“One of my terrors is boring people…”
Despite her early and continued success, not a lot has been written about Fiona Rae’s work. Google her, and you’ll find a lot of exhibitions in a lot of prestigious institutions but surprisingly few reviews, very little critical verbiage. I suspect this is because her paintings, whilst being on-message in their critical assumptions, don’t require much semiological unravelling; they’re too accessible, ingratiating even, to beg theoretical explanations. Their visual appeal is not like that of Richter’s abstracts, for example, whose slick surfaces are a trap for the naive who might mistake their seductiveness for an end-in-itself, rather than a code to be subject to expert hermeneutics. Rae’s paintings are not signs but actual pictures and they can, between the acting-out and the ironising, be looked at individually, and to some degree, formally. Her reputation rests on the facility of her particular juggling act; she asserts the now unoriginal Post-Modern injunction against the delusion of original form, but her promiscuous borrowing from a high and low cultural mix of styles, techniques, devices and models isn’t didactic – she likes all these things, and wants us to like them too. Like Mary Heilman, an obvious precursor, she’s both cool and sensuous, eager-to-please and ironic, sincere and flippant. She makes eye candy for the conceptually weary.
The twelve new paintings now showing at Timothy Taylor Gallery display less of the tricksy illusionism, the virtuosic sleights of hand that she’s used so much in the past (even for Greenberg there was a “sheer aesthetic pleasure to be gotten from illusion that can’t be gainsaid”), though this has been balanced by an even sweeter tone than usual, a sometimes gum-tingling cuteness. The paintings (six large, around six by seven feet, and six small) follow the almost standard trope now of being a series of identically formatted canvases, perhaps in the hope that this will impart some serialist rigour to even the campest extravagances. The smaller paintings are really just reformulations of the bigger ones, simplified codas lacking the revisions and palimpsests of their full-sized versions. All the paintings, though often gaudy and sweet, are almost under-determined and contingent in comparison to Rae’s past graphic slickness, but unfortunately this is countered by the fact that they all suffer from the presence of small, flat cartoon pandas which crop up everywhere in, or on, the pictures. Painted thickly as if through a template so that they have the appearance of being a separate thing attached to the surface, sometimes whole and ‘sentient’, and sometimes deconstructed into dismembered bits- legs, eyes, noses and buttons- they ward off the spectre of seriousness, deflating excessive painterly ambition as well as emphasising the picture surface (like a sticker on a screen), and objectifying the whole painting by putting quotation-marks around it. They give each painting, in her words, “an eye on itself.” Anything the paintings might achieve has to fight its way past these; a passage such as the olive and deep green pours in “Present Party For You” is rendered camp and literal by the cute black bear squatting atop a patch of green, enforcing a reading of something otherwise productively ambiguous into a jokey tree branch. And clearly defined and isolated as the creature is, it’s very hard to ignore.
For all the clever effects that she piles on, Rae’s paintings are often surprisingly timid and rather inert, more usually than not composed of tenuously connected incidents scattered across a monochrome ground with a busy-ness that can fail to add up to much more than the sum of its seductive parts. In fact, with the qualified exceptions of “Present Party..” and “The Sun Throws My Sorrow Away”, the paintings in this show have a remarkably simple figure/ground construction, and all except “As If You’re Looking For Blue Skies Happiness” get what drama they have from the suspension of vertical veils of paint drips across which various glyphs leave their trails. They are structurally curiously conservative- she is interested in detail and stylistic contrast, and the energy of her paintings has always come from these clashes and the dynamic of movement across a shallow screen rather than either the construction of inventive space or, despite her work’s flamboyance, from colour.
