“La dolce prospettiva”
“Skat” is the title of the first published picture by Fiona Rae in the catalogue of Damien Hirst’s 1988 exhibition, “Freeze”, which presented seventeen young artists connected with Goldsmiths College in London.(1) “Scat” means unrelated syllables instead of words, “Scat” is also a shower of rain or a bang. And that is how many of these pictures appear before our eyes: as pieces of movable scenery and elements towards a vocabulary, as the highlighted presentation of signs used like quotations, the main feature of which is their great number. Again and again Fiona Rae assembles, joins and stacks together expressive values of the most varied forms and colours. In some individual cases we can guess the origins of these, but their coherence is not iconographic, it is ensured by the balance of the parts on a flat picture ground.
Since 1989 her work has had no titles, instead she gives in brackets the principal colours contained in a particular work, such as “nine on yellow” (cat. 1), or “nine on green” (cat. 2). The first impression created by one of the canvases is of a calligraphic technique, with which a plethora of basically conceivable motifs is applied in shorthand form using various painting methods. Fiona Rae began by familiarizing herself with quick forms of improvisation: “I do end up with something I couldn’t have envisaged or invented beforehand.”(2) In 1990 a sixty-page book by her appeared at the Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, containing more than a hundred black-and-white scribbles like a catalogue of possibilities laid side by side – as a sort of comic with no plot, or an abstract rebus with no solution. Even then her pictures seemed to be filled several times over and to be over-determined by the signs. Hence, the improvised creates the effect of being composed, the chance occurrences take on the nature almost of inevitability and the principle of combination shows itself to be a drastic means to composition.
The so-called inner necessities in painting have been exchanged by Fiona Rae for a manifold image. Just as Werner Hofmann, in his essay on the combinatorial in modern painting and sculpture, spoke of an example of the process in the first half of the century which was connected with an age of uncertain relationships, so Rae’s paintings impose themselves by formal means. The combinatorial, wrote Hofmann, is preferred by cardplayers who have more than one trump.(3)
Visiting the artist in the ACME Studios, in a disused factory in the East End of London, where over a hundred of other painters and sculptors work, one finds a jumble of two different types of objects: on a table and bench are countless tins of paint, which stand ready both for mixing and for being used directly. All around – on the table, on the floor and on the wall – are postcards, art prints, page from colour supplements, books and magazines lying open with the most varied illustrations, which make one think not of Malraux’s “Musée imaginaire” but rather of a mine of visual phenomena. Among them are two works from art history which have clearly made a lasting impression on Fiona Rae: Paolo Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano” in the National Gallery, London, and Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” now in the Centre de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.
Both paintings have a relatively flat, earthen or monochrome ground, against which figures with a strong sense of space are arranged in unusual abundance and with apparently different perspectives. This is also the speciality of Rae’s painting. Uccello’s three-part major work, painted around 1450 for the Medici Palace in the Via Larga in Florence and now in separate parts in the Louvre, the Uffizi and the National Gallery, is considered as one of the prime examples of early work with central perspective, described by Erwin Panofsky as “looking through” in the sense of a window.(4) In the picture, which is 320 cm wide and 180 cm high, Uccello dispensed with aligning all the forms and figures to the “point of sight” and reinterpreting the whole ground as a spatial picture plane. Instead two tendencies coexist in the picture: in the foreground, where thick, fully three-dimensional bodies of horses, lances and soldiers are lined up to stand out as white, grey and brown volumes against the dark background, the perspectival representation prepares for a frontality and close-up view which are unique in the history of art. As if on a fan the various elements are held before our face, horse by horse, posture by posture, and detail by detail, from left to right. The lances too, which rise up in various diagonal directions and taper sharply above and behind, reinforce the impression of a multiplicity that can barely be taken in, as if it applied to the whole picture. In the middle ground and background, where in Uccello’s work we should have expected a centre, a finale of the historic battle between Florence and Siena in 1432 – perhaps a ruler with his attributes or at least an empty throne articulating the space – we find a group of running hounds, hares and soldiers, casually overlapping or side by side, as they scatter over fields divided into small plots. Thus, the consolidation and systematization of the external world, which we are accustomed to in representations using central perspective, is missing, and at most we recognize a constructed homogeneity in the picture in the sense of a fantastic fairy tale.
