A Conversation between Fiona Rae and Dan Perfect
in Fiona Rae’s studio, London, January 2011
D.P.: So, what constitutes a nightmare for you?
F.R.: When I set up a challenge, or series of challenges that I can’t solve easily. For example, with The world explains the way you feel, it amused me to see if I could pull off a painting where the colour scheme is essentially red, white and blue, but it took about 6 months and was a nightmare.
D.P.: How did it work in the end?
F.R.: I stopped being cautious, and decided to be daring and risk losing some of what I’d carefully done. I added that big, white asymmetrical star to balance against all the fiddly bits scattered across the rest of the canvas. There’s clear glitter on the star, partly to distract from the uneven surface, and partly because glitter isn’t supposed to make an appearance on a serious painting. I’m concerned with how the surface looks up close, that it is always resolved one way or another, and not left looking unsatisfactory simply because I couldn’t quite cope with how to sort it out. So it has to turn into something else, or look reworked and scraped off in an interesting or enjoyable way. At the very least, heavily revised parts of the painting become a palimpsest – which is why it’s one of my favourite words to have in mind when painting! Every aspect of the painting is taken care of, and is the most itself it can be, I hope.
D.P.: So is painting a formal challenge for you, or do you worry about meaning?
F.R.: I do worry about meaning. I think that the tiniest nuance of a formal decision has repercussions in terms of meaning. The paintings are like Elizabethan dances, where every gesture has a corresponding mood or possible interpretation, while the overall composition might have a meaning or meanings all of its own.
D.P.: Is that primarily meaning for yourself, or meaning for others?
F.R.: I think it’s the same thing, because if I can’t locate meaning in the paintings, then I doubt anyone else will be able to either. If I can find a painting I’ve made meaningful, then I think okay, well maybe someone else will too. But on the whole I have to let meaning take care of itself – it’s out of my control really.
D.P.: So you’re always going to have multifarious meanings or readings?
F.R.: Yes, but I think that’s also meaningful in itself. I’m not interested in being didactic and explicatory; I don’t want to be lectured at, and nor do I want to provide a lecture.
D.P.: Do you have multiple narratives running as you make the paintings?
F.R.: I have different ways to put on the different kinds of marks. The red calligraphic drawing on Gather all the treasure and make friends in the world would probably have had a back story about a dragon or creature of some sort, but other kinds of marks have different sorts of ideas and logic threads behind them. It’s a cut-and-paste attitude, which relates to Photoshop – a layering of different moments, some narrative, some micro-narrative, some formal, some inexplicable…
D.P.: How personal are these paintings? Not everyone is looking to reveal or describe their own personal psychology, their psychic reality…
F.R.: I think it’s all I have to work with really, even though I’m an artist of a postmodern age.
D.P.: I see the deconstructive strategies that you employ to be more a function of icono- clasm, which seems to me to be a very important theme in your work and your core beliefs. I think a lot of that undermining is to do with pointing up the ludicrousness of rigid opinion and orthodoxy, which is found in the language of painting as much as it is in politics.
F.R.: I think that’s right actually. I can’t bear authorities and given histories and assumptions that something is important and canonical and therefore we should all pay attention to it. The history of painting is one in which I want to find my place and take my part, but at the same time I can’t help but make fairly absurd conjunctions and comparisons. I don’t see why I can’t make an abstract expressionist brushmark – but then have a little daisy pop up next to it.
D.P.: That approach does keep you free from the crushing weight of orthodoxy.
F.R.: It might have something to do with feeling a bit of an outsider. My mother is Australian, my father was British, and we didn’t come to live in England until the early 70’s. I spent my early years in Hong Kong and Indonesia, and we travelled a lot – I still can’t quite piece together which continent or freight ship we were on at various times. It meant I was exposed to all kinds of different visual experiences, cultures, and landscapes, although to this day I don’t really know where I’m from.
D.P.: You have several parallel cultures running alongside each other, and none of them have entirely convinced you or taken you over. I wonder if some of the tumult you conjure up in your work has to do with a fundamentally unsettled feeling?
F.R.: Yes, I am sure it does. To me everything is in flux, everything shifts; one minute it looks like one thing, the next minute it looks like something else. I think my paintings reflect that inner world.
D.P.: Even within these paintings for Berlin, there’s a range of temperature and emotional timbres – from a joyous celebration of flux and change and mutability, to a feeling of anxiety about overwhelming choice, and the profusion of material possibilities.
