1997 Sarah Kent text, ‘Fiona Rae, Gary Hume’ (exhibition catalogue), Saatchi Gallery, London

Fiona Rae

Sarah Kent

‘Painting is an intellectual pursuit, but I feel very emotional about it.’ Fiona Rae (1)


How can an archaic form like painting compete with photography, film and television or even with its own illustrious past? This is one of the questions that Fiona Rae addresses in her early work. The paintings are the visual equivalent of station hopping on the radio. As one turns the dial one hears snippets of pop, jazz and classical music and voices speaking in half-familiar foreign languages.

Three years ago after visiting her studio, I wrote: ‘on the table are catalogues on seminal figures in twentieth century art – Miro, Picasso, Guston, Klee, Dubuffet, Motherwell, Picabia, Basquiat, Cy Twombly – and books on an assortment of subjects: the Mexican Day of the Dead, Mickey Mouse, 3D alphabets, shorthand, Pinocchio, signs and symbols, Assyrian sculpture. This is source material, to be dipped into and plundered at will.’(2)

If you trawled diligently through, you might locate some of the sources, except that, by the time they reach her paintings, they have frequently undergone strange marriages and metamorphoses. Identifying elements is not the point; it’s enough to recognise that items culled from high and low art – Miro to Mickey Mouse, Kandinsky to Krazy Kat – are given equal billing.

Rae’s method of juxtaposing painted elements, allows her the freedom to radically modify her ingredients. She deals with the marks and signs that constitute an image, rather than with images per se; instead of retaining her source material intact, she lets loose her adopted elements in a war zone governed by its own logic, and sets in motion a fast-moving frenzy of interactive fragments.

In paintings like Untitled (one on brown) 1989 and Untitled (orange, green and black 2) 1991 simultaneity reigns. An amazing plethora of found marks and gestures are brought together to jive and shimmy, shout and sing, make love and wage war in a joyous cacophony of barely controlled chaos. Scribbles, dribbles, splurges, splats, dots, bursts, waves and tangles prance and cavort with the hectic energy of a cartoon. Rainbow brushmarks tangle with knots of colour, high-speed shapes skid across hard-edged pools, blots lurk and dawdle, drips descend, rain falls, ellipses float, ears flap, a hand gestures.

The collision of dissonant voices becomes anecdotal. Shapes behave like characters in a comic strip; they limber up, show off, run away, glide past, trip over or stop dead. Exclamations like ‘zap’, ‘splat’ and ‘crunch’ might accompany these high-voltage antics. Rae describes the process as ‘having an argument, a dialogue, in the painting. I tell myself a story about why things are there; a furry, bushy, feathery thing comes out from something which it doesn’t match. A crude, rough shape on the left balances an elegant, clean one on the right. Something spindly and weedy supports a shape that looks substantial.’

Occasionally an identifiable object – a pair of tongs, a table, a corkscrew, a piece of flex or an ironing board – anchors the action in reality; but if the elements are too specific, they define and fix the space around them, slow down the action and kill the ambiguity on which the story relies for its restless vitality.

‘The appeal of painting’, says Rae, ‘is that there is no solution. It always eludes you, you can’t solve it or quantify it. It’s a process with no possibility of arrival, a long and engaging attempt to conquer something unconquerable.’

In recent paintings the frenzy has mellowed, the dissonant voices have quietened down. Vehement assertions of independence have given way to edgy co-operation; the elements now seem willing to compromise their independence in order to arrive at a negotiated settlement. Confrontation gives way to merger; rape and pillage to mixing and inter-marriage.

‘It’s not necessary to spell things out so much’, says Rae. ‘You can take a few things as read; this is the arena, this is the dialogue. I’m still using a multiplicity of sources, but the paintings are less argumentative. The conflict – between high and low art, abstraction and figuration – is still there, but it’s not so evident and there’s less need to apologise about making a painting. I’m still trying to decide what’s valid, to investigate various ways of constructing meaning, but rather than using overt clashes of language, I’m making things more my own. If you accept things, something different happens; you move on.’

On the table is a Versace ad; it features a cluster of women, wearing black and white, leopard-skin patterned dresses, photographed by Richard Avedon to mimic an op art design. One of the issues explored in the new work is how to superimpose black and white elements on a black and white ground. In place of argument and confrontation, these sumptuous paintings employ the more subtle tactics of disruption, dissolution, fracture, melding and merger.

The name Untitled (T 1000) 1996 (NIC) refers to one of the terminators in the film ‘Terminator 2’ who is able to assume the substance of things around him so that he becomes visible only through movement. In Untitled (phaser) 1996 Rae again explores the notion of morphing – of things merging, blending and transmuting.

