2002 Simon Wallis interview, ‘Fiona Rae’ (exhibition catalogue), Carré d’Art – Musée d’Art contemporain, Nîmes, France
Interview with Simon Wallis
Simon Wallis: There seems to be a connection between your earlier paintings and the work you’re making now. Could you talk about that process?
Fiona Rae: I abandoned a lot of the more figurative drawing and fragmented imagery for a while, but it’s something that I’ve started to include again. That’s why I’ve selected this particular group of paintings from 1990/1991 to start the exhibition.
SW: Why did that imagery get abandoned?
FR: I suppose at times you decide to pursue certain lines of enquiry, and that kind of impure imagery didn’t fit in. I really became concerned with a more abstract space for a while. But working is like travelling along a spiral, as you’re passing by you can lean down and pick something up from the past and then carry on round. I think it’s more like that than any form of linear progression that only look straight ahead.
SW: I guess it’s an idea of experience being embodied in painting – that nothing is ever lost.
FW: Yes, I’ve realised I have this vocabulary that I’ve appropriated and made my own in some way and that I can go and revisit it at any time.
SW: The notion of appropriation was very much the zeitgeist when you were studying. Appropriating previous languages really comes to the fore during that period, why do you think that is?
FW: Well, although I looked at all kinds of different languages – painting languages and ways of making images – I didn’t simply quote them, I reinvented them in some way and made them my own. Things always passed through my hands; it wasn’t just a kind of cool Goldsmiths, postmodern representation of someone else’s work. It was a way of proceeding when it felt like things were dead, buried and long gone. It allowed me to pick something back up and somehow jump-start it, making it possible for me to make a painting.
SW: What sort of things were you picking back up?
FW: I guess the right to make a painting. It felt very unfashionable back then to make a painting that was expressive in a gestural way. I think what you were allowed to do, in inverted commas, was make minimalist gestures or very postmodern gestures, but you weren’t allowed to make the gestural gestures, so to speak.
SW: Do you think that’s a trust of something possibly romantic and humanistic?
FR: I think so, because things really had to feel quite political. People would tell me that I was not allowed to do this or that, that painting was over and the battles against it had been fought and won back in the seventies. It seems quite amazing now, doesn’t it?
SW: There’s something against the grain of what one might hope from the practice of art – a notion of freedom maybe?
FR: I felt I had to be very questioning and self-aware, in order to justify my desire to paint.
SW: There does seem to be a great deal of anxiety in the work.
FR: I thought that the way that I would be able to make a painting would be if it embodied my anxiety about how to make it – if the result itself was something to do with that ambivalence. My paintings reflect my own state of mind, which is often one of uneasiness.
SW: One of the interesting things about painting is that they look somewhat uncertain as to whether they are finished, and that’s part of the thing that pulls me in, the idea that there could still be possibilities.
FR: I’m always reluctant to make a final decision on anything, and although the paintings are definitely finished I really like the idea that it could all shift again in the next moment. It’s a get-out clause.
SW: Exactly, there isn’t an easy answer, or narrative closure, things are open-ended. Yet for all that, you seem to be working in series. I don’t know whether that’s a conscious thing?
FR: It’s not conscious, it just somehow ends up that way, although I think some of the paintings are much more blurred and open-ended than that. When you introduce a new element or idea to the work, it changes the look or shifts the meaning for a while.
SW: All the early works you’ve left as untitled, as if you didn’t want their meaning deciphered too easily. But in the later works, the narrative becomes palpable and the titles begin to refer to things directly.
FR: They suggest something don’t they? I thought it was time to come clean about what some of my intentions were and in the end that was a more fun and exciting way of doing it. The title is another mark I can add to the painting, but I don’t intend it to override everything else.
SW: There’s a violent visual quality to your early work.
FR: Yes, they do look aggressive when I look at them now – I used to think the various paint marks were fighting it out within the painting, but with nobody quite managing to dominate. In a way I still think that happens but it’s a more subtle, refined struggle now.
