2003 Jennifer Higgie text, ‘Fiona Rae: Hong Kong Garden’ (exhibition catalogue), Timothy Taylor Gallery, London
not fact, magic
Amidst the chaos and irritation of the recent power cuts in Northern America, an amazing thing happened: the eyes of New Yorkers turned to the night sky. (‘We hardly ever see the moon any more, so no wonder it’s so beautiful when we look up suddenly and there it is gliding broken-faced over the bridges … ‘ wrote Frank O’Hara 40 or so years ago in his homage to Avenue A.) The next day the papers were full of it. ‘You could see the stars!’ people exclaimed. Most nights in big cities the sky is a shabby canopy, a faded, not-quite-dark thing, like a thin tarpaulin, and here it was leaping into the limelight like a glittering diva. Punctured with burning points of light, hallucinogenic planets and the glorious stain of the milky way, this was an accident that allowed a glimpse of infinity. I wasn’t there but I loved the idea of it; millions of people gazing heavenwards to see for the first time what had been there all along, but hadn’t made an appearance because the conditions weren’t right. When I read about it, it reminded me of how painting evolves.
Despite evidence to the contrary it’s impossible not to feel that the act of revelation – be it in an art work, an accident or a natural disaster – emanates a magical, not a factual quality. One of the great pleasures of making or looking at art must surely be that even the most meticulously laid plans and the best editing will result in something new. (How can you predict something that has never existed? Every painting is a new painting.) This is the anxiety of picture-making; of never being able to fully anticipate what it is you are creating. The world is full to overflowing, yet despite the fact that the languages we employ to describe and explain it can feel spent, new interactions between colour, shape, the imagination, and myriad surfaces occur every day; reinventions of the physical world that often have no verbal or written parallel (perhaps because images are less immediately dependent on justification than other modes of communication). The world is ripe for rearrangement. This could only be cause for celebration, despite the exhaustion.
Fiona Rae’s recent paintings embody this mix of depletion and possibility; they’re confusing and complicated and yet full of hope; not only about the ways in which language might be re-ordered and reanimated but about the accelerating co-existence of different languages, and their expressive possibilities. Perspective shifts from painting to painting – one moment it’s as if you’re floating above a landscape or hurtling through space, and then suddenly you hit a wall, reminded of the flatness of the picture plane. Dustclouds of bright spray paint explode beneath stencilled letters, raindrops or the aftermath of fireworks; these paintings are like a storm you weren’t expecting on a sunny day. Sometimes her paintings recall pockets of space where junk accumulates; constellations piled in translucent layers defaced with muddled inter-galactic ramblings; thirsty scrawls built from starbursts, rainbow smudges, random combinations of letters and patterns flowering into toxic celebrations of a machine you couldn’t recognize. At other times they hurtle earthwards and recall faded fragments of a comic book floating in a puddle, or a snatch of a song heard seeping from the headphones of someone on a bus, or the incoherent graffiti still visible on the remnants of a demolished building. Sometimes they dive even deeper, beneath the sea, (Earth’s version of outer space) – if you look hard enough you might spot a giant jellyfish or a nervous squid. The colours are often high-pitched but occasionally racked with shyness. Pinks, purples and browns jostle for attention alongside, say, acid yellow foliage or swathes of fake peach; keep looking and something else will reveal itself. Rae mixes her media to great effect; details rendered in luminescent oil hover on acrylic grounds as dry as a river bed in a drought.
Time is slippery here. References to other centuries and other languages (Pop, the 1980s, the 17th century…) punctuate areas which, in their self-containment and invention, delight in the here-and-now. Sometimes her paintings look as if she was thinking about Punk or Science Fiction, and then abruptly remembered Dürer’s woodcuts, which in turn triggered a memory about the cartoon Roadrunner. None of this, however, is literal or even very descriptive. Objects and ideas, references and quotes in these paintings take a while to dawn on you. Despite their appearance of breezy clarity, these are slow paintings; slow to make, and slow to really see.
Many of these canvases bear signs of a struggle, but on the whole what is visible is the aftermath. Things have calmed down; there is a direction here that could not be prescribed but which you can sense hovering behind the scenes. Nothing, despite the intimations of confusion, is out of place, but how such order was arrived at is mysterious. Smashed up words, stencils, hard-edged designs which look like barely legible logos which you faintly remember but cannot recognize; weird shapes which initially look spontaneous but on closer scrutiny are as lovingly worked as a tapestry. There is a visible shudder between assertion and ambiguity; one that accommodates abrupt mood swings. Sometimes, however, despite their hyperactivity, Rae allows her paintings to be as vague as an early morning. This is as it should be. There is nothing worse than a bossy painting or one that allows you to predict its every move. (What would be the point?)
Hong Kong Garden: the song. The apotheosis of post-Punk: Siouxsie Sioux, black eyed, white-faced, glamorous; like a Cabaret singer from another planet. Unsmiling, as ferocious as someone cornered, singing those strange lines with her melodic, guttural wail: ‘Harmful elements in the air, symbols clashing everywhere …’. The Hong Kong painted by Sioux is a grim place; a melee of scattershot signs and cliché – the selling of daughters for sex, the pollution, the takeaway food, a place though, where amidst the grim disorientation ‘you enter an unleashing scent of wild jasmine’. The song, on paper, is slight; when sung, it is urgent and evasive. As with every piece of music – and painting – its meaning lies not in its parts but in the sum of them.
Hong Kong Garden: the place. I’ve never been there but I feel as if I have; I’ve seen it in movies and on the news; I’ve eaten in Chinese restaurants. I assume the gardens are vivid, humid places which smell sweet at night, and faintly rotting by day; full of spiders and creeping vines and flowers too real to be real. I imagine the heat encouraging a kind of death; these are gardens which grow too fast, where plants race for the sky only to wilt in the heat. Of course, all of this is simply an idea – intuition over intellect. (I repeat, I haven’t been there. Where do images come from?) My idea of a Hong Kong Garden has about as much bearing on an actual city, garden – or song – as my idea of outer space.
Hong Kong Garden: the paintings. They are built from determinedly artificial colours; unnatural hues appropriate to the idea of a place you feel you know, but know you don’t. (You’ve never been there.) This is the uneasy alliance between the person looking at a painting, the person who made the painting, and the subject of the painting. They will never reach a consensus about what it’s all for or what it is about. This is the beauty of looking at a picture. The possible permutations of meaning are as infinite as the night sky and if you stop arguing about the details, the picture itself and what it might become can only get bigger.
Hong Kong Garden: the artist. Rae was born in Hong Kong but her memories of living there are vague. These are not biographical paintings, but elements of every painter’s biography seep into the pigment they employ and the images they conjure. Here, the garden is a place that is very real and yet fictitious; a place where weeds can flourish alongside flowers and birds. Paintings are suspiciously like gardens – often been built on the ruins of something which, for various reasons, may have been destroyed.
Rae’s Hong Kong Garden is a place where abstract battles have been fought with something very real (the visual landscape) and yet justified in an unusual way; simply by seeing what can be got away with – not unlike Samuel Beckett’s idea of failing, but failing better.) Her Hong Kong Garden is a place where a song will mingle with a memory and where an image has a complicated, precarious – and heartfelt – provenance. There is an intense delight in, and curiosity about, the chaos that constitutes the infinitely layered act of looking, and of understanding what it is we are looking at. Rae allows her paintings to free associate with not only the language that gave birth to images – but the language which helps illuminate our passage through the world.