Camp, in Sontag’s formulation, has no use for invention. But I long for a radical, dramatic pictorial intervention to impose some kind of new gestalt, to break up the screen of devices doing their thing over the flat acrylic backgrounds. “I Need Gentle Conversation” is the simplest example of this two-part structure- a pale, almost baby-blue ground, over which are poured several thin white and yellow veils or vaporous clouds. Like nearly all these paintings to varying degrees, it has the feel of a landscape, or rather a painting of a picture of a landscape- in particular the Chinese tradition of landscape painting that, rather than being based on the horizon, floats a vertical layering of features glimpsed through pools of mist or water, which enables Rae to refer to landscape whilst maintaining a fairly all-over composition. This rather whimsical painting reminds me strongly of Twombly – also a painter of camp (or is it kitsch?) veils of mists and mellow fruitfulness – particularly his Lacana series. Only “And The Sun Throws My Sorrow Away” largely avoids any suggestion of landscape traditions, using the drip motif to expand the picture outwards for once, instead of merely down, emphasizing their artifice by pointing them sideways and upwards to create a bit of dynamic tension. The top drips, hard-edged, flat and relatively bright, give some punch to the otherwise rather limp tertiary mid-tones of greyish mauve that Rae seems inexplicably fond of. Some looping butterfly shapes flap and swirl through the middle of the painting, turning into a confusion of scumbles as they rise.
Rae has stripped away much of the lexicon of marks that she has previously used to animate her paintings, but she’s scattered throughout the work hundreds of small symbols, not just the pandas and their remains, but stars, hearts, dotted lines and graphic fragments which allow her to jump-cut to a different scale, to pull us back to the surface but mostly, it seems, as deliberately jarring bits of ‘non-art’, remnants from the real world of packaging and greeting cards and video games. The computer graphic-style lines link shapes, pinging across the surface and ‘commenting’ on the imagery: on “I Always Wish You Every Happiness With The Whole Of My Heart In The Distance” (her titles sound like the messages of mis-translated consumer redemption you find on Japanese sweet wrappers), dotted Photoshop ‘cut’ lines follow the outlines of some pours of thick paint hidden beneath a subsequent layer of glossy black. It’s a joke about erasure – Rae designs her paintings on Photoshop – but these forms do have a complicating effect on the depth of the picture that can’t be seen on a photograph.
A different kind of mark is used to define the bigger forms, a simple, looping ‘flower’ shape in fluid oil paint, more organic than any of her previous techniques; they can’t be resolved into the usual representations of brushmarks or quotations of gestures, but remain themselves, a simple wrist action that can be used to suggest all sorts of vague forms. They can grow into the hovering plumes in “I Always Wish You…”, nebulous areas of brushwork nearly but not quite coalescing into specific shapes, with a suggestion of directional light. Unstylised and mutable, they introduce the possibility of more ‘natural’, uncodified form into the work.
Camp is intolerant of nature, and Rae has herself said that whilst Mickey Mouse is interesting to her, a mouse is not. Her paintings have always been about artifice, echo-chambers of cultural quotation and of the solipsism of contemporary commercial culture. But the apparent provisionalism and looseness in these paintings might signal a significant change – or, of course, it could just signal a kind of meta-provisionalism. Nevertheless, “As If You’re Looking for Blue Skies Happiness” in particular seems to suggest a kind of departure. Like “I’m Always With You…”, it features a simple ‘growing’ form, only here it’s an almost naturalistic plant shape, leaf-green and viridian, with ‘flowers’ of hot orange and yellow, growing up from a bisected wall of mid-yellow and more of Rae’s favoured thin greyish mauve. It’s not a successful painting; it’s actually a particularly inert example of her figure/ground problem, and the sprinkling of pastel stars just looks like a nervous afterthought, but in the context of her oeuvre, it’s a radical painting. Maybe it’s transitional, leading to somewhere less circumscribed by the cleverly-applied gimmick and the alienating screen, even though nothing very inventive or coherent has replaced them yet. But then there might be an irresolvable contradiction between Fiona Rae’s apparent new interest in more open, less mediated ways of creating paintings and her essentially camp – or maybe Post-Structuralist – aesthetic of acting-out, of using paint to conjure up a catalogue of found things and found ways of looking.
‘Fiona Rae: New Paintings’ is on at the Timothy Taylor Gallery until the 23rd of February