2002 Jean-Pierre Criqui text, ‘Fiona Rae’ (exhibition catalogue), Carré d’Art – Musée d’Art contemporain, Nîmes, France

Vermeer meets the Spice Girls

A Dialogue

Jean-Pierre Criqui
PART I. The scene is set in the sitting-room of an apartment in the 10th arrondissement of Paris.

Bruno. (Removing the stereo headset from his ears.) What is it that’s so funny?
Iris. It’s this idea I got from L’Anglais décrit dans le château fermé, of a crime that involves not stealing or destroying works of art but actually sneaking new ones into public collections. Mandiargues talks about “adding pictures to the Louvre or to the National Gallery”, “bringing some outrageous pieces into the solemn, dusty orderliness of our national museums”. Could be great fun, don’t you think?
Bruno. Yes, I suppose it could. It reminds me of a news item in the papers a few years back, this was in England too. This crook trying to sell his fake Giacomettis had contrived to slip into the Tate Gallery archives some documents which were also complete forgeries, and which attempted to authenticate the drawings in question. In the light of these excellent sources, the Tate had no choice but to go ahead and buy them. I don’t quite remember how it all ended, but anyway someone found out. It’s easy enough to look at this as being a variation on what you are telling me, as further proof of how reality always ends up more or less copying art. I find it amusing that you should come across a story like that in a book in which bringing in outrageous pieces, to use the words you’ve just quoted, does indeed play a major role.
Iris. Let’s stick to artistic topics for the moment, if you don’t mind.
Bruno. That’s all right by me. Especially because, when you think about it, this whole business pretty well sums up what a lot of artists have been trying to do for nearly two centuries, i.e. to get into the museums, let’s face it, some fairly unlikely collector’s items – their own works. Now you are going to tell me that this unlikely character, in the typological sense, is just one more of those time-worn, well-tried strategies for getting co-opted by a museum.
Iris. Oh, I don’t know that strategy has much to do with it. Given the extremely ambivalent view the best artists have very often taken of the museum institution, I’d say it was rather a matter of fate, perhaps even a quirk of history… In any case, the game of overstepping the ordinary functions or limits of the museum, as people used to say not so long ago, has always struck me as being just one of the many sides to the contemporary rhetoric. In many cases, and by no means the duller ones, it’s a notion that doesn’t give a very relevant angle on the matter. What works so well with Buren, to take an obvious example, doesn’t work nearly so well with Ryman. Having said that, you don’t need me to tell you that Buren is really into Ryman, which perhaps puts yet another spin on things.
Bruno. So much the better. It’s good to hear you say so right at the moment when I wanted to tell you about an artist I’m very keen to write a piece on.
Iris. Fiona Rae?
Bruno. Yes, I’ve shown you some of her catalogues and a few reproductions of her recent paintings, but we haven’t really had time to talk about them.
Iris. I can see we are going to have to talk about painting…
Bruno. There’s no way round that, seeing as she does nothing else but paint. I’m sure like everyone else she takes a photo now and then, and has maybe even thought of doing, or possibly actually done, things that weren’t paintings, but as far as I know, she has never exhibited any of them. A painting: canvas held taut over a stretcher and covered with oil or acrylic paints. For someone born in 1963, this makes her something of a one-off, at least among the artists of that generation whose works can be seen in museums.
Iris. But is that really so? What about all those figurative painters, and a pretty conservative bunch they are too, who are on show right this minute wherever you turn, whether or not they come under the Picabia banner. What do they do if not paintings?
Bruno. You’re right, which only goes to show that I don’t include Fiona Rae in that category at all. Nor does anyone else for that matter. We could spend all day talking about the so trite and rather depressing way people use the word “figurative”, if only because Fiona Rae – whose work is usually labelled “abstract painting”, another hasty oversimplification – happens to paint figures too. But the fact is that John Currin and herself are working on a different aesthetic or intellectual plane altogether, and don’t seem to share the same history or the same references.
Iris. I remember how complex those works of hers that you showed me were. Her images are extremely difficult even to begin to memorize. I wonder what the commentators make of them. If I were you, I’d start by trying to draw up a kind of glossary with the principles behind how the different items in it fit together, always supposing of course that you can actually put your finger on anything of the kind.
