2002 Simon Wallis text, ‘Fiona Rae’ (exhibition catalogue), Carré d’Art – Musée d’Art contemporain, Nîmes, France

Transitions: The work of Fiona Rae

Simon Wallis
Fiona Rae, has over the last fifteen years, been one of Britain’s most energetic and engaging exponents of painting. Her work demonstrates a rare willingness to take risks and uses a restless, acquisitive aesthetic that is not only deeply immersed in the history of painting, but also illustration, graphic design, fashion, music, films and comics, to name a few of Rae’s eclectic influences. Each body of work explores fully the possibilities of creating and combining imagery in response to the surrounding cultural environment and the emotional and intellectual issues of inner life. It’s an art sensitive to contemporary visual phenomena and our often contradictory desires and concerns.
Rae revels in the colour, texture and malleability of paint and her pictures both surprise and stimulate by avoiding the constraints of habit. She has developed a catalogue of bravura brush strokes, drips, daubs, sumptuous grounds and calligraphic marks to explore relationships and spaces into which we might mentally project ourselves. However, for all their emotive psychological energy, Rae’s paintings can also be coolly calculated in their underlying decentred construction, allowing fruitful dialogues between structure and disciplined improvisation. Temperamentally unsuited to taking the easy option, she offers a deeply personal experience of personal culture through intelligently questioning the possibilities of painting without unnecessary suspicion.
There is an inquisitive energy and freshness to Rae’s early paintings, influenced by artists such as Picasso, Dubuffet, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, among others. It exploits a cut and paste collage sensibility, developed near the beginning of the last century within Cubist painting. Cubism embodied a radically new way of viewing the world and helped break down references and signifiers, allowing the language of painting to become increasingly porous and dialogical. Cubist works made use of faux wood grain wallpaper, newspaper typography, adverts and corporate brands so that the daily world could infringe upon many of the previously grandiose and insular ambitions of fine art. These strategies both disrupted painterly composition and stitched it together in representing the new temporal flux of life and its complexities of personal perception: a project that Rae’s work has, in many ways, continued.
At this point in her career she makes use of an organic, insular form of abstraction, shifting between a highly controlled sense of organisation and a childlike exuberance comprising daubs, smears, scribbles, drips, blurs, meandering lines – and even the trace of finger painting in Untitled (yellow) 1990. This particular painting has a collection of disparate elements that gravitate from the top left hand corner, as if tentatively encroaching upon the picture. The tendrils protruding from a pink stump-like form create a narrative and anthropomorphic quality, side-stepping any hint of frosty formalism. The work from this period is playfully gestural, but nevertheless sets about the serious task of learning the vocabulary and boundaries of a personal and coherent visual language. In so doing, coagulations of various forms and marks nestle together, opening out onto expanses of flat grounds that provide some valuable breathing space for otherwise intense painterly exchanges.
Rae moves on in Untitled (pale green) 1990 – a bolder all-over composition – to use marks reminiscent of work by Philip Guston and Julian Schnabel, both of whom fused abstraction and figuration to remix traditions and genres. Untitled (pink and blue) 1990 presents a painterly world of improvised and planned forms fighting it out, while Untitled (yellow and black) 1991 jams up geometric blocks of colour against organic blobs and roughly coloured-in patches. Rae demonstrates an obvious affinity with paint, which she handles in a luxuriant, teasing manner, using lassoing lines and controlled effects made with a loaded paintbrush, which has come to be one of the most consistently pleasurable elements in her work.
Apart from the convenient formal description of dominant colours, the early works remain untitled. Perhaps this was to help keep things open and stall a headlong rush towards meaning. After all, these paintings were produced during a period when theory held a hypnotic grip over the work of many young artists, some of whom studied with Rae at Goldsmiths College in London. She has spoken of this time as being one where she had to ‘fight for the right to make a painting’ in a climate that was largely hostile to the practice unless carried out in a highly ironised or intellectually cool manner. Consequently, the refreshing open-endedness of this body of work contains a somewhat evasive attitude regarding its own identity and status, neatly sidestepping intellectual and formal purity and their attendant certainties. The paintings have an edgy, complex intimacy as discrete identities and connective relationships phase in and out of the picture.
