2000 Mark Francis interview, ‘fig-1’ (exhibition catalogue), London

Fiona Rae
Interview by Mark Francis
Fiona Rae’s paintings develop a tradition of abstract painting in a style that appears to be unrelated to other contemporary artists. She makes painterly marks and graphic signs with a virtuoso range of technical means on large, austerely coloured planes which have an indeterminate spatial depth. Her brushstrokes demonstrate a sensual pleasure in manipulating materials, while consciously abjuring expressive content, though these are vestiges of bodily forms transformed into other-worldly futuristic signs. 
Mark Francis: A characteristic of your work is the extremely varied use of different kinds of brush stroke or mark – from forms such as signs or mysterious graphic notations, which seem to be taken from the real world, to brush strokes that appear to have no other reference but to themselves. Is that something you have always made a feature of the paintings?
Fiona Rae: My earlier work was more self-consciously ironic – it was a strategy for making paintings in a hostile environment. I thought it was important to show that I was aware of the problems, but in the process give myself permission to make the paintings I wanted to make. I felt quite defiant. I think that since then things have shifted and calmed down – painting is no more in crisis than any other way of making art. I don’t think it’s particularly interesting to make paintings about the difficulty in making paintings anymore. So now it’s a ground-zero from which you can do what you want. And for me, I think that means that all the different kinds of marks and whatever I use are just part of my language, I’m reclaiming them as my own to make paintings in a more personal and direct way.
MF: Your mark-making has a linguistic basis. I mean, there are forms that are clearly derived from verbal or visual literary form itself – one work incorporates what could be a percentage mark…
FR: It is a percentage mark, although it also has a life apart from its percentage mark-ness – it’s not totally delineated by that function. I’m curious to see what happens if the painting language slips from something you understand in one way to something you understand in another way. I’ve been using contemporary fonts in the new work, with shadows or 3D type lighting effects. It seems exciting to introduce new elements, especially from outside the world of painting, whether spray paint or glitter or whatever. I would find it hard not to be influenced by what’s going on around me.
MF: So you have always been conscious that your paintings should be very much to do with modern life?
FR: Definitely. If everybody is messing around with Photoshop, then I want to as well. I think it’s important for the work to feel culturally up to date so that it’s visible. If you lose touch with the current cultural language, then I think you become more and more illegible, like a document that only historians can read. With this font, Fufanu, I like the way that it is almost unreadable even when used for its original purpose as text. That seems to be a contemporary trend and something we’re used to negotiating almost without noticing, like near-subliminal corporate logos or whatever.
MF: Do you see your work as being part of, or an extension of, any historical tradition?
FR: Well, I look longingly at traditions without really feeling part of them. I suppose I appropriate things as a way of inhabiting them. Sometimes I think I come out of a dark-night-of-terror Christian tradition of Romantic painting. Sometimes I choose Pop Art with its anything-goes cool.
MF: Your current paintings incorporate a multiplicity of images. The contents of your studio range from strange translucent plastic surfaces that glitter slightly and can go green or blue, depending on what kind of light hits them, to fairly consciously kitsch images, which come from exotic popular cultures.
FR: I wanted the new paintings to have a more personal feeling, almost a narrative of some kind. For them to be a representation of an imaginative place, something to do with my own frame of mind and thoughts at the time. Something a bit dramatic and high tech, like Tokyo street signs, or dreamy and romantic like a cover of those books you see in the fantasy section of bookshops with a wizard holding a crystal. Or obsessive and threatening – I’m also looking at Dürer’s woodcuts and Hieronymus Bosch. I see these paintings as a synthesis of those kinds of feelings. I look a lot at other things, not in order to quote them, but because I think that imagination and invention are more particular and effective when they’re directly informed by something. A vague generalised recollection isn’t that interesting, and as far as painting is concerned, it’s vital that the marks are specific and strike a clear attitude.