Bruno. I like that linguistic-cum-ethnographical metaphor; it has a nice field survey ring to it. It is also quite appropriate – talking about her early work, Fiona Rae actually stated that she had tried to construct a kind of alphabet. Even before she had her first solo exhibition, in 1990, she confirmed this intention with two large canvases of 1989, Untitled (nine on yellow 1) and Untitled (nine on green), each composed of nine blocks of paint contrasting with each other in various ways, rather like polychrome ideograms. It also makes you think of a musician working out a series of riffs or traits – the French word works well here; in English you would say licks, which also works well on a different level – which he puts back in at the right place when the time comes. But beware of ever taking what artists have to say at face value. The problem is that once you have distinguished a few major oppositions, a few fundamental differences that take on value in relation to each other, it becomes rather pointless to delve further into our impulse to organize. Take a look at this. (He opens a catalogue lying on a nearby table.) Here is a relatively straightforward picture, Untitled (black 1) of 1990. The uniform black ground from which stand out all the pictorial events, as we might call them – forms, touches, marks, figures (as I was saying), i.e. things that come to the surface – is a great help for reading the picture. There is this great archipelago in red flat tint in the top left-hand quarter which we can take as a starting point for our exploration. We find a tiny fragment of it to rhyme or echo it, in the bottom right, cut off by the horizontal edge under this kind of mostly bluish-green table or tray closing off the bottom right-hand corner. You cannot tell whether this happened by accident or design; the rest of the events appear to be constructed as a counterpoint around these two predominant areas – predominant in terms of their dimensions at least. At first glance, their articulation in fact relies on a system of differences: differences of size, colour, texture, effect, and it does so in the sense that this last term connotes all at once the numerous operating modes used by the artist and the resulting vast array of perceptions for the viewer. However, while we see certain similar principles at work from one painting to another, such as the play of contrast between the monochrome area and the multicoloured area, sharp contour and irregular contour, smooth surface and rough surface, static flat tint and more or less disguised trace of the tool’s passage, with the speed that this suggests, all the same no element is ever repeated identically and so there is really no stable, identifiable vocabulary.
Iris. Don’t worry, I wasn’t expecting you to come up with anything like a full rendering of these pictures, or even discover in them any precise permutational law or code. All the same, what you have just said is enough to get some idea of how they are thought out, and what combination or organization and opening they follow on from. What I mean is that there is clearly quite a bit of improvisation going on here, but based on a preset scheme, or rather a premonition of one. It’s very like jazz, really: you have the basic harmonics – but here the artist makes her own, she doesn’t expressly borrow any from an external repertoire, for she is a composer as well – the familiar grid of chords (I know you won’t be able to help stressing the importance of the notion of the grid in painting) and over variations for which you have to be as inventive and as unpredictable as you possibly can. I grant you that once you have said that, you are still a long way from having made a proper commentary, but at least it puts the work in a kind of heuristic framework, something like its working atmosphere. Also, I was again struck, listening to you describe this early picture, by the abrupt, almost reckless way she has of plunging head first into such complicated things. It’s rather as if Stella made a name for himself through what he was doing in the eighties or nineties. She really goes for it, and the devil take the hindmost.
Bruno. That’s true, and I really love this way of casting caution to the wind, this disdain for any kind of methodical, step-by-step construction. In any case, I feel it would be hard to imagine anyone following a career like Stella’s nowadays, in painting at any rate. The funny thing about Stella, and I shall always love him for it, is that with his black paintings, it was for all the world as if he were starting at the end, I mean the end of painting, and that he was giving it a first-class send-off. Quite the opposite as it turned out, and I have always felt this was a wonderful raspberry. To come back to Fiona Rae, her break-neck, tight-rope artist side is also what makes her paintings so exciting. You will observe just how much her works, especially the early works, flirt with disaster, both visually and formally. This I suppose is what gives them their infectious energy. And I agree, there is generally nothing like music – but not just jazz – to convey such urgency. (He starts up the cd player again. It plays Richard Thompson’s Cooksferry Queen and Bruno sings along with him, imitating his voice: “It’s a secret but no secret / It’s a rule but no rule…”)
Iris. My God! This certainly makes a change from Lachenmann or Bouzignac! But please turn the sound down a bit, and stop writhing about like that, you’d think you were going to have an epileptic fit or something. Wiggling the hips is not a particularly enlightening form of criticism, I would have you know, unless this is just your way of confirming the immortal words of Thelonious Monk, to the effect that writing about music was tantamount to dancing on architecture. You should really be telling me what Fiona Rae did next after those early paintings.
