we are careering. 

In Everything changes, 2021, draped fabric forms a large horizontal banding through the centre of the canvas. Above it we see trees and sky, and the forest floor below, reaching into an abyss as the land slopes steeply away. Two hands reach around and out of the fabric, blindly seeking, while the figure’s footing is invisible; she appears transcendent. The vibrant fabrics contrast, in shape, colour and texture to the forest, but share the movement captured in the trees. In contrast, in Hold this for now, 2021, the landscape dominates. A tree arches over it, with the figure suggested by arms in striped sleeves, which reach toward the ground, their gesture an entreaty to the otherwise open landscape. 

Rohan sees the increased landscape elements as also expressing her growing maturity as a painter: “Now I can tackle the problems a landscape presents, while also finding ways to keep it within conceptual reach. The different strands in my work are intertwining.”

Rohan, born in 1990, is familiar with the natural environment. She grew up outside the city on a property south of Beaudesert, Queensland. She and her husband, abstract painter Mitch Donaldson, are keen hikers and a trip to the Blue Mountains in 2019 yielded imagery which has kept her going during the Covid-19 travel restrictions. In this new body of work the isolation of the last two years also impacts. “I am using textiles within the landscape like a screen or a border between me and the landscape,” she says. “When the textiles block the view it creates tension. That detachment from the landscape conveys growing uncertainty about how to be in nature.”

Art school was a natural choice for Rohan after she finished high school. She graduated from Queensland College of Art (with Honours) in 2011, and has, since 2014, worked full time on her painting. 

She has had a solo exhibition every year since 2011, with her highly detailed paintings and their ability to express an untethered self-awareness, sumptuously rendered detail and luxurious surfaces compelling to collectors (her exhibitions often sell out prior to opening). In Back drops, her landscapes have textile-like qualities, folding in and stretching out, as elastic as our imagination. Her work was awarded highly commended in the Brisbane Portrait Prize in 2021, a finalist in the Archibald Prize in 2020 and 2016, and is in the collections of the Queensland Art Gallery, UQ Art Museum, Tweed Regional Gallery and Museum of Brisbane, among many others. 

Featured Image: Monica Rohan, Everything changes, 2021. Oil on board, 90 x 60cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sophie Gannon Gallery, Melbourne.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 100, April – June 2022. 

To listen to a reading of the feature click the audio link below. Read by: Louise Martin-Chew- who has been writing in the arts industry for 25 years. She completed a doctorate at the University of Queensland in 2019 and remains an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of  Communication and Arts at the University of Queensland, 2022.


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