2014 Martin Herbert text, ‘Painter, Painter: Dan Perfect, Fiona Rae’ (exhibition catalogue), Nottingham City Museums & Galleries, UK

Floating Worlds: On Fiona Rae

Martin Herbert

We’re up in the toothpaste clouds, or perhaps underwater. If we’re in the toothpaste clouds, the clouds are equally boughs lush with blossom, and waterfalls, and also thickly trickling strokes of paint. It’s war up here, unless it’s a party. Five expressionless pandas hang in air (or tropical ocean) while pink shooting stars (or starfish) whizz dangerously around them, though the stars’ dotted trails also suggest diagrammatic pointers to something or nothing, mere graphic glyphs, and the duplicate pandas are maybe simply schematic representations too. The animals feel present to varying degrees – one is black, a chameleonic second matches the background, the rest measure the tonal gradient between – but if you look closely their features are just dots, just paint. They’re literally made of paint, and at the same time adhered to the canvas, almost like collage, via some prestidigitation with acrylic paste. Everything here, that decision says, is just materiality, for all of its polyvalent insinuation and liveliness. The same is true, too, of other terms that now enter the equational space: graceful twirls of paint that could be abstract animals, insects or dragons, that look three-dimensional but actually record adroit sweeps with a complexly colour-loaded brush. You try and grip something here and it reverses on itself and then heads into battle, or friendly play, with a host of other things, or non-things, all reversing too.

That’s Fiona Rae’s See your world (2013), or at least a semi-redundant attempt at describing its gelid optical tempests, semi-humorous playfulness and spacious tension. And if everything in this painting runs forward and backward at once, if everything is suspended magically in the air, that’s analogous for studio practice when it works. As an earlier work like Do not scream!! (2010) will clarify, Rae had previously been working up a dense, accumulative pictorial space. She decided to strip that out, see how much electrified emptiness she could allow in. This, though, is a smaller arc within a larger, decade-long one in which she’s incorporated Far Eastern motifs into her painting: the pandas trace back to small, flat embroidered silk pandas she found in Pearl River, a Chinese import shop in New York, while the use of cute figurative motifs arose originally from a head-turning trip to Tokyo in 2004. The trompe l’oeil three-dimensional, creature-like brushstrokes, which in other paintings resemble balloon dogs, are equally something relatively new brought speculatively into the mix. The title of See your world, meanwhile, is an instruction that Rae picked up while briefly studying drama improv: that the character’s reality must be visualised even when it doesn’t exist. A good painting, one would think, ought to make that happen – even as the viewer recognises that it’s their world.

If painting is an absurd activity (and it is, marvellously so) then part of the absurdity is that its makers, in order to trap lightning, need to spend time thinking up challenging obstructions to their own skill. A set of precepts, a recipe, will only work for a while before it goes flat and predictable; then all or some of it has to go and new hurdles need to be laid out. Rae’s pandas, stuck on the canvas, are a literal stumbling block to the movement of the paintbrush, snapping an artist out of her own facility, forcing her to work around them in ways that will self-surprise. In I need gentle conversations (2012) we can see the pandas themselves dismantled, centrifugally blasted into disembodied eyes. Rae, here, is testing how small an event might sustain, animate, problematise a quadrant of canvas, seemingly heading towards asking whether the painting even needs a figurative anchor, just as previously she tested whether such elements could be combined with abstraction. Dusk brings your eyes (2013), meanwhile, examines how the consistent use of a single syntax – the balloon-like brushmarks, the shooting stars, the boughs, the grace-note ribbons of thrown paint – can add up, when the tonality is darkened, to something of entirely different mood to See your world. Rae, as her career since the late 80s has made abundantly clear, may be a brilliantly nervy improviser, but her work has a steely combinatorial spine.

These perhaps sound like formal concerns, insular painters’ problems. If so, it should be clarified that such febrile efforts, in the studio, to make something that lives merely constitute the road that Rae is travelling on, towards something else. Think first of what her art has always played against and drawn energy from: modernist abstraction and the gesture, as reified by Abstract Expressionism. In Rae’s, that kind of painting has always appeared at once desirable and impossible in its original form. It has always manifested, in her art, in corrupted fashion: interlaced with geometric abstraction, Pop graphics, or demotic painterly styles like the background she’s used recently that resembles scrubbed window whitewashing. This is a supremely generous aesthetic: even at its barest, Rae’s painting scintillates with colliding languages. But at the same time, her work partakes of gesture making, and the construction of what might be termed an interior landscape. Even if the terms have changed – even if the rhetoric of the existential I doesn’t strike us as particularly relevant anymore – her paintings still feel like palimpsestic records of a specific subjectivity. What are the apparent influences on that subjectivity?

