Abstract Critical

Fiona Rae: Maybe you can live on the moon in the next century

Written by David Sweet

Leeds City Art Gallery, 11 May – 26 August 2012

As an exhibitor in Freeze, Fiona Rae’s practice is inevitably traceable to that over-celebrated historical moment in 1988, when a cohort of Goldsmith’s artists emerged who were to go on to dominate the last decade of the twentieth century. Now, seventeen paintings, selected from Rae’s twenty-first century output, can be seen in two beautiful, refurbished rooms of Leeds City Art Gallery, giving an opportunity to assess what progress has been made since that show at Surrey Docks.

The woman who can do self-expression will shine through all eternity

Then, as now, Rae’s standard working method involves harvesting elements from a wide range of visual culture sources, high and low, far east and far west, and encouraging them to interact in a suitably relaxed, late abstract expressionist pictorial structure. However, she mitigates the frisson of heterogeneity, implicit in the references, by translating everything into pigment. This permits her to include passages of a la prima painting – brushy gestures, palette-knifed smears, drips and pours, etc. – without necessarily invoking irony. Yet, because some references are recognisably borrowed from the contemporary world outside painting, her work appeals to an audience who have a thing about representation. Add to this the elaborate titles that caption the current paintings, it’s clear that Rae is trying to have her semiotic cake and eat it too.

In painting you can’t have parts without wholes. Provision has to be made to organise small and medium-scale components, however sourced and individuated, within some bigger scheme. Rae’s past work often featured a strong basic geometry, involving highly complex divisions and inflections of the pictorial field, which dominate the final result. In the Leeds paintings however, iconography and calligraphy seem to have won out over geometry. Instead of an active pictorial field there is a rather inert acrylic ground in most of the pictures, serving in the office of a foundation plane, physically supporting the subsequent events but seeming not to be making much of a contribution to the proceedings.


The limitations of the ground strategy can be seen clearly in Tokyo Popeyes (2004). The colour value of the purple is two or three notches below what is required for it to function chromatically. That’s mainly due to the nature of quick drying acrylic pigment, its parsimony of sensation, which produces a typical barrenness also visible in the backgrounds of the relatively empty Angel and Lovesexy of 2000. In Press my buttons to give me food and love! (2006), the foundation plane is worked over in an attempt to bring it to life, but again, it falls short because a deficit of intensity in the dull, recessive green hue that has been chosen.

A more successful work in the same room, Moonlite Bunny Ranch (2003) can be directly compared to Tokyo Popeyes and Press my buttons… It’s the same size and shares with them some highly legible graphic ingredients, but its ground colour is a sharp shade of pink, raised above pastel to an intermittent blush in key areas. A pink shape has been added at a later stage in the production of the painting, which partly obliterates an intermediate gestural element, to effectively bring the background into the foreground, allowing it a more active role in the dynamic of the painting.

Many of the works in the second room are smaller and darker, and one of them, Shifting sands dusts its cheek in powdered beauty (2010), is probably the most sorted painting in the exhibition. The blue/green ground colour reaches the required threshold of chromatic intensity, assisted by the area of answering red/orange on the left. Embedded in this field are flame-like, pennant shapes, made by pouring very thin pigment. These can also be found in other recent paintings, but in Shifting sands… they appear as paradoxically dematerialised elements, ghosts in the machine, like minus signs included in what is otherwise a relentlessly additive painting method. In the bottom left corner, a small but significant wedge of dark braces the composition, starting a horizontal succession of smaller shapes that strengthens the impact of the lower edge.

This is slightly unusual in the context of the show as a whole, where the force of the containing rectangle often goes unacknowledged, perhaps in keeping with the reduced emphasis of internal geometry. But without this acknowledgement, the gestural activity, especially in the later paintings, tends to get overloaded in one area, usually the top half of the canvas, while nearer the floor, it thins out, giving a feeling of neglect and abandonment that the material continuity of the ground colour can’t offset.

As I run and run, happiness comes closer (2008) has a similar level of resolution to Shifting sands… However, it might rely too much on the fact that it’s a virtual nocturne, very near black predominantly, with touches and hooks of high-visibility pigment and small star shapes for spatial punctuation, alternating with full black accents distributed throughout. All of this takes place under a fringe of fluorescent green – to make it look less old-fashioned, or ‘academic’ maybe?

Maybe you can live on the moon in the next century

Somewhat against the chronology, We go in search of our Dream…., of 2007  comes out as more advanced than some later paintings, yet it also more decorative, like non-apocalyptic wallpaper. The radiance of the blue on the right and left opens onto two vistas of optical depth, separated by an umber trench. The two purple spiky, pinnate forms are eye-catching at the periphery, the dotted lines offer a lightweight, pattern-cutter diagram to follow across a range of intermediate components, some soft, some clear-cut, which take up ambiguous positions, on the surface or chased back into the middle distance, surviving as pentimenti.

I haven’t mentioned the pandas. They tend to disappear on the second circuit of the exhibition. But unfortunately no really compelling, non-trivial narrative emerges from the seventeen canvases. Although they have common stylistic traits, the four best works I’ve identified, differ from each other too much to suggest a particular territory or direction, which might be consolidated in the future. Of course, that doesn’t mean Rae’s career as a highly successful painter will not continue.

David Sweet, June 2012

  1. Filip said…

    Well written essay, great work David. On Fiona’s work, I’m confused with the direction she is taking in her paintings now. Yes technically one of the greatest painter today, but some of the ways she applies the paint is beginning to look too controlled for me, so that the gesture contains irony. The thing it is trying to represent (for example the speed of the gesture) becomes a bit too controlled that it loses its actually meaning. I have nothing against decorative elements in painting but there are too many things going on at the time that it the overall composition makes me feel like looking a a collage of things that fight against each other rather than portraying the dreamy things she writes in titles.
    Overall still a great painter but not creating any new areas for her practice. I don’t know why but the Grotto painting (fig 2) reminds me of a recent work by Bill Jensen in his recent show covered in James Kalm channel. Its one articular painting that has this magical vertical stroke that reflects some of the feeling when i see a Fiona Rae.