Artist as Witness: Painting a Criminal Trial

By Dr Karen Crawley
Griffith Law School

The latest series of paintings by Australian contemporary artist Julie Fragar, currently exhibiting at the Sarah Cottier Gallery in Sydney, emerged from an act of protracted witnessing. In late 2017 she attended a two-week long murder trial in the Supreme Court of Queensland, sitting in the public galley. Fragar watched as forensic evidence was given about the crime itself, including photographs of the deceased, who had been stabbed and run over by a vehicle. She watched the barristers acting for the Crown and for the two men accused of the crime talking to each other before proceedings, and then arguing throughout the day. She watched the jury, filing in and filing out on cue, sitting all together, reacting to the evidence and to the responses of others in the court. She watched the families of the victim and the accused sit in court throughout the proceedings. And she watched as the judge gave instructions, permissions, and directions, and made findings on the evidence. Other members of the public gallery were more transient — media reporters, the occasional group of school children. Sitting in that gallery, Fragar was acting as what Sean Mulcahy calls an outside audience, having a more informal, even itinerant experience of law’s performance.

Not many people will experience the inside of a courtroom in this way. Usually people attend court only if they or a family member are involved in the proceedings, and on those occasions they are, of course, deeply emotionally and personally invested in what is happening. Fragar’s position was different. She was following an artistic practice perhaps made famous, in an Australian context, by author Helen Garner, whose books Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) and This House of Grief (2014) are based on the author’s experience attending, watching, and witnessing murder trials. The word witnessing implies more than reporting, just as the term watching implies more than looking: watching has a stress on duration and attention, and witnessing testifies to the immediacy and reflexivity of the practice of watching. Witnessing, as John Durham Peters notes, ‘places mortal bodies in time’ (cited in Best, 2016). Garner’s literary works are complex meditations on the ethics and limitations of witnessing after the fact, and of her own implication, as witness, in the narrative of trauma she is crafting. Criminal law, by definition, arrives on the scene too late. To deal with its workings after falling victim to crime is to endure a rather lousy second act. In the face of the interpersonal, terrible violence of murder, the abstraction of the state purports to call the wrongdoer to account on behalf of the community to which the victim belonged. The crime itself cannot be undone, and the scant possibilities of justice hinge on the workings of a legal system that can be both violating and impersonal.

Fragar turned her act of witnessing the criminal law into the five paintings that make up her exhibition Next Witness 2018. Like Garner’s works, her paintings dwell on those aspects of the murder trial that most trouble observers of its intimate drama: its bombast and mystique, its reduction of complexity, its reliance on the fallibility of memory, the burden of responsibility on the judge, the adversarial engagement of the barristers, the closed ecosystem of the jury, the terrible absence of the deceased. Fragar’s paintings take advantage of the medium’s capacity to blend space, time and perspective together on a single plane. Her signature technique appears as a sort of layering — she mocks up the images initially using Photoshop’s layering function – however, as the artist notes, in her paintings ‘there are no layers because they are woven together as one work. Not truth upon truth. All images simultaneously existing together’ (Fragar, interview, 2018). Fragar’s attraction to the courtroom was an extension of her earlier interest in autobiography and life narrative, in how our own lives relate to others. She understands the space of the courtroom as a site of ‘biographical coalescence,’ a space where private lives are put under scrutiny, and then compressed and packaged into a particular narrative form. ‘The courtroom is a place where the choices we have made come together for public forensic analysis. Each preceding moment of our lives becomes preparatory for that one; who we knew, where we lived, where we went’ (Fragar, in Cottier 2018). Fragar was uncomfortably aware of her own intrusion into this process, her own voyeurism as a member of the broader public interested in crime stories.

Appearing Before the Hawks, the Hounds and Those who tell the Stories2018
oil on board
143 x 213cm (framed)
courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney

Appearing Before the Hawks, the Hounds and Those who tell the Stories uses the camera as a trope for looking and for intense scrutiny. For Fragar, the presence of the cameras outside the courtroom is a ‘distrust factor,’ a prompt to regard the court and its participants in dramatic, unrealistically coherent terms, and this painting offers a commentary on the media’s tendency to reduce many complex realities into a single commodified narrative for showing in truncated form on television nightly news. The jumble of cameras and tripods in the painting seem crouching, animalistic, even predatory, in a kind of cinematic visual narrative that recalls War of the Worlds. The outdoor façade of the Supreme Court building looms up high in the background. Two mirrored renderings of the artist’s own son, looking young and vulnerable, are substituted in for the two accused. Fragar’s own eye peers at the viewer from next to her son’s image: she too is implicated in its voyeuristic spectacle, and so are the viewers. The palm trees visible at the edges suggest that nature persists all around the drama of human lives.