There are no figures in the painting. Black and white stippling, achieved by dabbing on paint with a cloth, reminds one of patterned formica designed, surely, to hasten the nineteenth nervous breakdown of housewives at their wit’s end with boredom and fatigue. If this were a frame from a film, it would represent the split second before the creature materialises, when solid surfaces have begun to shmmer, melt and tremble in expectation of his appearance.

And if a terminator were to burst forth, it would probably be from the bottom left hand corner where the mottled ground shows numerous signs of disruption. A mirky film clouds the surface and a brush has swept over leaving an arc, like the smear of a wiper blade across a windscreen. Planted above it is a salmon pink disc, like a burn made by a hot cup, but fierce and raw. A fringe of juicy paint bleeds downwards towards a puff of smoke; a black and white trail escapes a white cloud to streak across a purple disc and come to rest in the marbled pool at its centre.

The event could be cosmic (a comet on a collision course), microscopic (a sperm wriggling towards the nucleus of an egg), or domestic (the humdrum drama of a tabletop). There are no reference points, just the dappled decor and elegant mark-making. And this is where the pleasure lies – in the skids and dives, the dabs and dribbles, the loops and glides which nowadays, are enacted with the grace and ease of Torville and Dean and carry the same frisson of tawdry glamour as their performances.

The circumferences of three large circles have been drawn with the edge of a brush in stippled fringes of black and white. Like transparent overlays, they do not interfere with the territory they occupy but their presence indicates complex spatial relations – shifts in scale and in frames of reference. Unable to pin anything down in such uncertain terrain, one tends to home in on surface detail. Areas fracture, dissolve, melt or congeal; patterns merge, mutate and separate. Rae talks of subtlety, of camouflage, or revealing and concealing: ‘I’m attempting a greater assimilation of the forms, seeing how close things can come. How do you know whether something is a de Kooning brushstroke or a Corot cloud? It’s all the same matter. Painting digests and destroys itself and becomes something else, like a virus.’

Embedded in, floating on or hovering over the scene are a number of smaller circles. Coloured purple, pink, apricot, cream, olive and dark green, they remind one of 60’s Habitat furniture or Anthony Caro’s painted steel sculptures. ‘I’ve always liked purple,’ says Rae, ‘but I might choose a colour because I don’t like it; to question my taste. I’m investigating what taste means. I’m always amazed by what other people find ugly and beautiful. I try to decide the colours at the beginning, but there’s no scientific method, it’s a matter of improvisation. If I think they aren’t working, I might change them all halfway through. It’s important what the paintings look like. If they weren’t coherent, one wouldn’t give them the time of day.’

Before they are worked on, the dappled grounds resemble a mountain range seen from the air, but by the time the paintings are complete, Rae hopes to have thwarted our desire to identify things – to have scotched all references to the figure, portraiture, landscape and outer space. Circles tend to invite cosmic readings, but Rae keeps the work grounded by referring to the humdrum as well as to high art.

The name Untitled (parliament) 1996 brings to mind the House, a place of noisy debate and confrontation, and also the outlandish 70’s funk band whose music has an insistent rhythmical beat. Numerous small circles act as fixed points, as a means of locating or defining something; yet they are totally ambiguous. They hover, float, sink or swim – elements in a multi-layered microcosm arrived at through a restless process of change and improvisation in which things may be covered, reiterated and covered again. The discs could be moving or static, solid or empty, large or small, on the surface, distant or buried. They could be suns or smarties; targets, dots or saucers; records, planets, doughnuts or symbols. ‘Circles are incredibly versatile’, says Rae, ‘but I want them to be as characterful and as individual as marks. If things are vague or generalised it’s not good.’

Large circles first appeared in her work last year, as the main compositional elements in a series of frieze-like pictures. They spin through the space like propeller blades, ring their targets like telescopic sites or add colour and focus like a lens. Criss-crossed by traceries of whispy white cloud, traversed by vapour trails or eclipsed by mist and fog patches, they seem meteorological or airborne; like weather patterns seen from a cockpit or filmed by satellite – though actual conditions rarely get this complex or this gorgeous.

The space in Untitled (white, brown and orange) 1995 seems denser and more compact. Puddles of orange and apricot block the view and a series of overlapping circles defines the margins, top and bottom. Each has a solid disc at its core, reminiscent of the polarisation patterns seen under a spectrum microscope, which create an insistent, horizontal beat.

The three large circles of Untitled (white, orange and black) 1995 are like scoops of strawberry ice-cream splattered with double cream. The left hand circle is sliced in half vertically, as though it were spinning out of frame. One thinks of film, and of time translated into movement – the movement of the hand, the arm, the brush, the liquid paint. Trickles and trails, squiggles and feathery repetitions, dotted and meandering lines all suggest motion – vibration, slippage and spillage – as though the canvas or its component parts were on the move; tilting, rotating, sliding and shimmying. The configuration seems provisional – one of many options – and to have the seeds of change embedded within it.

