1994 Emma Dexter text, ‘Fiona Rae’ (exhibition catalogue), John Good Gallery, New York

Fiona Rae
Emma Dexter

Fiona Rae uses both abstract and descriptive languages to create a site of energetic profusion, confusion and controlled explosions, symptomatic of the cartoons she collects. Recently Rae has tempered the hectic pace with more regulated compositions, suggesting consideration of the dimensions of the canvas and its inherently claustrophobic qualities. Large blocks of colour invade the frontal plane of the painting, problematizing the search of the viewer for a fixed point, or any conventional fictive space. Are the kidney shapes in the centre of Untitled (blue triptych) 1993, apertures or solids? And why, in the left hand panel, is there an orange square highlighting an area of thinly disguised amendments?

The paintings of Fiona Rae lay out on canvas the chief contradictions and polemics of the post-modern condition of painting. The dynamic push and pull of Rae’s work, its assured hesitancy, its rehearsed spontaneity suggest an oxymoronic tension at the core. Rae has sometimes been described as a cynical appropriationist who, having digested post-modern theory on the death of the author, has constructed her painting as an illustration of the impossibility of unmediated, pure expression. The anxiety that this interpretation reveals may derive in part from the fact that the suggested sources do not have their origin in the mediated or constructed images of advertising or photography, but in the painterly productions of great twentieth-century painters: Picasso, Matisse, Guston, Picabia, to name a few. High art is not being taken seriously. But no one has been offended or enraged by Rae’s other image banks: Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, Tintin or Fruit Crate Art. The forces demanding that painting remain the last bastion of the expression of the human soul see nothing but emptiness in Rae’s work, because she has dared to question the notion of originality. Yet this critique fails to acknowledge the sheer pleasure that Rae creates through the handling of paint, the seductions of colour and rhythm, and the playful, formal inventiveness of her work. By stressing the question of influence, the implication is that she is merely a skilful copyist and collagist. Indeed, this is in fact a misinterpretation of Rae’s working method, one which downplays the remarkable synthesis of myriad images and sources, that has its own voice and signature. It also oversimplifies the question of influence which is a central tenet of traditional art history – Rae has simply collapsed evolutionary processes into one simultaneous moment. But art history has little problem with influence until the arrival of modernism and the myth of the avant-garde: when Van Dyck exploits the legacy of Rubens it is viewed as a legitimate aspect of practice, when a contemporary artist acknowledges the inevitability of quotation, they are pilloried for cynicism. The myth of the avant-garde proposes a discontinuity with history, Picasso’s influences are “allowed” because they are deemed to be primitive and therefore of secondary importance – leaving his reputation as genius intact.
Rae also draws upon sources derived from the everyday, though characteristically this is not often achieved directly; Rae has pages torn from shopping catalogues pinned to the wall, acting as helpful reminders of the bewildering proliferation and diversity of consumer products. Rae is fascinated by the multiplicity of designs for ironing boards and clothes racks, genuinely enjoying them like an eighteenth-century botanist admiring a flower.

“Deep down, painting is complete idiocy.”(1) Gerhard Richter’s remark invites a reading of painting as a set of outmoded, discredited aesthetic conventions. Yet its very absurdity and pointlessness provides the reason for its continuation. Rae’s refusal to create any depth of field (there is no way out), the crowding of the surface with a profusion of painterly gestures, and the almost embarrassing energy and desire to please with which these elements perform for us, suggests a kind of desperation, a horror vacui. Indeed, as in Richter’s oeuvre,(2) Rae consistently avoids the revelation of the unprimed canvas, the ultimate sign of painting’s power but also of its lack. Painting by necessity has to be about itself, for however descriptive it is, it is always itself. In Las Meninas, Velazquez holds his thickly loaded brush in a hand that is more like a claw, and which is apparently fused to the instrument and the paint, becoming one and the same. The painter depicts himself as paint with paint. Rae creates paintings that could be seen as representations of abstract paintings, the very profusion of marks she offers laying bare the transparency of the medium’s artifice. Like a Lichtenstein depiction of a brushstroke, painting has become its own original, rather than referring to an ideal.(3)

Embarrassment is a key emotion in relation to Rae. Stuart Morgan has pointed out the delicious embarrassment felt by the audience as it watches a juggler feign loss of control, and likened it to those moments in Rae’s painting where she deliberately courts failure.(4) In Untitled (purple and brown) 1994, Rae, in a most Hofmannesque mode, creates moments of delightful squeamishness as fluffy mauve blobs, like pom-poms, peep out from behind important looking rectangles. The seventies airport colours, purple, mauve, beige and sky blue, increase the desire to titter. Rae sets up the serious colours and serious shapes like the straight men of a comic double act – embarrassing feathery bits, doodles, little crosses like children’s kisses, or lines hastily scrubbed out all add to the unease, the anxiety in the audience/viewer that Rae does not know what she is doing. The tip of a white rounded phallus at a suitably tilted angle is surrounded by some disquietingly pubic pencil scribbles, reminiscent of rude children’s drawings. At the same time as displaying this controlled ineptitude, Untitled (purple and brown) is one of Rae’s most formally assured works. Embarrassment also springs from looking a fool, from being the only one who turns up in fancy dress, an emotion Rae finds expressed in the absurd old men found in late Picasso. In Untitled (blue triptych) 1993, a large black shape dominates the right hand section, its portentous aspect undercut by the barely perceptible impasto pattern that covers it and renders it, all of a sudden, silly. There is a sense in which Rae’s figures and gestures perform for us, like clowns in the circus ring desperate for approval and attention. Rae gently mocks her own enterprise, a realistic position to take, given the idiocy of the activity.

Despite or because of her wit and modesty, Rae succeeds in tackling some of the dilemmas of painting, acknowledging the end of its grand progression, yet synthesising this ironic position with formal dexterity, virtuoso actions, and colouristic boldness. Rae’s work combines the knowing qualities of post-modernism with a love for the plastic and formal dynamics of painting. Rae chooses not to turn the painter’s acts into those of a machine: the paintings manifest the primal and excremental pleasures of playing with paint.

1 Quoted in Three impromptus on the art of Gerhard Richter, Jean-Pierre Criqui, Parkett, No.35, 1993
2 Ibid.

3 Hal Foster, “The Expressive Fallacy”, in Recodings, Bay Press, 1985, p.63

4 Stuart Morgan, “Playing for Time” in Fiona Rae, Waddington Galleries, 1991