F.R.: Mmm. I’m seeing what happens when I let the paintings head off in different directions from each other, so that I can have different kinds of voices in the show, rather than all the voices always appearing on the same canvas, which can produce a similar pitch of chaotic complexity.
D.P.: Personally, I’m very excited by what appears to be a real opening up of the possibility of different outcomes. It makes the paintings look as if they’re not envisaged beforehand, but are arrived at through an experimental process.
F.R.: That’s true, the paintings are never envisaged beforehand, even if they do end up looking clearly part of a series or group. I have been wondering what it would be like if I didn’t interrogate so many of my decisions. For example, some of them start off with a graphic, cartoonish image in pop colours before I start to undo and eat away at it. I really longed for this seemed such a perfect start that I wondered whether it was also a perfect finish. So I left it for quite a long time before deciding that there really wasn’t anything I wanted to add or subtract – oh, apart from the very thin bits of orange trailing here and there, which were drawings of bits of string that I tossed on the studio floor to get some unexpected shapes.
D.P.: Looking at them now, I’m thinking how performative they are…
F.R.: I do think of them as an improvised performance based on some initial rules, for example a certain set of colours. Some of the things in my paintings are planned, but beyond that I have the freedom to allow anything to happen – including getting rid of those early plans. The moves I make can be disastrous or fantastic, I just don’t know in advance.
As with improvisation in drama, I think it’s important to follow an impulse, no matter how small or insignificant it might appear to be, to see where it leads. I’m happy to start sometimes with the same structures and travel along the same road, because small or big changes will inevitably happen, and some kind of adventure will occur…it’s basically relax and trust yourself, everything’s going to be okay!
D.P.: Do you think about an audience much?
F.R.: Not while I’m painting. I try to be in that special place by myself – it’s like being in a dream or underwater. If I go out of the studio to fill the kettle or whatever, when I return I momentarily become the audience and I can try to assess what I’ve been doing. Brian Eno discusses the importance of going out of the room when recording – he talks about listening to the work from outside the room; obviously he’s talking about music so it’s different, but I do like the idea of ‘listening’ to my paintings when I’m outside the studio. I think it does work as a strategy even if it’s a bit bizarre, because it’s as if the minute I get that little bit of distance from them, they condense into showing themselves as they really are, rather than my fantasy of what they might be in the moment of creating them.
I’ve also been using my iPhone to take photos of them in their latest states when I pack up for the evening. That’s a way of looking at them from outside the studio; reducing them to these little snapshots makes them a more manageable proposition. Often when I can’t sleep I have a look at them; ideas for what to do next sometimes come to me more easily away from the studio than when I’m in front of the actual canvas.
D.P.: One of the things I think is worth talking about is the impact of visual manipulative technology on your work; taking the physical visual things of the world and putting them into a virtual space that can be manipulated and changed.
F.R.: I think the only way I’ve used computers in recent years is really to do with colour more than anything; I haven’t used them to prepare any compositions for the paintings. I take a photograph of a painting I’ve made and flip it around on the computer to see whether I can come up with another set of colours that’s exciting and unexpected and something I feel I want to work with.
D.P.: It strikes me that you are attracted to technology, but one of the things that it seems to me delights you most, and that you take from it most, is the surprising new vault into the future, the paradigm shift, the creation of the extraordinary thing.
F.R.: Hmm, like a new pair of trainers.
D.P.: Yes, something magical and that human beings haven’t thought of before.
F.R.: Well, it doesn’t necessarily need computers to do that.
D.P.: No, it absolutely doesn’t, and in some ways the bright profusion of glittering objects in your paintings, even in the densest and darkest ones, reminds me of a kind of 60’s vision of the future, when modern cities started to erupt and teem with a certain kind of technology; when manufacturing processes changed so that buildings and lighting changed, and the ability to make signs and cars. It was very different from the 30’s or 40’s or 50’s view of the world. I think that there’s a difference between the technological modern look and virtuality; it seems to me that your paintings aren’t virtual things, they’re very physical things. In a world that’s disappearing fast into virtuality, you’re slightly putting yourself in contra- distinction to that.
F.R.: Yes, absolutely. I do think that what painting has to offer in 2011, is that it’s a very physical, unique, textured object existing three dimensionally in the real space that we inhabit with our bodies.
