1991 Stuart Morgan text, ‘Fiona Rae’ (exhibition catalogue), Waddington Galleries, London

Playing For Time

Stuart Morgan
Jugglers are proud of their deliberate mistakes, those moments when they pretend that everything has gone wrong and that running alterations have to be made to put them right again. Meanwhile, their audience is intent on two things at once. The structure the act can have been expected to take has been established. Now, the greater the delay before that structure is resumed, the more exquisite the audience’s pleasure will be. Meanwhile, the performer maintains the pretence of digression – not a complete pretence and not a complete digression – until the last, when everything comes out right, as in any comic plot. This is an art of virtuosity for its own sake, of bluff and double bluff – how improvised is improvisation? – but most of all, of barely controlled embarrassment. That flirtation with failure, that longed for moment when it is impossible to foresee a happy outcome, the willingness to tolerate that moment and even relish it, say a lot about our capacity for self-torture, our need to make ourselves suffer by putting things off. All artistic structures of this kind depend on a sort of masochism. We could be talking about jazz solos or Shakespearean clowns. The principle remains the same: of virtuoso procrastination.
In Fiona Rae’s Untitled (purple and yellow 1) an airborne coffin, an atomic cloud, a plane crash, two ink-blots, a beached whale and a tree with a breaking branch meet and mingle. That is one way of describing it. It does not account for the ownerless breasts, the Hebrew letter, the cock’s comb and the badly frayed item of male underwear on a flying visit from some parallel universe. But once more something is wrong. Glib journalese will do no more than provide nicknames for component parts of a work that is studiously non-representational, in which forms are never allowed to exist as more than paint-marks, each with its own associations. For they have not appeared out of thin air. The painting adapts part of Georg Baselitz’s The Tree (1966), superimposes a Gerhard Richter skid over the trunk and below it adds a pair of black hands from Max Ernst’s Loplop Introduces (1932), while the purple square – Rae has talked about choosing colours of 70s airport lounges – recalls the small square tableaux with which Winsor McCay concluded his Little Nemo comic strips. Beneath of these heterogenous borrowings lies a logic of its own: a logic which could be read as a statement of intent.
The only way painters can depict breakage is by a kind of graphic shorthand. Rae heightens the effect of unreality this creates by situating the cracking branch beyond the edge of her painting. Another impossibility on canvas is to portray an accident; every move is rendered deliberate, illustrational, simply by the artist’s decision to preserve it. Both the Richteresque stroke and the Ernst “blots” parody the use of the consciously slipshod by doubling as realism and suddenly starting and stopping. But why? Conventions in art develop from deficiencies in the medium, it could be argued. Rae finds loopholes in painting and subjects them to playful interrogation. And, of course, the greatest convention of all is the status of a painting itself, and its potential for suspending disbelief within a fixed area of stretched canvas. Doubling as mannered geometry, Rae’s homage to Winsor McCay deals with this problem while providing an apologia for Rae’s own aesthetic. In the final “frame” of McCay’s geometrically organised strips the same thing always happens. Nemo, the boy who in dreams can move anywhere and see anything, is roused every morning by parents whose role is to bring him down to earth. Rae’s predilection for the Nemo strips could be explained by their no-nonsense approach, paralleled in her own case by her insistence on the here-and-now, the fact that painting remains painting no matter how hallucinatory or compulsive its effect. And reality remains reality. Her work has nothing of the solipsism of David Salle, the major influence on artists of her generation, nor does it share the feeling that his paintings exude, of an emptiness at the heart of things. Despite an obvious attraction to all the mental truancies involved in “reading” painting, Rae returns her viewers to solid ground.
Can abstract painting continue? Rae’s contribution to the debate is less eccentric than it seems. Constructed by some principle of hectic serendipity, her paintings pose as sad, silly confections: nervy, unfocused, wavering between quiet dawdles and bouts of hectic proliferation. Each one has its own private awkwardnesses, its signs of compositional problems solved at the last minute, with a limp cascade of flowers or a bout of arty, left-handed charcoal drawing. Like a dancer who begins with the wrong foot, Rae is bound to find herself in trouble sooner or later, but the thrill of the panic this generates, the feeling of suddenly moving into overdrive, means a sudden rush to the head as problems are located and solved without premeditation. The hint of cultural leavening, even of stocktaking, is there in its galumphing way, without any of the squeaky-clean sophomore mentality of post-modernist art theory. Faced with the problem of how to go on, Rae simply ploughs ahead. Treat this as pig dumbness if you will. The choice is yours. But don’t forget that the elaborately witty play on problems of intention and accident; the doleful suggestion of letting things go to rack and ruin before trying to pull them into some shape; the perpetual straw-clutching, are all part of the act. If Rae can just bring it off and keep bringing it off, the problems may right themselves. Playing for time means making time after all.