En route to Painter Painter I read an extract from Adrian Searle’s 1994 essay, ‘Unbound’, in which the “exhilarating juxtapositions and sudden interruptions” in the work of Jessica Stockholder are compared briefly to those operating in the paintings of Fiona Rae. Searle goes on to say that both artists in their own way “play on painting’s charade of purity, self containment and seamlessness.” I thought this was an agreeable stance and began to prepare for the inevitable onslaught of comparisons between the work of Fiona Rae and Dan Perfect, the subjects of Nottingham Castle’s current exhibition. Here was an opportunity to consider the work of two painters side by side and discover parallels or differences within their paintings. Rae and Perfect are accomplished abstract painters, and there are certainly crossovers in their individual concerns. Both explore the tensions arising from an entanglement of conflicting painterly tropes, and both use their painting to consider what it is to exist now. I found myself apprehensive about viewing their paintings side by side, having admired their work for many years whilst being aware of their marriage (though they work in separate studios). ‘Painter Painter’ is the first time Rae and Perfect have exhibited together exclusively to this extent, and despite my excitement at the prospect, I also wondered whether the paintings would be pitted against each other, in a one-on-one battle, and would the results of such an argument be harmonious?
Dan Perfect’s large scale canvases (in this case all 183 x 257cm), contain oceans of abstract marks, which layer up, merge into one another, sometimes allude to architectural or anthropomorphic forms. The eye journeys through this mass of marks trying to find the correct order in which to process the work, but at every avenue is distracted by another scribble, a glowing sphere, or a smudge slicing between layers of panels. Over time cartoonish masks or faces start to appear out of the meeting of a particular brushstroke with a particular shape. As a genre cartoons inhabit an alternate world of infinite possibilities; Perfect’s paintings are a land where similarly, rules are broken and chaos reigns. His Laocoön, (2013) hangs at the head of the table in the long gallery. Alone on the wall, its palette of reds, oranges and yellows brings heat to the room. At eye level a clearing appears within the surrounding war of fiery shapes, lines, scribbles and scratches. From this clearing a small circle projects a torch of yellow from an orange sky, like a desert sun miles in the distance. This time Perfect’s landscape is one of a post apocalyptic hell on earth.
Here chaos is presented to us via meticulous planning. Preceding any one of Perfect’s paintings are hundreds of drawings produced by hand and then digitalized, a process in which elements are tweaked and enhanced using the computer as a tool. Once Perfect has finalized a blueprint for a painting, it is painted on canvas. A selection of these preparatory drawings are on display in a cubby-hole offshoot of the main gallery, alongside a selection of Rae’s smaller paintings. Quiet contemplation is briefly encouraged but the roar of the paintings hung in the main space soon calls one back. The dictionary of marks that compose Perfect’s paintings are reminiscent of techniques one would find whilst playing around with the brush tools and effects in Adobe Photoshop. That most ancient art of pushing pigment around a canvas by hand is made to mimic technology’s recent mimicry of it – an interesting contradiction of order. Deliberation is evident. Perfect possesses the same power of control during the execution of a painting as the Photoshop effects panel, and the placement of paint upon the canvas appears edited. There are no happy accidents to be found on a Perfect canvas.
Fiona Rae presents us with striking painterly worlds, which differ from Dan Perfect’s in many ways. She is a master of choreographing painterly techniques and styles in such a way that finds organization in a potentially chaotic recipe. Although Rae uses Photoshop to build compositions and test colours before painting, she welcomes intuitive mark-making into the execution of the painting, such as picking up a previously used palette and applying its paint-smudged surface directly onto her canvas. Against flat backdrops of poured paint, Rae adds expressive knots of colour, splats of paint thrown at the canvas and magnified brushstrokes. This figure/ground battle, with the organic or naturalistic on top of flat controlled paint, is in some cases reversed. Everything Will be beyond your thinking (2012) and Mixed feelings and Time,(2012) are constructed of a backdrop of waves of thin oil washes that have been allowed to spread down the canvas, forming shorelines, which bleed into one another. On top of this haze Rae positions abstract drawings, which like Perfect’s allude to anthropomorphic forms. These are painted in flat acrylic, and outlined in black, their cartoonish quality in striking contrast against the underlying layer.
As with Perfect, cartoons are important to Rae. In the past she has included graphic letters, stars, love hearts and flowers in her paintings. In her most recent works, small cartoon pandas multiply. Rae first saw the pandas as an embroidered motif on silk, in a New York shop selling goods imported from China (notably she was born in Hong Kong before relocation to London). In her paintings the pandas play the same role – an entity displaced within a new, unfamiliar context. She is interested in how this motif can exist in an abstract universe. Surely her worlds of abstract brush strokes are not the cartoons’ domain? In See Your World (2013), a cloud of blue and white swooping brushstrokes is suspended just off the centre of the canvas, whilst a cartoon panda with an ambiguous expression nestles within it. The pandas are deviants, forcing the paint to bend and refract around them so they can inhabit the canvas.
Although stylistically foreign to the contents of the canvas, whimsical, potentially a threat to the profound, abstract expressionist brushstrokes, the presence of the pandas empowers every other aspect within Rae’s work. The juxtaposition of the repeated, mass-produced, sticker-like pandas against Rae’s repertoire of painterly marks enhances an appreciation of her spontaneous use of paint to find form. In Does Now Exist? (2013), one of the most recent paintings exhibited here, multiple pandas appear suspended in mid-air by laser straight lines of colour. The lasers are themselves connected, multiplied and sent in other directions by tiny cartoon stars – they provide movement within the composition, as the eye follows them in a rhythm similar to the motion of the ball dropping through the platforms of a 3D puzzle.
It is hard to ignore that here we have a female painter whose vibrant palette, cute cartoon pandas, hearts, flowers and even occasional collaging of glitter and feathers, gives her paintings a feminine feel. Along side which, we have a male painter, whose dense, urban compositions, are ultimately masculine in feeling. Yet the no frills title of this exhibition, ‘Painter Painter’, implies an equality between the artists on show. At no point did it feel like a battle as I had feared. Thanks to Tristram Aver’s informed and carefully considered curation, each painting was experienced equally and the voice of both painters held its own. Rae and Perfect are both artists using the medium of paint to create imaginary landscapes and explore what it is to be a person in the world. There is darkness in their work, a sense of unease brought about by their use of conflicting elements. An affection for the absurd gives way to a lightness in each painter’s conclusions. In the face of uncertainty, both Rae and Perfect turn time and time again to the reliability of paint, in which they both find solace.
Painter Painter is at Nottingham Castle Museum and Gallery until 6 July 2014 and will travel to Southampton City Art Gallery, 18 July 2014–18 October 2014