The black and white paintings from the mid 1990s are composed claustrophobically and cluttered with discs of flat colour punctuating a seething visual static of black and white daubs and smears. They deftly overturn all the legendary ‘old school’ prohibitions in painting, by using black paint and myriad painting effects, which could almost be taken from an exhaustive catalogue of home decoration tips. These are frantic works bursting with a violent energy that assaults the eyes. The visual intensity of works such as Untitled (emergency room) 1996 with its panicked, packed, airless qualities, offers little space for manoeuvre and no point of direct entry. Nothing appears settled or relied upon: there is nowhere for the eye to rest and the viewer is forced into a channel-surfing mentality that flits over the surface trying to make connections while being seduced simultaneously by the near manic level of painterly activity. It’s as though we are watching the painting remake itself before our eyes through its avoidance of definitive resolution and embrace of life’s inexorable contingency. Tomb Raider 1997, a tight punchy painting, with coloured discs piercing out of the painting like giant pairs of cartoon eyes, encourages an exploration of its different sections via a map-like fascination for speedy linkage and overlapping forms. The gaming quality evoked in the title is apt because one of the pleasures of play is the safe venting of one’s desires, fantasies and fears with little immediate consequence: we always live to fight another day.
Untitled (parliament) 1996 is less formally structured with its discs floating over a choppy sea of visual static, reminiscent of the music sampling fad for scratched, dust covered vinyl records found in many tracks from the mid 1990s by acts such as DJ Shadow, Portishead and Massive Attack. This capturing of old-style authenticity through an aural reference is paralleled by Rae’s static, which evokes a time before 24-hour TV and total media saturation. Static becomes a form of nostalgia for the pre-digital age: a mutable shifting mass of after-hours indecision that can’t be tuned in. In these works, Rae breaks down all rules of good taste and composition to create her own world that is somehow disturbingly out of kilter but also deeply understandable. She gives herself permission to be confused and lost to a near intolerable degree within her work. There is little sign of avoidance or puritanical denial and her protean aesthetic succeeds by revelling in personal freedom while never letting it appear glib or easily won.
The black paintings from the late 1990s abandon the visual static and return once again to the use of open grounds with a range of marks and motifs deployed as if free-floating and potentially movable. These works have a harsher, regimented appearance in defining an intensely bleak space that evokes prison cells or laboratories, where the body may be isolated or broken down. Here, fragility and strength coexist uneasily; locked in together, they wrestle for pictorial dominance. The paintings are often unsettlingly sinister and make use of shallow space and drop shadows, akin to an animated film noir sequence with a strong sense of nocturnal narrative action. Many of the more organic passages of the paintings, such as those in Night Vision 1998, recall the visceral elements in Francis Bacon’s work, and are played off against geometric areas of flat colour. Rae’s black ground objectifies the marks she makes and creates a palpable airtight space. The sensual qualities of her loaded brushmarks – which are unpredictable in the final combination of oozing, molten colours they’ll leave behind on the canvas – are starkly highlighted within the painting like jewels on black velvet, so that they temporarily lift the sense of foreboding.
Rae proposes a form of organic-techno hybrid in these works, making them look screen-like and illuminated by removing the prohibitions surrounding the use of illusional depth – an issue with which abstract painting has often struggled. The paintings have a conflicted, nightmarish atmosphere where mental images stand out vividly in the middle of the night – the time when our boundaries are most fluid and the unconscious has free reign to both recombine and obscure meaning. They contain something that creeps and slithers insidiously, offering up a darker form of expressionism to be partially acknowledged. Smeared traces of light punctuate the work, implying a speedy escape or chase, a common narrative form for nightmares. The brushmarks look as though they have been caught like a rabbit in car headlights and are moving off for cover over the rectangular panels she has scattered on the picture plane.