Bruno. Her work comes in a succession of distinct projects, in series if you will, though without putting too fine a point on the word. Some time after the mid-nineties, for instance, there was a so-called black-and-white series, one of the most astonishing in my view on account of its lavishness, to a fault even. In each painting, there are a number of coloured discs, mostly in two colours painted in a dead straight line, and which are inserted among a profusion of black and white marks which create a pretty exhausting kind of swarming disturbance of the surface. One of the most successful of these is Untitled (emergency room), dating from 1996, where the subtitle strikes me as being very important. Another from the same year is called Untitled (parliament). I don’t know whether we are supposed to see an allusion to some particularly stormy session in the House of Commons or to the crazy funk group led by George Clinton, because seeing some of these circular shapes does possibly bring to mind the old 33 rpm records. As for the overall appearance, it may be described as a mixture of kineticism gone berserk and of Hans Hofmann, on account of the push-and-pull effect of these discs. Most of all, one gets the impression of some geometrical composition that has partly melted away, with a few, hard, round bits left floating around in some unspeakablele gravy. It’s pretty pop, virtuoso stuff, quite breathtaking.
Iris. I guess there is virtually no end to the list of references and likenesses that can be piled up on paintings like this, and the critics have had a field day…
Bruno. Right, and why shouldn’t they? I myself am in no position to contradict you on that. In any case, that I feel is actually part of the challenge these works pose. In addition to the painters everyone keeps quoting, we could mention comic strips and cartoons: George Herriman, Walt Disney, Tex Avery, and plenty others. And, it goes without saying, the whole range of visual maladjustments that came along with television. On this point, Fiona Rae is no prude. At the time she was painting this black and white series, she admitted in an interview that she had no qualms about lifting whatever she needed from wherever she liked, whether it be Vermeer or a Spice Girls clip. It is not a matter of having to choose between them, the fun comes from having both. Can you imagine? Vermeer calling in on the Spice Girls… You do remember the Spice Girls, don’t you?
Iris. Unfortunately, yes. Pardon me for putting a damper on your fine youthful eagerness, but actually it was de Kooning I had in mind. Would he by any chance be a member of the gang of usual suspects?
Bruno. Needs checking out. What made you think of him?
Iris. His big bowl of soup. This was the image he used to define his relationship with art history: you put your hand in it and grope around for a bit until you find what you are looking for. Like in a stew. It strikes me that there is a bit of that in the offhand way Fiona Rae refers to the sources of her inspiration – unless she is visibly extending the boundaries of art to include areas her famous predecessor hadn’t even dreamed of. And that’s saying something… de Kooning was another one not put off by a certain kind of vulgarity. It was he who stated magnificently: “I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity.” From this standpoint his Women indeed could teach quite a few people, I mean works of art, a thing or two. And, while we are on with culinary metaphors, was there anyone better at “cooking” a picture, with subtle effects and devious sleight of hand? (She gets up and walks out of the room. Bruno puts another cd in the player. We hear Anita O’Day singing It Had To Be You.)
PART II. On the Eurostar, somewhere between London and Paris. Iris and Bruno are sitting side by side.
Iris. (Staring at the plastic and cellophane wrapping lying half-empty on the flap in front of her.) With food like that we’re not going to be wasting our time pigging ourselves… Well, how did your trip to Fiona Rae’s studio go?
Bruno. Highly instructive, definitely. She’s just finishing a canvas in a format that is unusual, not just for her but for anyone else as well: about ten metres long and one meter fifty high, Trans-Island Skyway. Very cinemascope, much more so even than the pictures she painted and put on show in 1995, and they were pretty wide. And I’m not just saying that because of the dimensions, but because I really felt the thing was being treated as if it was a screen. A screen with various shapes or signs appearing on the surface, against a dark ground, or preparing to disappear, often as if the screen had just come on or was about to go off. Over the last two or three years there have been quite a few letters and typographical signs in her pictures: here an ampersand, there the Fender brand ‘F’, and a lot of other elements that struck me as clearly belonging to the world of computing. When I say a screen, looking at the paintings at the studio just now, I was thinking as much of a computer screen as a cinema screen. In fact, if I’ve got this right, she actually used the Internet to download some of her character sets and various patterns of this kind.
