Upon a painted ocean
Strangely, for something as arcane as Modern painting, ignorance has always seemed to be important. We’re meant to bring our eyes and our good taste to a work of art and nothing more; never read too much into a picture, never be too literal, just enjoy the optical buzz. The achievement of Fiona Rae’s pictures has been, in a sense, to push that ignorance further than it’s meant to go; to put away all prior knowledge of the conventions of form and handling in a painting, to import all motive possibilities onto the surface, and to let them despoil themselves in any pleasurable way they see fit. Rae knows that since the unravelling of the tradition of Modern painting, the conventions no longer apply – to play ignorant is merely to be wise fool.
Her painting has gone through a great many transformations in the past fifteen years; she has never been content to let it be still. Her pictures have developed a kind of continuity, a kind of style, and yet nothing has ever seemed to properly belong to them. The circles of colour, the candy-coloured saw-blades, that appear in some of the Swag pictures, belong more to graphic design than to painting, and even then it is impossible to place their origins. The elegant, bulbous graphic that appears in the top right and the ‘b’ that appears at the bottom – they are of the same order. But similarly foreign are more abstract effects such as the somersaulting stroke of purple that bends through the centre of Angel Pop & Cute, and the thick clouds of reddish-brown that block out the surface in Smile is best make-up. Rae uses traditional means to fabricate devices that are not traditional to painting; when she lays them down they are, as one writer has aptly put it, like guitar riffs, or licks – ready-made displays of virtuosity.
For a long time Rae has buried her content very deep in the play of formal devices, rarely letting much peep through, but in recent years she has allowed aspects of her biography to appear in her pictures – and she seems no more certain of that than she is about painting. She was born in Hong Kong, but left at an early age. Anyone with a brief, truncated experience of upbringing in a foreign country comes away with strange memories; memories that seem both somehow foundational and yet are also a veneer, simply a product of the accidents of birth. But the Orient is a special, historic puzzle for the West: on the one hand it is a place that we no doubt continue to mystify and exoticise no matter how much we share with it; on the other hand it is a place that mixes technology and culture in ways that seem unfathomable. It is a commonplace of emigrants to Japan that it takes a few awkward months to find one’s way; once you do, it’s pleasant, but it isn’t long before you start to feel really, really lost – it’s only then that you’re close to getting to know the place.
Rae began to address the Orient in a series of pictures around 2000, but she did so only tentatively. Siniform characters began to be used – though much more as pictorial architecture than as language. They seemed hot and dusty pictures; glimmering with electronic lights and lit up in places with flares. As time went on she began to settle on a discrete number of symbols, often letters borrowed from elaborate fonts, which seemed to float freely through the images. And then in her Hong Kong Garden series the picture space became rich and busy with collisions of different graphic devices and painterly flourishes.
Swag pursues that same terrain but does so in a new way. For one thing, the sorts of motifs that used to drift through her pictures have now hardened into templates over which other motifs and devices are at play. But more importantly, the whole game seems to have changed with the arrival of tiny animated figures – dogs, deer, dragons, wizards, tropical fish. Unlike many American Pop artists, Rae has always been shy of using familiar, readable elements in her work, and so it’s strange to see her images populated by completed figures. They began, as many of her hard-edged motifs do, partly as solutions to the formal problems of painting; ways of handling colour, balance, line and so forth. But the result has been to introduce a sense of animated personality; and to have these figures wandering about – to have deer sitting on a plume of painterly cloud, or fish travelling through some cavern of dark colour – is to make the fizzing activity of her pictures specific in a way they never quite seemed to be before. Where before the random activities, alchemical changes and commotions went without comment, now some vestige of personality seems to point at them.
Rae found these cartoon decals whilst on a recent visit to Japan, and was so entranced with them that she returned home with a sack full of little sticker cards and books and toys – her Swag. They are fragments of what you might call the culture of cute: Kawaii! the Japanese say when they see one of the doe-eyed little dogs, or cats, or hamsters, or frankly unnameable creations which decorate every- thing from mobile phones to bank statements in the country – Cute! Since the 1970s anime has become the spearhead of a strange cult of sentiment in Japan; one that has captured both the imaginations of the children it appears to be aimed at, as well those of corporate hard-heads. Its soft edges and squeaky appeals evoke lost childhood and soften the pressures of work and conformity. And among some men, the barely veiled eroticisation of young girls feeds a Lolita complex.
Just as in Western cartoons, Japanese anime has a vast host of subsidiary characters and fictions surrounding the central characters in a series. But in Japan there are so many series – from those in Manga comics to those on prime time television – that the numbers of these little fictions is so great as to seem like fish among shoals in an ocean. It’s a trawler full of these unidentifiables that Rae has netted on her travels to Japan, and which have found their way into her pictures. And here they float deracinated; removed from the tales that first gave them life and the culture that comprehended them; just squibs of personality and sentiment. The titles of the pictures are the same: drawn from the mottoes and slogans that surround Japanese anime, and that themselves draw on ill-understood Western phrases, Rae brings them back to the West where they came from, and now they hardly make sense.
It’s unsurprising that signs of life should turn up in Rae’s paintings in this way, since she has always conceived of her picture surfaces as being thoroughly, almost autonomously, violently alive. Fifteen years ago her imagery was fleshier, and her style owed more to Abstract Expressionism than to the Pop which seems to be her chief influence today, but the conception of the work is the same, and it’s one that places her close to other artists who have had recourse to caricature or cartoon imagery. Her earlier work seems reminiscent of Philip Guston and particularly, in the aggression of the scenes, Carroll Dunham: the imagery is at war with itself and each new contortion suggests another stage of expansive battle. In the new work as well, everything seems volatile and subject to change. The difference is that if before the vitality was conceived in biomorphic terms – a fantasy of growing, dying and ever regenerating flesh – today it is digimorphic – a fascination with the ceaselessly inventive productivity of digitally aided culture. But Rae’s pictures remain paintings, hence the Swag pictures often seem to be preoccupied with the clash of hard-edged, highly designed forms with the messier, less-predetermined strokes and gestures of traditional painting. There is much, for instance, that is finely delineated in Smile is best make-up, but there are also the vigorous, roseate, blue-spattered passages that could only come from Modernist painting. And each is positioned and layered in Rae’s distinctive way – there is no foreground, no background, just a series of endlessly opening and closing vistas on who knows what.
If, in recent times, Rae’s pictures have gained any kind of certainty about their location, about what is proper to their style and subjects, it comes from edging toward something like the ocean deep or outer space. Her pictures used to show earthy and grounded battles, but after passing through the dry heat of the black series of the late 1990s, with their geometric backdrops suggestive of chip boards and digital components, they have moved into a place where it seems logical for all sorts of lost objects and chemical reactions to float about and burst off. Hence the occasional feeling of star-studded heavens in the Swag series – even when the backdrop is a warm, bright cream, her motifs seem to float as if in a landscape. It’s a place for her work to settle for a while and work itself out, but I doubt it will stay there for long.