The sci-fi feel of these works derives partly from the monochromatic grounds that evoke the void of outer space. Using a similar strategy to that of science fiction, Rae proposes a fantasist’s space in her work that can enable a new aesthetic to develop and painterly relationships to be tested free from gravity-bound rules. The familiar language of abstract painting becomes again extraordinary and prescient because of this free-flowing context. It allows the art historical purity of gestural abstraction to take on an unexpected narrative verve that is both structured and paced against geometric slabs of colour, ranging from lush to tastefully muted. These are paintings searching energetically for ways to overcome their own limitations and boundaries through an exploration of conflicted relationships that can’t, or won’t, be pinned down.
The use of a computer began to influence Rae’s work around the late 1990s and can be seen in her employment of seamless collage, juxtaposing very different elements – some flat and geometric, some still organically chaotic – into a hybridised situation. The look of some harder-edged pictorial elements is worked through via the computer, which gives a different, but not necessarily more predictable character to painterly improvisation and composition. Rae’s paintings begin to clear themselves out further in this series, as if she has in some way exorcised her painterly demons and come to love the seamlessness of the digital image. Claustrophobia and night terrors give way to luscious coloured grounds, clarity and openness. The space her work describes is sometimes shallow, at other times sublimely deep, and there is now a greater range of control in the work. The fonts are used as beautiful forms in themselves; broken free of their exclusively practical task of signifying, they become formal elements – along with airbrushed smoke screens and calligraphic flourishes – that help create a magical atmosphere of wistful altered consciousness.
The fonts and devices Rae uses are indicative of the energetic sense of design our highly mediated culture demands. Consequently, fonts are often radically altered to near illegibility; fashions change swiftly by recycling the past and looking to ever-wilder colour combinations in new fabrics; the internet uses graphics in unexpected ways in an era of branding where image is all, and technology mounts endless visual assaults as we are expected to become adept at assimilating greater amounts of information. Rae takes up the challenge, but with a less frenetic attitude than that displayed in her earlier work. Magic 2000 has a neon sensibility where fonts become both motifs and devices that can interconnect with her freehand tendril-like gestures. It’s as if the fonts assimilate the role of her earlier gestural brushmarks, smoothing off their rough edges and corralling their energy. These paintings contain as many revisions and false starts as her earlier pieces, which made a greater virtue of them, but now they are seamlessly disguised or adapted to present an effortless effect. They have the digital attribute of perfectibility about them, somehow always new and improving as aesthetic boundaries are challenged and intimate revelations are brought to bear on the work with less inhibition.
The push towards clarity in each body of work seems in some ways to be a question of confidence – allowing oneself to say less and become more self-contained. Maturity brings with it greater powers of decision-making based on experience, and Rae builds on what she has learned from her earlier work to recombine it with ever-widening influences that develop into a personal iconography. Her new experience is accounted for in paintings that comprise traces, mementoes, fluorescent distractions and glitter to beguiling effect as she continues to turn the unwritten rules of painterly good taste on their head by allowing in the ephemeral, the kitsch, the commercial, the frivolous and the childlike. She transforms these elements to explore contingent states of mind and rules of engagement.
Looking back over Rae’s paintings is a rewarding experience largely because she is an artist who has risked a great deal and not been afraid to reinvent her way of working. Her works are aesthetically gratifying because they embody rich seams of visual and emotional experience, offering up a paradigm of visual freedom through inventive questioning and acute self-awareness. The viewer is sucked into the fictions and fantasies of her paintings, which have wrestled with the problematics of accounting for necessarily ephemeral experience to engage with the present and our abiding fascination with the future. Her work encourages myriad influences and a faith in painting’s ability to contribute to the visual language of contemporary life and an adaptive understanding of the formal and unconscious forces in a work of art.