2009 Nicolas Bourriaud text, ‘Fiona Rae: As I run and run, happiness comes closer’ (exhibition catalogue), Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris

The Atlas of Fiona Rae

Nicolas Bourriaud
Delacroix said that in painting “exactitude is not truth.” But if, from the Renaissance to Heidegger and then Derrida, Western discourse on painting has always seemed in some degree to have been linked to the notion of truth or veracity, we might ask ourselves if the notion to which Delacroix contrasts it, exactitude, might not be more appropriate for describing recent mutations. But then, what is exactitude in art? We could say, an artwork’s capacity to correspond to the system of production of its times: this is a more engaging way of putting it than simply to say ‘contemporary,’ insofar as we don’t really know nowadays what we are the ‘contemporaries’ of. Being exact, on time: paradoxically, these days, this probably implies a certain delay, in the sense meant by Marcel Duchamp when he described his Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even as a “delay in glass.” To be exact, one must always integrate delay of that to which one wishes to correspond, of that with which one is trying to coincide.
Painting evolves according to its alliances with the systems of representation of the day, and in particular the optical tools available at a given historical moment, with (or against) which art must negotiate. The camera obscura, photography, television, cinema and internet have all engendered profound transformations in pictorial space-time, creating a specific new dimension of painting. Jackson Pollock took his cue from the factory assembly line. Philip Guston was driven by a personal reaction against the dominant ideology of the day, which asserted abstraction as a progressive vision of the world. The play of canonical oppositions favoured by art history, such as subjectivity/objectivity, figuration/abstraction, no longer applies in an age when everything turns out to be figurative. And it is from this extreme confusion that Fiona Rae’s painting draws its energy: what her paintings manifest, first of all, is a gigantic mêlée of signs and forms; her borrowings from Hieronymus Bosch and Pollock, from Japanese or Brazilian kitsch figurines, and the presence of expressionist brushstrokes alongside references to Photoshop in her canvases, may suggest both a chaos tempered by a degree of organisation or an overall formalism. But what she shows us is the space in which we live, its shadows and bright reflections, its hidden spaces. That is the major challenge for contemporary painting: to show us the space-time in which every day we are unwittingly immersed. To show us the formal structure of our quotidian experience, or at least its hidden side.
In a single painting we thus find dozens of successive levels together with constant shifts of scale, as if the notion of ground or background had been smashed to smithereens. This is especially true in the recent works. Fiona Rae shows us a world keyed to the computer screen, a referent that is especially striking in the paintings she made between 2000 and 2002, for which she used Photoshop, a software she was then learning to use. The pictorial surfaces elaborated at this time seem totally colonised by the formal potential of the internet, with a mix of letters and shapes standing out on a ground as abstract as any computer screen. The signs that she used seem backlit, as if arising from a purely electronic space (Kiss, 2000). The forms are apparently transient pop-ups caught at the moment of their flickering appearance. Nothing is static; everything follows on as if on a ribbon, like a hypertext whose elements accumulate on the canvas. The canvases made by Fiona Rae between 1995 and 1998 emphasise this transitional, ephemeral aspect even more. If we look at Green Shade (1997), we perceive the pictorial surface as a fragment from an extremely dynamic flux, a brutal fragment of our visual environment. Rae’s painting materialises the visual sequences unconsciously soaked up by our eyes: broken lines, the drive to consume, upside-down drips, existential brushstrokes, dotted lines leading who knows where, monochrome structures, mysterious interruptions, enigmatic figures… Everything about her painting practice confronts us with the absolute uncertainty that governs our experience of the contemporary city. These are paintings that disorient us more than guide us, and that compose a kind of dictionary of contemporary forms.
This encyclopaedic quality has been a hallmark of Rae’s work ever since the start of her career (Untitled (nine on green), 1989), when she embarked on a formal alphabet juxtaposing archetypal figures on a canvas divided into invisible squares. Over the years, Rae has explored the meanders of this visual flow, articulating her pictorial logic in keeping with a cognitive logic: what is at stake is knowledge of the contemporary world. In other words, her painting constitutes an atlas. What are the forms that activate our presence in the world, or attest to it? Broad brushstrokes, graffiti, drips, realistic drawing, hidden figures, monochrome patches, geological strata, ramifications, blots, crossings-out, dots, collage, stained glass, swatches of colour, squeezed paint – such are the things that go into the composition of a canvas. The surfaces that she is constantly reworking seem to have no ground, or rather, an infinite number of layers, like the surface of a screen in which a multiplicity of hypertext links come together to work through a story whose beginning and end we can only guess at.
This layered, nomadic space is the space of contemporary painting. What is new in painting, if not this deep exploration of the space of information? A canvas is an informed surface. What does this steeping in colour denote, if not this new desire to master – by using slowness – the excess of information? To paint is to slowly appropriate the flow of signs and to pick out a few emblematic forms from the all too rapid passing of images into the collective unconscious. This is the secret shared by such as Michel Majerus, Jules de Balincourt, Franz Ackermann, Julie Mehretu, Beatriz Milhazes and Fiona Rae, in their undeclared effort to stay the infernal broadband of signs. All are seeking the grammar of a lost language. All are looking for a way of revealing contemporaneity without giving in to its facile side, a way of expressing its rhythm and its colours. Fiona Rae brings us news of our world, but stripped of all anecdote.
Rae produces what we could call ‘trajectory-forms,’ the opposite of those static representations of the world that invade the contemporary imagination. She works to constitute an atlas of the mutation of the spaces in which we move: emblems, signs, blinking neons, dirty walls, signage, and messages. Her paintings are constructed from a more or less tightly imbricated meshing of coloured layers that can be abstract, figurative, material or purely painterly, against which we see fragments of figures taken from a network of arborescent lines. Her paintings are like screens of computers on which hundreds of folders have been opened, windows onto heterogeneous data concerning an experience about which nothing explicit is stated. It has occurred, and that is all we know. The power of today’s art lies in escaping the obligations of psychological and political discourse in order to present the raw forms of our experience.
Such, more generally, is the destiny of contemporary painting: to wrest the very forms of our alienation from the present and display them as structures. Painting ceases to be a window or a surface, or a support, but becomes an interface, a cartographic or topological plan, the GPS of our presence in the world. Signs for our orientation, that is what painting has offered us ever since the caves at Lascaux. Our constant refusal to read the signs has made us blind to the language of painting, and art seems to constantly oscillate between the imperative of political efficacy and the duty of ethics, as if we were beholden to morality. Rae’s work is made up of endless connections and bifurcations, and is free of moralising. No doubt it is harder to read. Worse, it serves no purpose: it offers us no sociological escape and refuses to comment on the obligatory themes, which in our era of documentary art you would expect to condemn it out of hand. What it does is show us the very forms that flicker around us, the visual elements that make up our experience of the world, gathering scattered fragments of our psyche. In this, it can be seen as much more important than many of the other works that clutter up the contemporary landscape and do not offer even a scrap of a formal idea.