Iris. If the photographs you have with you here are anything to go by, it strikes me that the ground is becoming more important now, as compared with the pictures we talked about earlier. The figures on it also appear to be more widely spaced, less intricate, more “in the air”. The fact that this ground is often black or at any rate dar, and that the elements on it or which seem to emanate from it are painted as though they were light sources, is a powerful way of dematerializing what is put before our eyes. As sometimes happens to space in a dream – but a disembodied kind of dream with no characters, rather like certain dreamlike landscapes by Tanguy for instance. And that is a comparison I would want to take further when I see how Fiona Rae uses relief to bring out a particular detail, how her light and shade, which as I think you will agree are pretty dramatic, are distributed. Are we maybe in the presence of a fresh resurgence of Surrealism?
Bruno. Perhaps rather of the influence of methods specific to a certain type of science-fiction, whether its medium be film, computer graphics or comic strips, Fiona Rae makes no mystery of it; you can tell just from looking at the iconography or the bits and pieces she has all around her in her studio. After calling on her, I went to Tate Modern to see a large painting of hers which is going to be hanging for a while in the café-restaurant on the top floor. The work is called Shadowland, it is of the same type and format as the one she is working on just now. This may sound childish to you, but I find you really want to get inside the picture and move around that impossible space, like a kind of Zelig of painting. Probably because of the title, it also reminded me of Flatland, a novel written by Edwin A.Abbott in around 1880 where the narrator is a square living in a strictly two-dimensional country. It’s a sort of geometrical Gulliver’s Travels if you can imagine that. In Flatland, everything takes place on this single plane, and so the inhabitants never get more than a partial view of themselves, all they see is their incomplete profile, which we are told makes them look like sharply defined shadows edged in light. Our square also takes a look at a few neighbouring countries: the one-dimensional Lineland; Pointland, which has no dimension at all; and of course the three-dimensional Spaceland. This is recommended reading for your topological imagination. Because, as you will have gathered, it has relevance to some of the problems of painting that we are interested in.
Iris. Ah, the problems of painting, I just love that phrase… Every time I hear it I can’t help thinking of Polke’s Lösungen. You know, those pictures that show arithmetical problems, sums with invariably the wrong answer, like 1 + 3 = 5. Having said that, I wholeheartedly agree: the notion of the problem – whether problem-solving or an insoluble problem – is one of the mainstays of art, especially since modernism came along. As I recall, there is already an analogy of this kind to be made with Constable, for whom a composition that works is like a correct sum that not even the tiniest digit can be added to or subtracted from. (Two men cross the central corridor of the compartment, one calling out excitedly to the other: “You remind me of the hero in a film, what was his name? Replay? Rippel? Ziplay? Anyway he is a very, very passive sort with no morals who ends up killing someone he wants to be like by throwing him overboard out at sea, a great film, one fine Technicolor morning, in blazing sunshine, he assumes his identity, terrific scene at the bank forging his signature, and then in the middle of it all these gratuitous close-ups at a fish market, it ends badly, I’ve stopped going to see films, I want happy endings.”)
Bruno. Don’t you think one of the implications of these pictures by Polke, the subtext if you will, might be that the artist is always a liar and that we should have done once and for all with this myth of sincerity?
Iris. A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
Bruno. You can say that again. That’s what I like about Fiona Rae: it sticks out a mile that she takes her work seriously, she is intensely devoted to what she is doing, every so often she will be looking for new targets and seeking to surprise herself. Yet at the same time, nowhere do you feel the slightest hint of an ego trip or any tedious claim to an identity. I mean there is nothing embarrassing, either for her or for us. This is a good quality that occasionally needs to be applauded, don’t you think? To come back to those problems that you were sarcastic about, there is a canvas of 2001 that I saw at her place Rodeo that gives us food for thought. It’s a remarkable painting, very light, on a white ground. Here and there on the surface she has glued these discs of white glitter, each casting an ultra-realistic shadow, and the result from a distance is rather like snowballs, or holes, depending on which way you look at them, as a positive or a negative. Among the other patterns there are three large coloured letters, a Q and two As. As in Question and Answer, if you allow me to interpret a little, only with two answers to a single question. Not what I should call a picture without a message.
Iris. (Closing the cinema programmes she has been browsing through.) We’re nearly there, bang on time too. How about our getting a move on and going and seeing Tati’s Playtime again?