Fiona Rae’s painting shares important elements of this perspective conception, for the unordered multiplicity of details is as a rule presented in arresting close-up. “But how sweet perspective is”, Uccello (according to Vasari) is supposed to have replied to his wife, when she told him to come to bed at last. In contrast to central perspective, in both cases the world of the artist’s self dominates only half the picture, and so it gives us an impression not only of “modernity” but also of “postmodernity”.
Despite its theme, Picasso’s “Guernica” of 1937, created three decades after Cubism, can also be considered a model of “sweet perspective”. The early return to “primitive” cultures and after 1907 the deliberate demolition of the perspectival picture space, which had been looked after for centuries, are both lacking in the picture shown at the Paris World Exhibition, and coincidentally it also shows a battle and is one of the quite exceptional history paintings of this century. On an area of 782 cm width and 351 cm height the painter, as everybody knows, used his own vocabulary in a poster-like manner. “Guernica” as a condemnation of war and death has been a model to several generations of artists. In the USA it encouraged the urgent large formats of Pollock, Motherwell, Newman, Kline and others from 1949 onwards. Since the Second World War, however, the figures, broken open and seen from many view points, with enlarged limbs flattened in places, the figure of the bull, the horse and the architectural fragments spread out like stage scenery have been of limited interest as motifs. Yet this picture too follows those contradictory rules of perspective, which present the deformed figures “correctly” by closing in on individual silhouettes without a central “point of sight”. In this way the impression is created in the foreground of a panorama of the fragmenting figures doomed to die, while the apocryphal grey zone of the ground plunges the event into uncertainty and so as it were illuminates the theme.
The state of uncertainty between on one hand the gathering and studying of details, and on the other the loss of an explanatory centre, also plays a major role in Fiona Rae’s paintings. She has worked on a systematizing of signs which, taken individually, could represent a brush stroke by Philip Guston, an ear of Mickey Mouse, a coloured headline from a newspaper advertisement or a scribble by Jean Michel Basquiat. It is for this purpose that the great variety of picture sources lie spread about in her studio; with them she intuitively decides in front of the canvas which quotations should come together in what size and which combination to what expression. The perspectives which the pictures thus express correspond perfectly to that of the one “individual” eye, but this organ of perception is no longer motionless. Instead Rae simulates a field of vision which remains open to infinite capacities of perception and must follow a constant diversity of imagery and forms. Painting thus remains the classic means to assign a constructed, homogenous space to a heterogenous stream of “scats”. Thus the flat, film-like picture space shows individual figures, which stand out, as if framed by a window, as unordered parameters heading in all directions.
In most of Rae’s paintings in 1990 and 1991 this ambivalence of the homogenous and the heterogenous is formulated brightly and brilliantly. A silhouette appears beside a trickle, an impasto stroke beside an angular surface, a repeated shade of colour beside an off-centre sign. Orange, green, red or blue illuminate the pictures, in order to distinguish themselves as summary expressions of artistic signs from the scripture and hieroglyphics of a Cy Twombly or the snappy presentation of virtuoso technique of a Gerhard Richter.
However, since the two large triptychs with which Fiona Rae exhibited in the autumn of 1991 for the Turner Prize in London, the figurations have become noticeably tenser and darker. There is not just fun in simultaneity, for continual change brings with it the danger of free-wheeling. As Ad Reinhardt once commented on this problem, there is nothing more exhausting and immediately exhausted than endless variety.(5) It is probably for this reason that a new type of complexity is developing out of the means of painting in Rae’s work and in its loyalty to this medium, although there is no system any more, and in the 1990s the world of the self perhaps does not want to invent any complexes at all. The artist has been tackling this task for some months through further studies of sources and with a high degree of visual intelligence. These most recent pictures give us pause for thought about our communication in the future.
1 Cat. Freeze, curated by Damien Hirst, London 1988
2 Cat. British Art from 1930, London, Waddington Galleries 1991, p. 48
3 Werner Hofmann, “Spielkarten-Ästhetik”, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 23. November 1991, Nummer 272
4 Erwin Panofsky, “Die Perspektive als ‘symbolische Form’ ”, in: Fritz Saal (Ed.): Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg. Vorträge 1924–1925, Leipzig/Berlin 1925, S. 258–330
5 Art as Art. The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhard. Ed. by Barbara Rose, New York 1975, p. 55