2008 Matthew Collings text, ‘Fiona Rae’ (exhibition catalogue), Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

Fiona Rae: Funny Violent

Matthew Collings
Fiona Rae is an artist who deals with issues of what it is to be a painter in a world in which visual culture has become something like sound bites.  She takes a little Bambi creature, or she makes a recognisable mark that stands for painterliness – or the way in which, in the tradition of painting, areas of paint can be fused rather than bounded – and she puts these things into a particular kind of layered relationship with each other.   It’s not the same as simply arranging them in a list.  She makes it pacy. She creates a surprising, dynamic, rich, overall construction that has its own visual rules and internal logic.
Bambis, pandas, Abstract Expressionist sputtering brushstrokes, stars, dotted lines, elaborately fonted graphic capital letters, leaves and waterfalls, hearts, ribbons and puffs of magic smoke: her objects come from contemporary culture and from the culture of kitsch.  What’s the difference?  Some years ago we might have said, well, there’s painting with its ragged authenticity, and then there’s popular culture with its cheerful hollow falseness.  But now we’ve moved on.
There is an instantly familiar, distinctly Japanese thing she goes in for – she refers to it and she does it herself.  The dots in her new painting, Fairy Land, its cutesy little objects, the Bambi-like creature in stinging orange and its accompanying stars in an answering pinky-orange – the residual swirl of lines might be a playful oriental dragon or something slightly more menacing, a system of veins perhaps – all these seem up-to-date Japanese.  In other paintings, we see little circles with lines running between them; threaded, designed, asymmetrical, the same curious and rather beautiful Japanese sensibility that underlies a lot of interesting contemporary graphics, and which is genuinely tasteful rather than kitsch.  And then there’s kitsch; in her work these elegant Japanese-y principles are at play with or alongside more obviously populist elements such as the design on a Nieman Marcus bag.
The overall look of Rae’s new show is surprisingly angry and black.  What does it mean?  An unrestrained quality – you can be funny about violence, because you share with the rest of modern culture an inability genuinely to enter into the myth of angry selfhood that drives classic Abstract Expressionist painting, while at the same time, because you are creative and knowledgeable about art, you respond to the emotion of this 1950s painterly moment.  What is such emotion to you?  What is your own personality about?  Is it just a vapour?   Why does it count?  An orange Bambi in the centre of Fairy Land is a foil for greys and greens.  What else is it?  It is complete, while all around it there are dark, abstract scrawly strokes from another language-world that seem like the traces left after the little creature has exploded.
Fairy Land – that’s a very beautiful, modulated colour painting – how rare it is to see something as refined as that.  Is refinement only possible in a context of escapism?  If you know anything about art you can’t miss the elegance and prettiness of the colour in this painting.  The elegance is in the modulation and balance, and the prettiness is in the perfect attractiveness of the combination of colours, like a Vincente Minnelli film of the 1950s, the clothing and sets and their apparently magical, constantly dynamic and pleasing co-ordination.  But at the same time there’s a definite air of menace and violence in Fairy Land.
What interesting contradictory impressions: the pretty threading and dotting, and the answering lines that seem to refer to an instruction at the back of the mind: TEAR ALONG THE DOTTED LINE.  They might be the lines of tracer fire in modern battles.  Plus, the free, dark, broad gestures that visually repeat the Bambi object in their size and placement but suggest an opposite emotional tone, not sweet but nightmarish, a world in which the Bambi has been blown up. And then all the dribbles of paint, their free downpour, and the way they seem like the outcome of explosions: definitely trouble in fairyland.
A double reading of sweetness and menace is the theme of the show.   We are getting pleasure but also we’re being asked to think about how pleasure is constructed.  The riffs she keeps up tend to be on a theme of darkness.  We feel we’re being stroked; after all painting is a rare delight, especially when it’s full of knowledge and skill, and at the same time we’re being sucked back into darkness and worry.