D.P.: These aren’t paintings that are imagined in a virtual space.
F.R.: They can’t exist as video monitors.
D.P.: No, they’re physically improvised in real time and real space.
F.R.: To experience a painting as it’s intended, you have to stand in front of it, as the paint does all kinds of different physical things that you can see and feel with your eyes.
D.P.: Even in the contemporary world of art making, you’re hard-pressed to find someone who with such energy conjures up fantastical worlds as you do. I think you genuinely make things up.
F.R.: I do make things up, but I also have a lot of reference material and bits of imagery around me in the studio – some of it is useful as inspiration points to bounce off, and some of it finds its way into the paintings. It’s all transformed and transmuted and transgressed and translated; things don’t stay exactly as I find them, my source material undergoes changes.
D.P.: I think most viewers would struggle to identify the source material. The things that are most recognizably from elsewhere, or from the great river of cultural production, are the little images like the bunny heads, the angels, and the hearts.
F.R.: Even those I tend to adapt and change.
D.P.: Is the artlessness of the original things what you liked about them?
F.R.: I don’t think of them as particularly artless, there’s so much invention in so-called low culture that I can find it entertaining and inspiring. I do choose slightly dumb or blank motifs that I can play around with, but those grinning bunny heads in thick lurid paint still bear a resemblance to the original source, which was some embroidery you might find on a needlework sampler. They also have a slightly horrifying vacuity about them; that ambiguity between cute and horror, the thin line between the two states, is probably the quality that links the images that I select.
D.P.: They’re also often products designed for children. In what sense are you playing with that?
F.R.: I suppose I see it all as fair game. I don’t mind whether it’s designed for children as the bunny stickers might have been, or designed for adults as Dürer’s Apocalypse woodcuts might have been. I just see it all as really quite equal in the end, and material that I can use and transform to my own purposes. I think that the different intentions of the original source material perhaps adds to a richness, a multiplicity of different points of view.
D.P.: Even though you work in oil paint, you work in quite a graphic way – often the elements in the paintings remain quite distinct from each other. As you say, Photoshop puts things in layers, but of course Photoshop is just a digital version of animation cells, which is what I think these paintings relate to, especially the way they make an evocative abstract background into a theatre for activity in the foreground.
F.R.: Sometimes I’m distracted by the backgrounds when I’m watching a Studio Ghibli or Disney animation; in the best cartoons or animations, there isn’t a bit that you’re not really supposed to be looking at, it’s all amazing and inventive. The phosphorescent forest and hanging mountains in Avatar are as attention-grabbing as the action with the Banshees. If I relate that to my paintings, then whether something is in the foreground or background, it all has to be convincing and particular; it’s all important and it’s all the subject.
D.P.: I think that one of the obvious things that occurs to me, seeing the paintings out like this, is that in some of the paintings the titles have spilled onto the front of the pictures. What do you think that does to the spaces, to the worlds that you are envisaging?
F.R.: I think it’s a disruptive strategy, as well as being just another device that adds a new formal element. The title appears when it needs to, and not all of the paintings needed the titles to appear. I wanted to find a way of integrating the words on the painting, so that once you notice them, they don’t then just dominate and become all that you can see – it takes a while to see them, you can read some of the letters easily, but not others, so that the legibility floats in and out of focus. It also feels quite daring to me to put the titles on the front, and rather ludicrous.
D.P.: Do you really think the titles disrupt the paintings?
F.R.: I think they give a little jolt, in so far as you’re not really supposed to write the titles on the front of a painting, just as you’re not supposed to sign it on the front either! And although the words have a particular physicality – the chunky paint in bright colours, with the wonky hand-cut stencils – they’re automatically at one remove from the rest of the painting languages. They’re able to indicate, or pretend to indicate, intention.
D.P.: So what you’re dealing with here is perhaps something about the difficulty of clarity and direct communication – your titles are in themselves mistranslations or distortions of the English language.
F.R.: Yes, they’re ‘found sentences’ where English has been used in a way that’s not quite right – but not ‘oh someone’s spelt something wrongly or used completely the wrong word’ – because I’m not interested in that, that just seems to me to be mocking or superior in a way that doesn’t take us anywhere. I am interested in slight misuses and misunderstandings of English that make the sentences seem open to multiple interpretations. The titles are evocative without clearly signposting to somewhere. So in that sense, I think it is unclear language and yet it’s poetic.
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