‘There is no such thing as a complete moment in time,’ says Rae. ‘Things can’t exist in isolation; this is an editing culture. A statement is only recognised in relation to what come before and after it. One’s understanding is informed by where you are; so interpretation changes, it is open-ended.’

The colours, slurps and splatters may evoke drop-dead desserts like ice-cream sundaes and raspberry ripples, but the ghost of the Italian Futurist, Giacomo Balla haunts these pictures. In the brushed, brown striations of Untitled (white, brown and orange) I see the hairy, multiple legs of his scampering dog as well as the arcs and circles that spiral out their message of airborne energy in paintings like Celestial Orbits 1914.
‘Everything has echoes back in art history,’ says Rae. ‘Everyone is sampling. You can’t divorce yourself from your context. I think about the language with which I speak; but I try to make my paintings, not other people’s.’

If it weren’t for the smokey brown wafting diagonally down, Untitled (yellow with circles 1) 1996 might have the buoyancy and euphoria of a Severini. The blind faith he and other Futurists had in modern technology was soon to be shattered by the carnage of World War 1. Several major wars later, dwindling global resources and millennial anxiety make Armageddon seem nearer than nirvana.

What, then, is the source of the wonderful vitality in Fiona Rae’s paintings? Stuart Morgan has likened her to a juggler flirting with failure. ‘This is an art of virtuosity for its own sake’, he writes, ‘of bluff and double bluff.’(3) In Untitled (yellow with circles 1) Rae seems, literally, to be keeping too many balls in the air, as though she were testing her ability and nerve – discovering what level of aspiration is possible in the current climate. Painting becomes a demonstration of optimism rather than a reflection of it. ‘It’s like looking for problems that no one has ever had before and trying to solve them’, says German painter, Daniel Richter of Rae’s approach. ‘It means if you can solve that, then everything else on earth can be solved – that’s a kind of Utopia.’(4) ‘That’s why I think we are probably still Modernists’, says Rae. ‘Even if Modernism is kind of over with. In the sense that – it sounds so poetic and sad and out of date – you are trying to make something ideal.’(5)

At the beginning of the century, painters reflected the general mood of euphoria. As the century draws to a close, Fiona Rae tries to counter the creeping malaise. ‘My paintings are proposals’, she says. ‘I’m asking if there is something – idealism, optimism – that one can hang onto.’ But with their disrupted spaces and lack of visual coordinates her exotic free-floating compositions leave the  viewer up in the air. While enjoying the feast of baroque delights, not knowing whether one is presented with a solar eclipse or a coffee stain can be unnerving. But for those who feel lost, forced to find a way forward without the moral, religious or scientific convictions that assisted previous generations, her paintings offer a model of change and flux that is challenging and seductive, rather than frightening.

One remembers the baby who, in Eleanor Gibson’s experiment, refused to crawl over a sheet of glass suspended over a drop.(6) Rather than negotiate the danger, it played safe. But one needs courage as well as caution; the infant able to overcome its fears and find a way across, might achieve a quantum leap forward. The laboratory chasm was patterned with a chequerboard of black and white squares not unlike the shifting terrain of Untitled (phaser). Fiona Rae wrestles with fragments – a stroke chopped off in its prime, a circle mired in a congealed brushmark, a dribble that flows upwards, a pool that seeps through and spreads out – and risks chaos and dissolution.

‘Painting is an exciting project’, she says. ‘It’s problem solving, grappling with the language. I always feel I don’t know how to make the next painting and get terribly upset if I think it’s going to fail. If a painting hasn’t interested me it is usually a failure. It’s to do with the degree of interaction and engagement – how much it satisfies my intellectual curiosity and keeps me unsure of where it’s coming from. If you can’t solve a painting at first, sometimes it goes out on a limb and becomes really interesting and unpredictable.’

Witnessing the courage and commitment of the struggle is also an energising experience. In the stops and starts, the manic bursts and stagnant pools, the leaps and dawdles, the mergers and manoeuvres, one reads the story of a game played fast and furiously, with incredible relish; and won.

1 Unless otherwise stated, all comments by the artist were made in conversation with the author in preparation for this essay.

2 This and the following six paragraphs are modified extracts from my essay on Fiona Rae in Shark Infested Waters Philip Wilson 1994 pp76–79.

Stuart Morgan ‘Playing for Time’ in Fiona Rae Waddington Galleries 1991.

Daniel Richter in conversation with Fiona Rae in Fiona Rae Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin 1996 p24.

In conversation with Daniel Richter op cit p25.

6 Described by Richard Gregory in Eye and Brain World University Library 1967 pp188, 202.