Look! Spray! Dash!
On Fiona Rae’s Most Recent Paintings
It is a painting that gives you goose bumps, slowly. Starting on your neck, then moving over your shoulders and down to your wrists. It is a work that is as monumental as it is delicate, extremely beautiful and at the same time disturbing; it captivates by its great painting and by a conglomeration of signs that is far more than pure painting. A wide assortment of shades of blue organises a rugged ground – sometimes poured on, sometimes glazed, with big pancakes of paint in the centre. From the lower edge of the painting, black spores and sprouts germinate, floating like garlands through the space; here and there they collide with little square forms that bring to mind a defective picture file. A bright wand of light unleashes salmon-pink smoke, while on the other end of the wand a drawing of a butterfly balances. Isolated fish in brilliant glitter paints drift past, unimpressed by the force of a sudden explosion of colour in the middle ground. Tiny amoebas or chromosomes take flight on the upper edge of the painting, somewhat shocked by this unseemly portion of painting that Fiona Rae imposes on them. Look at the Wave Spray Dashed over the Coastline cries the work’s onomatopoetic title – and they are gone.
The work Panda Bridge is similarly delicate in tone, and the confrontation of its painterly and formal elements no less shocking. Glazed colour fields follow a eurhythmic movement on the lower edge of the painting, establishing a lower horizon line above which three cloudy forms move past. White dabs of paint on a blue ground suggest a starry sky in bright daylight, but it barely makes it past the centre of the painting. Instead, an immense dark violet colour plane descends into the painting from above, its ends ossified into glittering stalactites. Stencilled hearts and two droll bears try to provide something cheerful to counter this threatening shape.
These two paintings belong to Fiona Rae’s most recent body of work, and they are, as was noted, captivating and disturbing at the same time. That is not really anything new, as Rae’s painting was never content with a mediocre consensus. Rather, it has always flirted with the charm of the irreconcilable or the stigma of the contradictory. When I first encountered her abstract paintings in the early 1990s, I was at first profoundly vexed by their powerful energy, which spread over large-format canvases without fizzling out at a single point. The London artist managed that feat using a painterly abstraction that asserted itself between the powerful poles of history and contemporaneity with self-confidence and anti- cyclicality in equal measure. Rae’s painting was anti-cyclical in its expressive gesture, which at the time did not seem socially acceptable at all. ‘It felt very unfashionable back then to make a painting that was expressive in a gestural way’, Rae recalls. ‘I think what you were allowed to do, in inverted commas, was make minimalist gestures or very postmodern gestures, but you weren’t allowed to make the gestural gestures, so to speak.’1
Moreover, Fiona Rae’s work seems particularly anti-cyclical when her contemporary painting is tied back into recent history. And that is necessary if we want to understand the historical references of her work. Her work is not about the ‘gestural gesture’ as an intrinsic value but about the premises on which that gesture had been based hitherto. Hence the painterly rifts and vehement gestures that seem to distinguish Rae’s work from the outset may originate from Abstract Expressionism, but they seem to redirect the whole essence of this gestural painting from a profoundly contemporary standpoint: in light of the painting of artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Tobey or like the early Guston or de Kooning, but above all with an eye to how Abstract Expressionism was understood, rightly or wrongly, in its day. At least since Clement Greenberg, the condition of abstraction was above all a formal criterion; his concept of formalism was a largely speechless language, and specifically a language that was entirely due to the intrinsic qualities of painting.2 However apt this recourse to a formal or stylistic essence might seem to be, in retrospect it proves to be equally problematic, because it reduces, as Peter Halley wrote in 1991, the significance of abstraction to an ‘incantatory recital of its own formal history’, denying ‘the myriad connections between culture and other histories and between the artist and the world’. By contrast, Halley emphasises ‘that the phenomenon of abstraction only gains meaning precisely in relation to these larger forces and in the context of this culture in history.’3
This is the broad ground on which Fiona Rae argues out the contradictions, incompatibilities and not least the misunderstandings of abstraction in painting. Hence the gestural painting of her early works released figurative elements that grew into grotesque cartoons. In the mid-1990s Rae was working with various structures of artistic organisation that she – somewhat on the musical model of Portishead or Massive Attack – sampled to form terrific visual tapestries. Then in the late 1990s the artist produced a series of black paintings whose motifs and composition immediately recall the screen aesthetics of computer games. In the course of this impressive evolution Fiona Rae has always clung to painterly abstraction. However, the above-described connection between painting, culture and history leaves little opportunity to be misunderstood as pure formalism. The language of her paintings is anything but speechless. And it is a language that reaches far beyond the purely intrinsic qualities of painting. Rae’s paintings, Jennifer Higgie remarked in autumn 2003, are ‘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.’4
This tendency is intensified even more in Fiona Rae’s most recent works – especially if one asks how these painterly elements rate within the larger context of abstraction in painting. The contradiction and incompatibilities become increasingly glaring, and Rae employs them consciously in her work: how does a typographical symbol relate to a powerful brushstroke? And how does a design object, a floral pattern, or a cute animal assert itself against the authentic power of a ‘gestural gesture’? There are a number of indications that Fiona Rae integrates these pictorial elements into her painting as a way of expanding once again the possibilities of abstraction. In this way every cultural code becomes a painterly sign, and vice versa. The degree of abstraction in each case is thus only a relative value; it is decided at best in the constellation between the pictorial elements and within the image field.
Thus in Tokyo Popeyes a typographic sign really does appear next to a phosphorescent brushstroke; delicate rings float like orbitals through the pictorial space, while at the lower edge of the painting vegetation flourishes that ranges from knotty to amorphous. Little hearts and stars prance over a comic-book figure whose eyes look out from under a hood. The changing violet shade of the picture’s background only apparently holds the composition together; in fact, it contributes to the painterly confrontation. In the work Grotto, in turn, the dark violet ground actually suggests depth, in which strange plants and flowers thrive: a colourful bouquet that has been painted over with jet-black paint, delicate shoots that sprout from a lump of earth, and glittering stalks with petals already dropping from their ends. Each of these elements in itself is an absurdity. But each of these elements is an important part of a whole, and it still follows the unwritten laws of painterly abstraction.
Finally, Fiona Rae’s Wonderland pushes to the limit the above-mentioned liaison of design object and floral pattern, of painterly feather boas and cute animals.The painterly rifts and vehement gestures that characterised Rae’s early works seem to have reached a point here at which the abstract and expressive qualities of her alleged predecessors have to be treated in a completely new way. Rae’s Wonderland is doubtless a land full of incompatibilities and contradictions, but that is precisely where it promises a new supreme virtuosity of painterly abstraction. At first it’s difficult to believe. Until, very slowly, you get goose bumps. First on your neck, then moving over your shoulders and down to your wrists.
1 Fiona Rae, interview by Simon Wallis, in Fiona Rae, exh. cat. (Nîmes: Carré d’Art—Musée d’art contemporain de Nîmes, 2002), 67.
2 See Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in idem, The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957–1969 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993), 85–93.
3 Peter Halley, “Abstraction and Culture,” in idem, Recent Essays, 1990–1996 (New York: Edgewise Press, 1997), 25.
4 Jennifer Higgie, “not fact, magic,” in Hong Kong Garden, exh. cat. (London: Timothy Taylor Gallery, 2003), 132.