The pleasure when you walk in the door – what is it?  Graphically the paintings are amazing, that combination of ease and complexity that she sustains everywhere, and which goes with spontaneity and freshness; it’s hard to imagine how she does it.  But simple pleasure is always complicated.  The painting audience is made to feel something the painter never felt.  Matisse suffered agonies over the way his achieved effortlessness was eulogised in the press as if it were actually effortless rather than worked at, a process characterised by doggedness and uncertainty.
When Monet painted pleasure, it was a strange, awkward, rich, creative abstraction – paintings responding to new technology, modernity, the invention of the camera, by being more and more powerfully or strangely answerable only to themselves, to a new idea of “painting” as a tradition in itself.  Not scenes at all but metaphors for a way of being, for thinking for yourself, for asking questions: what are conventions and traditions – what is society?  Today we either love Monet too much or in the wrong way, thinking of a lovely lifestyle and not the inner meaning of art, or we’re saturated by him and don’t think of him at all.  We want light in art to be the light from a screen not the box of vibrating light that is the true character of Monet’s paintings of trees and flowers.
Rae’s Trees and Flowers await your Love presents a giddying series of veils, layers and approaches, and the deconstructing that’s going on in the way she’s made the objects of the painting is both appealing and slightly horrifying. The same thing that makes it good also makes it a challenge; ribbons, eyes, fairies, a hanging garden, the lively fringes of drips, the colours existing on different planes. It’s compelling because of the luridness and the superabundance of crisp effects.  How should we take this insistent richness?
The objects in Trees and Flowers await your Love seem weightless as if they’re generated from a computer screen.  But they’re also thick, tangible and real, and have obviously been created by hand, the paintbrush imitating computer screen unreality.  There’s something marvellous about facing down that synthetic world, looking at the material of “now,” and finding a new form of expression for it that has all the weight of painting as well. Trees and Flowers await your Love has colour of such intensity, colour made of light rather than the earthy mud of the Old Masters, that we’re persuaded that the painting is not only looking at the tradition of painting but answering the tradition in an entirely contemporary language.   We believe it depicts the luminous world of the present.
Is what Rae does formalism?  If it’s neither political nor personal what else is left but formalism?  Or is it wrong to think like that?  Her stuff is political because it’s addressing sweetness and violence, it asks questions about kitsch and fakeness.  Plus it’s violent painting done by a woman.  What people mean by “personal” tends to be a range of clichés that doesn’t bear looking at.  We’re not supposed to do formalism today because it’s sterile.  You should be a brave, angry, quirky woman full of special, turbulent feelings.   But Rae is intelligent and interested in the world of art, and, as a student she looked at where recent art had come from – Polke or whoever – and she wanted to be engaged with that, and provide some kind of answer to it.  And that led her to play with riffs on formalism. When you look at her stuff you can see the Abstract Expressionists: it relates to the painterly moment of the beginning of the end of painting.  She sets up abstract structures, brushstrokes, grids, veils of drips, cubistic push and pull, and at the same time she undermines them.
Her work is full of intelligence and yet it’s not conceptual art.  She’s ironising and questioning form from within a tradition.  But asking about her feelings is like asking about Madonna’s feelings – no one really thinks that Madonna’s feelings are what make her records hits. There’s no such thing as the personal in art, really.  As artists, anything we do, we’re doing in response to a tradition.  And we might have our own particular style but more important than style is the logic of the time: the issues are given to us by the period we live in.
Primitive question: why is Rae good? Simple answer: she has really crafted those drips and splashes. What’s distinctive about this artist is her incredible gift for tailored deconstruction.  Her whole thing is control and chaos.  But what’s striking about this new show is that it is less tailored and more violent and surprising. The emotional tone touches a nerve in society now, the presence in our lives of war.   In life we’re given sweet pretence to mask uncomfortable reality.  The playful violence in her new paintings is about showing sweet pretence being blown up.