Fiona Lowry

Artist Profile visits the studio of Sydney based painter Fiona Lowry to discuss the histories and stories of the Australian bush that inform her contemporary renderings of a landscape that is at once sinister and dangerous as it's breathtakingly beautiful.


Fiona Lowry’s artworks are contemporary renderings of conventional portraiture and landscape painting. Although she cites locations such as Belanglo State Forest and loosely references actual events including the Ivan Milat ‘backpacker’ murders and the infamous Ned Kelly crimes, Lowry’s airbrush technique depicts the sites of these histories through somewhat abstracted, hazy aesthetics. This is part of the paradox of her work – it is as much about formal qualities and beauty as it is about the evocation of impending doom or unease. There is a seductive weightlessness to the effervescent application of paint that belies the paintings’ thornier content.

In a number of works the viewer’s vision shudders across the surface: the point of focus staggered over the painting, denying a single point of perspective and a conventional reading of foreground and background. Here, the historical specificities associated with the term landscape slide into the paradigm of place, a broad concept also accommodating nuance and imperceptibility. In the place of Lowry’s pictures, narrative is subverted and the optical field oscillates, infused with a melancholy air that is often erotically charged. And so, in their representation of exposed bodies and sense of menace inside the forest at the limits of our civilisation, Lowry’s paintings expound the cultural understanding of the forest’s abomination.

The body plays a critical role in the field of visual contact. The figures in her paintings occupy much of the overall composition. The body extends close to the frame’s edge and lies naked, crouching or splayed with provocative vulnerability.

In considering these ideas, Lowry draws inspiration from a range of cultural sources including Nick Cave’s love songs; Walt Whitman’s poetry; the ‘divine terror’ of the Old Testament; apocalypse culture; and William Blake’s art and philosophy. Blake, Whitman and Cave certainly traverse time but their work shares an interest in religion, and the co-existence of light and dark as an expression of life and death, love and hate, and the rational and irrational.

Your paintings could be classified – quite separately – within the genre of the landscape tradition but also portraiture. Do you approach the landscapes differently to the portraits?
I don’t really see them as portraits in the usual sense of the word. They are more about my ideas, associations and experiences in relation to the figures. Because the landscapes are of a specific place and there are all these associations around that particular site, they operate in the same way. Technically, I feel I approach them quite differently. The figurative works live in a somewhat dreamlike state and the landscapes are more psychotic. But I feel that they achieve their power by sitting in the same spaces together.

What is it about a landscape that lures you to represent it in a painting; is it natural beauty, a personal connection, a history or narrative for example?
I think for me painting the landscape and specifically, at the moment, painting the Australian landscape, allows me to talk about ideas that are connected to a broader experience. Recently I have been reading Gerry Turcotte’s essay “Australian Gothic” where he talks about Australia even before it was confirmed as a place – it had been imagined as a place populated by monsters, and then with the transportation of convicts it became embedded as being this dark underworld.

Historically, the landscape in Australia has always been animated with these hidden energies – harbouring criminals, bushrangers, serial killings and massacres of Australia’s indigenous people – but it also holds a great beauty and I am interested in this duality, not just within the landscape but also within ourselves.

For me, growing up in a deeply religious environment, I was very tuned in to the possibilities that a beautiful place could also hold something quite dark or foreboding within it. All of my painted landscapes are an attempt to articulate this anxiety but also this idea that on the one hand there is pain but there is also comfort from that pain – two voices: complicated and simple, love and hate, life and death, and so on…

You work with a restricted colour palette for a single painting. How do you go about selecting the colour range of your paintings?
I think that’s true of the figurative works. I guess it gives space for the viewer to get inside the work but the landscapes are quite frenetic in their use of colour, often clashing colours that visually mix and vibrate on the eye.

What role does the airbrushing technique play?
It’s actually the technique of blur and focus that airbrushing allows that ends up helping carry the content of the work, making viewing a disorientating ambiguous experience. And for me, making work is often about deepening one’s doubt about the situation under discussion.

Can you talk me through the process of making a picture?
My paintings are made from photographic reference so before I go anywhere near the canvas I create these image references. I take the models to a particular landscape and we compose and construct an image together. It’s then that I use the image as the reference point to the paintings. The rest is up to the language of painting, and it’s reinterpretation by me and the viewer.

The sitters in your figurative works are often nude. Can you tell me a little about how and why this is important to your practice?
There is something incredibly sensual and vulnerable about the nude figure that isn’t achievable by painting someone clothed. Because a lot of the ideas I am interested in exploring are surrounding love, sexuality, trauma and death, it makes sense for the figure to be revealed in this way.

The naked figures in the work are often playing out different scenarios that have a moral ambiguity and I think that allows the viewer to take up a position rather than insisting on taking a particular one.

The portrait subjects are almost always known to you personally. There’s obviously a deep connection and sense of trust that exists between you and the individuals?
All of the people I paint I have a personal connection with in some way. And I don’t think I could achieve the sort of intimacy, or I would be comfortable playing out these types of scenarios, with a model I found though an agency. Nothing is rehearsed and I am more interested in how the particular person responds to an idea we discuss.

The intimate knowledge I have of that person adds something to the work and gives it more power, but I’m not sure how that translates for the viewer. The works also become a kind of constructed archive of my own connections with people.

A lot of the works I make are really about putting form to the qualitative experience of my own life. So in that sense I guess I’m drawn to places that have a complexity of experience attached to them.

The titles for your works are often long and curious, based in the first or second person or utilising quotes or phrases from various sources including verses from The Bible. Where does the inspiration for your titles come from? Do they directly relate to the imagery and content in the work?
The titles come from various places – poetry, music or a phrase I hear along the way. The titles, though, are not there to describe the work but to add to the space that the work sits within.

Can you tell me about the work you’re creating for the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art?
This latest body of work has been milling around for a long time and its been a conversation that I have revisited with my friend, Chris, who appears in the work many times.

It came form a chance discovery in an old 1950’s book that listed all of the Australian bushrangers and I guess surprisingly the first one listed was a man named John ‘Black’ Caesar – a black slave from America who sought freedom with the British only to end up a convict in Australia. It’s a really curious story because it reveals that Australia was a multi racial process from the outset and has the ability to change the way we think about the foundation of Australia.

But for this series I was interested in what must have been the despair around his relationship with a fellow convict, Anne Power, with whom he had two children. I can only imagine the terror and despair that must have surrounded them and predictably he was shot and killed not long after.

For me, within this story are universal truths about love and loss and despair and the new work engages with these ideas

Fiona Lowry is represented by Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney, and Hugo Michell Gallery, Adelaide.

Dark Heart: Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art
1 March to 11 May, 2014
Art Gallery of South Australia

Photography: Daniel Shipp
Images: Courtesy the artist, Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney; and Hugo Michell Gallery, Adelaide