2009 Emma Dexter text, Glyndebourne Festival Opera Programme, UK

Fiona Rae: Future World

Emma Dexter
Fiona Rae is one of the most accomplished painters of her generation. A participant in Freeze, Damien Hirst’s now famous 1988 DIY student exhibition, she was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1991 and elected as a Royal Academician in 2002. Her work is held in numerous international public and private collections, including Tate, Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, and the Fonds National d’Art Contemporain in Paris.
Known for its restless energy, humour and sheer joie de vivre, Rae’s work has often been characterised as raiding the world’s image bank for visual languages which are broken down and reassembled: everything from Albrecht Dürer, Hieronymus Bosch, Philip Guston and Gerhard Richter, to graphic novels such as Krazy Kat, Little Nemo and Japanese anime, plus graphic design and kitsch curiosities, have all been cited as influences and sources. But this underplays Rae’s own invention, imagination and vision – the creation of her own unique painterly language which has grown ever more complex over the past 20 years. Her paintings have always been about the profusion, excess and profligacy of our visual and material culture. They are an exhilarating ride through the myriad possibilities of paint on canvas. Her lexicon of forms and marks includes, but is not limited to, broad brushstrokes, tiny pencil lines, skids, spills, drips, thin washes, thick impasto, blots and splodges, monochrome patches and strong geometric blocks, cartoons, doodles, collage, graffiti, and computer pop-ups.
At the end of the 1980s, when Rae embarked upon her career, many artists under the influence of conceptualism distanced themselves from painting and its notions of authenticity and direct personal expression. Rae responded to this anti-painting mood by positioning her work in relation to the prevalent post-modern theories of the day, concerned with a culture dominated by images, signs and rampant consumerism. Dictionaries of painted forms and marks, Rae’s earliest works presented an ordered profusion, chiming perfectly with late 20th century anxiety about authenticity, the proliferation of signs and the industrialization of culture. By openly quoting from either art history or popular culture, Rae’s paintings could be positioned in relation to the key deconstructive and appropriationist agendas of American artists such as Jenny Holzer, Sherrie Levine or Barbara Kruger. In line with current post-modern theory, it was possible for Rae’s paintings to be construed as a knowing depiction, or simulacra, of abstract painting itself.
In Untitled (six on grey and brown), 1989, a fantastical pictographic language is lined up against a neutral ground. These madcap figures simultaneously reference typefaces and cartoons, half figurative, half abstract, part animal and part human, their hectic posturing reminiscent of the struggling speech of aphasia or madness. Two years later in Untitled (yellow and black), 1991, Rae smashes the ordered precision of these early works by slashing the canvas with heavy black rectangles.  Cartoonish doodles and comic strip figures jostle amongst the painterly effects of spills, splashes and blobs of paint; the effect is brooding, angry and disquieting.
Five years later, Rae’s work has changed again, becoming both more controlled and more claustrophobic. In Untitled (emergency room), 1996, the canvas fizzes with electricity: jazzy black and white radio waves and oscilloscope tracks cover the entire canvas, interspersed with multicoloured discs like vinyl records. A more sombre yet elegant mood takes over in Night Vision, 1998: strong oblongs of plain colour hover in deep space, their passage interrupted by Daliesque melting splodges and skids of paint. Night Vision dramatically encapsulates Rae’s deliberate courting of awkwardness, enacting painting’s fear of failure – it pits perfection against the accidental, precision against slippage, demonstrating Rae’s bravura spontaneity.
One of the greatest challenges facing painting today, is to be relevant to the 21st century. Painting has to compete for our attention alongside an overwhelming plethora of visual stimuli, from computers to films, to advertising hoardings to internet clips and mobile phone videos. By explicitly referencing the digital world, science fiction, and Far Eastern language and imagery (she was born in Hong Kong, and lived in Indonesia as a child), Rae’s paintings since the millennium are bang up to date. Few other painters have expressed the aesthetics of the information age so succinctly. In Angel, 2000, the painting glows like a computer screen, dark with blade-runner mystery, the perfection of the digital logos and sinoform characters is ruptured only by the harsh blast of white light, while skittish birds and intestinal streaks disrupt the surface with their messy organic matter. Rae’s paintings of this period combine the romance and glamour of technology, with the foreboding of system failure and human error: the organic instability of streaky brushstrokes suggests human fallibility in the face of the cybernetic revolution.
In Rae’s most recent works, Chamber of Ten Thousand Flowers, 2008, and I am a moody girl, 2008, hearts, flowers, and cute cuddly toys create a sweet cloying world, soured by the brooding palette and veiling washes that hint at dissolution and decay. All is not well in this candied, melted world. Rae fuses Far Eastern graphics, Hokusai and Asterix flourishes, Japanese erotic prints and bubble gum neo-Pop with an apocalyptic vision in the European tradition, to create a fusion version of heaven and hell, all the while revelling in the pure material joy of paint. As Rae herself has said “I love mixing it up… I can’t help but be a product of a globalised culture”. Rae’s achievement is to pinpoint the fabric of our material and visual world today – its seductions and its disappointments. In doing so she gives us a tantalising glimpse into  “a vivid and unsettling future world”.