SW: In particular, the black and white series, the ones that have visual static, seem to recreate a sense of anxiety within the viewer.
FR: That was my intention, I wanted them to be very unsettling, no clear or solid ground, nothing to rely on. I was living in a flat hundreds of feet above London, a bit like living in a space ship. There was no sense of the real to comfort and reassure, no pavements, roads or trees. It seemed a truly contemporary experience and I wanted the paintings I was making to reflect something of that.
SW: Static is always something you want to tune in, isn’t it?
FR: I know, it’s unbearable! You want it to resolve into something, yet it doesn’t, although the hope that it will keeps you tolerating it. Maybe it’s quite reassuring to act out your own anxiety again and again, maybe there’s something in that? I also liked the second Terminator movie where the Terminator melts in and out of the background by taking on the attributes of whatever he’s next to. That was one of the ideas with the black and white paintings, that the black and white paint keeps reconfiguring into other marks and slips around the painting.
SW: People are very sensitive to when an artist is bored or short-changing us, and over the years you have always deftly avoided doing the easy repetitive thing that some artists of your generation have been plagued with.
FR: I guess one of my terrors is boring people, or being predictable. I mean maybe I do anyway, but it’s a driving force. But more than my fear of the audience is my fear of myself, of not wanting to be bored. I don’t want to come to the studio and do what I already know how to do, although of course I have to, it’s inevitable. I can’t keep re-inventing myself, but I think it’s important to try, so that even though it’s not a total make-over, something a bit different happens.
SW: People have said of your work that it has a coolness – but overall I feel a sense of coolness is not what first comes to mind with your paintings.
FR: Yes, the coolness is a useful strategy but at the same time they’re completely heartfelt, although that’s quite a recent realisation for me. Whenever I look at older paintings, I see my state of mind at the time made visible. Somehow I manage to combine this with a cool analytical approach, in order to marshal things and not end up with a complete mess.
SW: So the idea of being, in some ways, an expressionist doesn’t embarrass you?
FR: Not now, but I may have fought against that some years ago – I’ve changed and so has the climate. Things are really different now, it seems that the personal is OK again.
SW: I wonder how much that is to do with the influence of technology? In our time it’s the most radical thing that’s happened within visual culture – the democratising of how people engage with creativity. People are much less afraid of the visual through surfing the web and the rules of design being constantly turned on their head.
FR: People don’t need a beginning, middle and end so much, they’re very sophisticated now in the way they process visual information.
SW: In relation to your own work, I know you use the computer in the process of making a painting, when did that start?
FR: I got a Mac half way through making my black paintings, but all I could do was scan things in and print them out, like a photocopier. It was when I started making the paintings with fonts in them that I began to use a computer properly. Even so, it’s useful only up to a certain point. For example, with the large triptych I’m making for the Nîmes exhibition, I planned the placing and sizes of the letters, signs and symbols in Photoshop, and I tried to plan the colours for them, but in the end it just didn’t work out. I had to change it all several times afterwards on the actual canvas. Something that looks good on a computer screen, or even on the printout, doesn’t necessarily look good once it’s ten metres long. I don’t use the computer to work out the drawing or other marks; somehow the way a bit of drawing may look on the screen has nothing to do with its physicality on the canvas, it still seems very divorced to me. Computers are useful in the way they make things visible that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, like shadows and flares on things.
SW: The acceleration of time in cultural life is something that your paintings seem to be very connected to – the temporal qualities that have changed through the use of technology and a continued sampling culture.
FR: A fashionability and a contemporary currency that might fade isn’t something to hide from… I think it’s inevitable anyway. You may as well enjoy what’s around you now and respond to it, and I think that other things in the painting will outlast the immediate references, wouldn’t you say?
SW: Absolutely, I mean I wonder what that concern for longevity is really about?
FR: For ever and ever amen, it’s bizarre isn’t it? Everything looks of its time if it’s lucky: if it doesn’t look of its time the you’ve got a problem.
SW: What other things begin to filter through and have a visual impact on your work?