Verdict by Committee (Group Think) 2018
oil on board
185 x 158cm (framed)
courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney

Verdict by Committee (Group Think) suggests Fragar’s wariness of the jury’s dynamic within the criminal trial setting. At the centre of the painting’s whirlpool is a black hole, suggesting both the gravity and the impossibility of a central truth. The figures representing the members of the jury are holding papers and pointing in different directions, clockwise and counter-clockwise, forcing energy to the centre of the frame. The artist herself is laid out, froglike, the vague suggestion of entrails as she is dissected by the forensic process. For Fragar, the fact that the jury sit in close physical proximity is another ‘distrust factor,’ as clustering them together allows them to be influenced by each other’s sounds, movements and body language, which inhibits ‘rigorous individual thinking’ (Fragar, in Cottier, 2018). Her painting restores some of the messy humanity that lies beneath the ideal of the jury in the criminal justice system, i.e. that its members represent the public and decide questions of fact constrained by laws of procedure and evidence, and free from bias. In reality, of course, members of the jury pool are humans, with all their frailty and foibles; at best ‘a collection of representative biases’ (Gerwitz, 1991: 887). To serve on a jury in a murder trial is to undergo an embodied experience of affects ranging from tension to excitement to boredom to discomfort. It is to grapple with a wealth of sometimes confronting details and intimate personal histories, to sit in the same room as the grief and suffering of family members, and to make decisions about people’s lives in the necessary absence of complete information.

The Gatekeeper (Portrait of an Honourable Justice)2018
oil on board
122 x 106 cm (framed)
courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney

Fragar’s painting The Gatekeeper (Portrait of an Honourable Justice) presents a turn on an official genre of judicial portraiture. Here the judge is rendered with wig and robe prominent. The one eye looking out is the artist’s own. The other eye looks down at the figure cradled in her arms; an outline suggesting the body of the deceased person in a gesture that breaks with the painting’s other photorealist elements, forcing an awakening to surface and the materiality of paint. Behind the judge are the amassed figures of other judges, representing the weight and history of her institution; as fellow holders of judicial office, they are judging her in turn. The energy of the painting gathers at the centre, compressed into the psychological space of the judge’s head. In the background are inverted central markings of a road to conjure directional lines: information in, information out. The architecture of the court and benches frame the painting. Fragar explained the painting as follows: ‘The only eyes any of us can see through are our own (which is what the law tries to overcome but mostly can’t)’ (Fragar in Cottier 2018).

Fragar’s paintings collapse the narrative time of the trial into spatial form, much as the verdict in a criminal trial collapses the complexity of human relations into legal form, cutting time and rendering judgment. In so doing they offer a complex and sensitive portrayal of witnessing our criminal justice system, a material rumination that maintains both ‘empathy and distance’ (Cottier, 2018). These paintings traverse the power and majesty of law as well as its terrible violence; the sensationalism and spectacle of crime stories and our public fascination with them; the social and visual drama of the courtroom; the co-implication of our selves and others; and the human vulnerabilities underneath the legal procedures and formalities. Judges, juries, legal actors, and spectators are all in their own ways attempting to pay witness to what has happened, and the potential for rendering justice in any given criminal trial depends in large part upon the quality of that witnessing: attentive, reflective, embodied, communal. These paintings suggest the power of the spectator in rendering legal processes transparent and accountable, and remind us what is at stake in keeping the criminal law open to public viewing.

This blog post is based on a forthcoming article in the International Journal for the Semiotics of Law (2019).


Best, Susan, 2016. Reparative Aesthetics: Witnessing in Contemporary Art Photography (Bloomsbury).

Cottier, Sarah, 2018. Next Witness Gallery Catalogue.

Gerwitz, Paul, 1991 ‘Victims and Voyeurs at the Criminal Trial’ (1996) Faculty Scholarly Series Paper 1707.