One, inevitably, is the ongoing logic of postmodernism: the weight of history, the sense of past aesthetics as equalised and equally available for recombination. Another is the digital sphere. Rae may use Photoshop minimally, to tweak her colours, but her paintings partake of digital aesthetics, particularly in how they grid and divide up surfaces: see the vectored cloudy space of Mixing feelings and time (2012) and Does now exist? (2013), for example, or the hyper-synthetic colours – even when they’re sunset-like – of I always wish you every happiness with my whole heart in the distance (2012, whose title feels self-contradictory) or Shifting sands dusts its cheek in powdered beauty (2010, whose title comes from Krazy Kat). These works owe something to midcentury painting, sure, but they emphatically feel like now. They also suggest that the internalised landscape isn’t a dead issue; that abstraction (or primarily abstraction, since Rae needs to intersect everything, seemingly, with its destabilising opposite) is still a vehicle for allowing others to, as it were, see your world. And your world is a product, at least in part, of the external world. And that world has changed.

Rae, who says that the only magazine she reads regularly is New Scientist, titled a 2012 painting Everything will be beyond your thinking. Reading about cutting-edge science can make a person feel like that, even starting from the notion that we’re made, literally, of the dust of ancient stars and working from there towards the resonant improbabilities of string theory. Does now exist? We now know enough about the universe to know how little we know. We also know, perhaps, that almost everything we think based on our perception of reality is wrong. Painting is a propositional space, and it’s not to call Rae’s painting illustrative when she combines painterly languages to a dizzying degree: where we can feel like we’re at once submerged in a psychedelic aquarium, tracking the far reaches of space with the Hubble telescope, and barrelling through a catalogue of modernist abstraction. Such a visual experience, laden with uncertainties, is analogous for a mindset trying to make sense of the world, and the universe, as it appears to us now: scratching at the surface of knowledge, seeing former certainties fall away.

Look back at those pandas. The creatures are widely considered cute; Rae, she says, finds these ones menacing, threatening, an animus (though also ‘mascots, amulets, protagonists, victims, observers…’). The menace and threat, to the extent that we can read them that way, comes via the cool blankness of their stare. It’s the trope we find in Werner Herzog’s films, in the parable of Grizzly Man (2005), for example. We want to anthropomorphise nature, sentimentalise it, but we really have no idea what the animals are thinking, what they are. What Rae does, here and elsewhere, is to remove the solid epistemological floor from beneath us. It’s no accident that everything in these paintings is suspended, improbably aloft. The pandas are not even pandas, quite; again, they’re just paint, and yet they’re not. They’re Schrödinger’s Pandas.

This inability to grip and define things has a parallel within Rae’s practice as a whole: hers is one that can be construed as tussling with art history, and is at the same time a kind of surrender to the sheer pleasure of painting, of not just remotely referencing the gestural mark but of loving to make it. It might be argued that many of the artists of Rae’s generation who negotiated with Abstract Expressionism did so out of a blend of anxiety and attraction, knowing it’s not 1947 anymore but still drawn to the endlessly nuanced world of mark-making, which is a tradition in any case that long precedes the American century. A gesture in Rae’s art is literally uninscribed, somehow both self-aware and free. It takes its place within a phalanx of disparate but somehow harmonised marks – Rae makes orchestration seem deceptively easy, but these are wholly hard-won productions – that we are free to find our own way through. This, for the viewer, is a gift. But it is also a gift that produces eustress, positive stress, because there is no explicatory code to hand. We don’t know what kind of space we’re in; we don’t know exactly what we’re looking at. Everything here is (at least) double faced. The subject at hand both is and isn’t painting.

At the end of his beautiful 2008 essay “La*hwi*ne*ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist”, John Jeremiah Sullivan stops discussing the career of the nineteenth century naturalist Constantine Rafinesque and suggests a higher order to the act of looking:


If we are conscious, as our species seems to have become, then nature is conscious. Nature became conscious in us, perhaps in order to observe itself. It may be holding us out and turning us around like a crab does its eyeball. Whatever the reason, that thing out there, with the black holes and the nebulae and whatnot, is conscious… Mystery is not despair. The sheer awe inspired by Rafinesque’s vision makes a sufficiently stable basis for ethics, philosophy, love, and the conclusion that a fleeting consciousness is superior to none, precisely because it suggests magnificent things we cannot know, and in the face of which we simply lack an excuse not to assume meaning.


Mystery is not despair. As little as we can know, we might find succour in the very fact that there is so much we don’t, that we are part of something infinitely more complicated and profound than ourselves. This could be a blow to the human ego, or there may be ways of acclimating ourselves to it: walking, say, towards something bigger and smarter and denser than our abilities to compass it, and that also gives us pleasure. We might see evidence that its maker is embedding herself within a long conversation about what it means to speak of what’s inside of us, and about what preexisting language – or languages – has been agreed upon as appropriate to that. And we might find ourselves, if never wholly comfortable with how little willingness such an artwork displays to be tamed and tethered, still happy to live within it: its neon colours, its dazzlingly managed composition, its whipsmart modernity and worldliness and otherworldliness. If eventually, sated, we walk away knowing only what we can’t know, we can always try again later.