To look at Fiona Rae’s new paintings, one after the other, provides an experience of intense pleasure flecked by moments of disquiet. Will she sustain this level of achievement? The risks are tremendous. The tightrope is long and high, the safety net seemingly miles below. She has discarded most of those props which were reassuring in her earlier works–the skidding humour, lurid colour, spatial doors and drawers opening and closing, incidents of transmutation. There was a flirtatious ludic quality that depended on parody and allusion. Naughty multicoloured ribbons preened in front of self-important rectangles; a brave overlay of netting began well but, pooping, ended in a panting heap. Skittish respects were paid to Baselitz or Richter, gestures tottering on the brink of derision yet pulled off with clowning affection. Rae was the unabashed schoolmistress of a class of unruly children, letting them go just so far before bring them to order with a smart vocal crack. As parents, we sat back to applaud her coolness under fire.
Rae struck an accessible note of high sophistication and low humour. Both these elements are present in her new paintings but she has risen several rungs up the ladder of ambition. The toys have been stored in the cupboard: serious play has become playful seriousness. She has moved off into a wider world, recognisable, to be sure, from the earlier paintings, but one that is less inclusive, more aerated, grander in intention and finer as an unfolding spectacle. By so doing, Rae has confidently sidestepped the trap, not so much of easy success but that of continuing to please without raising our expectations. This is rare in British art where painters of obvious gifts and youthful achievements seem to roll over into the mud of imitation or self-indulgent picture-making. Social and commercial victories become confused with those won in the studio. So far, Rae’s progress seems exemplary in its quiet gathering of strength.
With one or two notable exceptions, abstraction in Britain has been beset by cosiness and reticence or a failure of nerve. It has been hung about with the tattered remnants of landscape and stiff-life, squatting uncomfortably in a half-way house between Cornwall and the kitchen table. Good beginners fizzled out or returned to figuration, sometimes with more refreshing results. Rae’s vision has abolished such distinctions and her influences and sources have been, first and foremost, unhierarchical visual fodder, whether mid-period de Kooning or late Stella, a Dürer print, a Krazy Kat cartoon or the bright, familiar patterning of everyday consumerism. All are put through the sieve of her sharp unauthoritarian intelligence.
It has to be said that in these new paintings Rae has created a world that reaches out more to some unsignposted cosmos than along the earthbound tracks of our own scruffy reality. She has made paintings that are almost impossible to write about. Where are the words for such spaces, eruptions, such meandering transformations and clueless moments? The marks that make up this look-but-don’t-touch continuum, are often vulnerable or awkward, a beguilingly gauche approximation of ‘beautiful’ painting. Here is a calligraphy shorn of useful meaning but brimming with verve, tongue-tied yet excited by the possibilities of revelation. It is a cooler, less claustrophobic world and has called for weightier decisions in size, structure and colour.
The paintings began with circles, large compass-drawn ones which bind the series together. They provide a defining, repeated structure on which to build and in no sense act as composition. They can almost be smothered in swan’s down or made fierily pronounced at their circumference, sometimes be eclipsed, at other times made as upfront as targets. Smaller circles appear, more insistent, like discs or globes, as in the suspended row of them in Untitled (white, brown and orange). All the circles suggest plenitude and emptiness, a form with neither beginning nor end which, as Chinese Zen painters referred to it, was the ‘Great Emptiness’, so hallowed that it was beyond human explanation. ‘Even when we paint it’, wrote one Zen master, ‘it is not painted.’ While the large circles dispense their energies intermittently throughout the paintings, the smaller ones appear as centres of concentration.
As with the circles, empty spaces also carried great significance for Zen painters as symbols of the absence of form, colour and attributes of subject. High valuation was placed on such passages of non-elaboration, summed up in the classic statement that ‘The idea is present even where the brush has not passed’. Rae’s use of white in these works as both emerging ground and willed constituent functions in a similar way. With characteristic ambiguity, she alternates their roles, allowing them to breathe in and out across the length of the paintings, at one moment like chinks of sky, at others as solid as an Arp relief. A further Zen device which finds an echo here was known as ‘over-flown white’–the use of a colour on a splayed brush so that the white ground was visible through the divided strokes. Rae’s flurried combings of paint provide essential changes of texture and tempo.
Such correspondences may seem strained–and Rae has no specific knowledge of Far Eastern painting although Oriental art is remembered from her childhood. But, drawing as it does on a great reservoir of appropriated marks and gestures, her work is bound to reverberate beyond the confines of its making. Chinese scrolls and Assyrian reliefs just as much as movie sequences have had their impact on the freewheeling way she works across the canvas, repeating or interrupting elements in syncopated profusion. But hers is no lyrical put-it-all-down approach. The ‘right kind of chaos’, as she has said, has to emerge before she can establish a dominant rhythm or particular colour configuration. Profligacy too needs its decisions. Once on her way, she can proceed with increased assurance though not necessarily with ease. But then skating on thin ice has more thrill to it than circling a ready-made rink.
In her earlier works, Rae seemed distinctly urban, though there is no direct evidence for this in her ‘imagery’. It emanated more from the catchy zest and zip of the paint, the Dodgem collisions and Come-Dancing colours. Now the feeling has changed and though the city lurks beneath, the paintings have a meteorological charge to them. Circles become dials and lenses, gusts of cloud blow across teeming incidents far below, colours seem seasonably grouped. These are near-ineffable suggestions and in no sense intended as interpretation or special pleading. Rae has marked out her terrain of ambiguity so carefully that naming, evoking, pinning on a phrase becomes almost blasphemous. Her achievement lies in her synthetic control so that fact and suggestion, intention and accident, figuration and abstraction, contrivance and free-flow are all dissolved into a comprehensive scheme, here delivered in her best paintings to date.