FR: All kinds of things. The beginnings of movies nowadays, the way the titles invent a glimpse of deep space, something like that must have had an effect on me. The way things look in Photoshop… I was looking at an astronomy photograph of the night sky which Dan (Perfect) found for me on the Internet. There’s an amazing randomness to the ways the stars and planets are scattered, which you couldn’t invent. I’ve got some complete tat in the studio – it doesn’t matter whether or not I actually like something, it could still be useful. I’ve got some Chinese posters, I think they’re New Year’s posters, pinned up on the wall – they’re super lurid and kitsch looking, with ribbons and stuff. I’ve been looking at Dürer and Bosch – it’s a surprise how contemporary they look next to other things lying around in the studio, like a cover of an X-Men comic or a poster for Monsters Inc. Or maybe it’s the other way round and they show how most things around us aren’t really that new, but go back hundreds of years…
SW: What about the notion of improvisation in your work?
FR: Well that’s definitely still there. I used to improvise everything but then what is improvisation? It’s always based on some kind of prior knowledge isn’t it?
SW: It’s using readymade structures but giving them your own spin. I think you’ve got to have the building blocks of a language because any meaningful improvisation has still got to be legible.
FR: Yes, otherwise it’s nonsense. Apart from planning the initial stage on the computer – the colour of the ground and fonts, and their composition, the rest is totally improvised, which can be a bit of a nightmare quite frankly.
SW: But there seems to be so little overpainting in the recent work.
FR: Oh, there’s loads.
SW: It doesn’t appear that way.
FR: Everything’s been on and off a million times, I’m extremely good at covering my tracks or making it look like it’s intentional.
SW: That’s what I was hinting at when I said the paintings seemed to kind of clear themselves out, the layers of work within the paintings seemed to be much more visible in the earlier works.
FR: Yes, I left my tracks much more uncovered, that’s definitely true. The accident or failure was something to be left on the canvas, whereas now I guess I’d transmute it into something else.
SW: Well now you’ve got a space that would be much less conducive for a failure to be left and not transformed.
FR: Yes, it would look like a rupture.
SW: What do you feel about the place of painting in relation to all the technological changes that have occurred in the last ten years, has it changed what you might produce a painting for?
FR: I think that there’s always going to be something that a painting can do, that a movie can’t do, that a computer can’t do, that the poster in the street can’t do. I’m not quite sure how to characterise it, maybe it comes back to the personal or individual touch of moment, its success or failure. Painting is a romantic, magical thing although I never thought I’d say that!
SW: It probably is romantic in essence, something to do with surface and colour, as that’s intrinsically what painting is.
FR: Your eyes feel the surface, the changes in texture, it’s a luxury item.
SW: Yes, I think it’s to do with people being fascinated by unique moments.
FR: Painting is one of those things which is still about the original artefact in some way, the evidence of someone’s creative moment, which is rare now. So it still has a place and a fascination, especially since the proliferation of technological possibilities.
SW: There seems to be a relation in your work, intentional or not, with Abstract Expressionism and all the gestural components that were part of that, and a shift towards Pop Art. You seem to have combined those two painterly languages in a personal way. They represent two mindsets, one gestural and romantic, the other one thoroughly indebted to the commercial contingencies of everyday life. I think you’ve created an interesting synthesis between the two in your work.
FR: But when something’s part of your education rather than part of your lived experience it’s not so surprising to end up doing that. I didn’t live through Abstract Expressionism and I didn’t live through Pop Art. It’s not like I had to take sides at the time or was part of the excitement. So in the end, as well as being art to be experienced and enjoyed, they’re also languages you can take parts of, or take part in with or without reverence.
SW: Painting as a language is an interesting metaphor, the way it’s built and developed, the kinds of symbolic resonances it has, and how you might continually feed into that. That’s something your paintings seem really to foreground, but not in a didactic way at all.
FR: I hope not.
SW: How does it feel looking back over the work?
FR: It is a surprise. I love the energy, but now there’s a different kind of energy.