1993 Emma Dexter text, ‘Fiona Rae’ (exhibition pamphlet), ICA, London

Rehearsing the Spontaneous

Emma Dexter
The history of painting in the past 150 years has been one of attack from outside, and strenuous development from within – from the arrival of photography in the 19th century, to the increasingly prevalent influence of conceptualism, spawned by Marcel Duchamp at the beginning of this century. These and other avant-gardist movements all contributed towards constructing painting as an outmoded, bourgeois or irrelevant activity. Easel painting fitted too easily into museums and the homes of the rich to be a tool for challenging established social and aesthetic order. On the other hand, painters themselves tested the bounds of the medium: in the USSR in the 1920s Malevich and Rodchenko reduced the medium to degree zero with black or white paintings, while in the 1950s Yves Klein in France and Jackson Pollock in the US explored the directly expressive potential of painting with their performative techniques, thereby changing forever the relationship between painting and representation.
Fiona Rae is conscious of the accumulated weight of painting’s history, the old argument that nothing new can be done. Yet she has found a way of synthesising a myriad of painting’s 20th century languages, creating her own edgy amalgam. The effect is one of eclecticism run riot: every wild and sumptuous colour, every conceivable form and means of paint application are employed. The paintings have a restless energy, unable to commit to one style or genre of abstraction, they present all: bold geometric blocks of colour, spindly drawings, brushes streaked with colour, drips and spills.
Rae’s paintings are about the profusion, excess and profligacy of late 20th century visual and material culture. The paintings seem to say “ How do I choose?”. The viewer gorges on the pure pleasure of paint, seduced by colour, texture and form. In this respect, Rae’s work has much in common with the influential abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann. Hofmann, like Rae, was a dedicated eclecticist, employing a wealth of conflicting languages and a gloriously profuse palette. The work of both artists appears spontaneous and immediate, yet there are frequently revisions and excisions; the more spontaneous the effect, the more likely to have been rehearsed. The painter moves across the canvas from one problem to another, turning an accident into good fortune, balancing between act and intention.
Rae combines a respect for the achievements of Picasso, Matisse, Dubuffet, Guston, Picabia, De Chirico, with popular influences such as Tintin, Krazy Kat, Little Nemo or 1920s graphic design. She relishes the diversity and invention of mundane objects: for instance the multiplicity of designs for the humble ironing board. But while Rae uses objects from the real world as a source, she is at pains to remove any figurative elements from the work, believing that there other ways of understanding or constructing the world than those of conventional representation. Occasionally a foot, or hand or bird becomes visible, but these are only obscurely present, like recognizing forms within clouds. Rae disrupts the picture plane, creating interwoven planes close to the surface, which force the viewer to abandon any notions of conventional fictive space. Through her use of the vocabulary of abstract art, Rae’s work raises complex issues of authenticity, as certain passages become themselves representations of paint, or the history of painting. This is a post-modern, knowing element in the work, constructed as a response to a crisis of originality. Rae however, has avoided the trap of cynical appropriation: she has succeeded in investing the medium with renewed energy and pleasure, engendering a sense of joy.