Fiona Rae by Shirley Kaneda

“You end up using dubious sounding words like ‘alchemical’ to describe painting, but it’s this incredible activity.”

BOMB 49 Fall 1994
049 Fall 1994
49 Rae 01 Body

Fiona Rae, Untitled (purple, red & pink), oil on canvas 72 × 84”. Courtesy John Good Gallery.

The rise of British sculpture in the 1980s, the recent attention given to Goldsmith College graduates Damien Hirst, and the award of the prestigious Turner prize to the young sculptor, Rachel Whiteread, have made the British art scene the object of much speculation. The lone abstract painter to emerge is Fiona Rae who recently had her first solo exhibition on this side of the Atlantic with John Good Gallery of New York. Crammed with different techniques, abstract and representational images, references to recent as well as historical American and European painting, and comic books and graphic design, one wonders whether Rae is paying homage or gently mocking through ironic twists and turns. The paintings’ energy seems to ricochet off the surface moving every which way.

We met briefly in my loft where we started discussing her paintings and painting in general and continued a lively correspondence over the Atlantic on the nature of what else but: painting

Shirley Kaneda What would be your response if I said your work was pastiche, or an eclectic assembling of different images?

Fiona Rae I’d take issue with the word “pastiche.” You could describe the paintings like this, but it makes it sound as if it’s a straightforward exercise in arranging ready-made components. I think it’s more improvisational and complex than that. The paintings aren’t supposed to be a checklist of eclectic quotations to be ticked off as recognized. I hope they have a singular presence which precedes any fragmentational reading.

SK Do you use quotation generically or as a form of appropriating paintings’ historicity?

FR I’m not sure if this is possible, although broadly speaking a hard-edged shape would refer more to cool abstraction, therefore this is a type of generic quotation but I make it hard to recognize what the referents are. For example, a gestural section by the same token should logically refer to a gestural genre of painting, but is a cluster of brushmarks in one of my paintings a miniature Franz Kline, or could it be a close-up of a fragment of a Turner painting? The process is transformative rather than quotational, things undergo a seachange. Each time one comes across a conjunction of marks in my painting, the question “which genre?” is invoked, without pointing to any one genre in particular. Therefore I think it’s a question, not a quotation.

SK “Quotation” has broad implications, the way you refer to the meaning of quotation is literal or literary, and I’m speaking of it as a critical tool, assuming it possesses the ability to question and therefore open up the meaning of what we are seeing and referring to, why else would you quote?

FR The visual “quote” entails remaking the original and is thus inevitably an interpretation. A representation takes place rather than a quote. For something to be a quote would imply it has only one use—as a recollection or illustrative device to a certain end. I think a transformation takes place during any form of representation. Duchamp’s use of objects is similar to the way I might incorporate different painting languages. He’s not just quoting a urinal when he changes it to an art object. The urinal comes loaded with its own set of cultural, psychological, and functional meanings which Duchamp exploits, but with the new context he provides, generates further meanings. It certainly seems to go beyond quotation. Similarly, I use fragments from Disney, high art, mail-order catalogues, or whatever as visual stimuli which I bring forward into a new context. It’s this process of upheaval, from old to new, that gives new meanings. This is use, or usage, as distinct from quotation. It may be more enlightening to imagine painting as a fluent language with new words and new uses of words engendered all the time. It’s not necessarily quoting to imbue familiar phrases with new meanings. Each mark or shape I use has a part to play in the painting as a whole, which outstrips its possible role as a quote.

SK I don’t see Duchamp as “quoting” when he used a urinal, it is a readymade and the difference is that the urinal is an object made symbolic, but someone like Haim Steinbach when he uses quotes is using it as a sign. I don’t understand the difference between “use” or “usage” and quotation, if the goals are similar. After all, the usefulness or the purpose of “quotation” or the “borrowing” of familiar images, whether they be abstract or representational, hopefully adds to the expanding possibilities for painting or other forms of art, depending on how you use it. Quotation got a bad rap in the ’80s, but it’s certainly not limited in the way you describe it. I think we are basically talking about the same ideas using different terminology. Tell me about the images in your paintings.

FR There are images in one way, and in another there aren’t any at all, it could be a collection of brushmarks. I think it would be hard to agree on which images were present—it depends on the viewer—and so they’re not nameable. I’d dispute the presence of images if they can’t be named. I suppose there appear to be traces of imagery because often parts of the paintings are abstracted from sources which are images. Also a certain brushmark might remind one of a de Kooning or a Richter mark, and so acts as an image in that way. However, I think the physicality of the paintings, the thick brushmarks, the smudges, the sludgy bits, the turpentine washes, etc. keep the paintings in the realm of the abstract. For me, keeping the desire to picture, to make sense of, in tension with the notion of abstraction, is what’s important.

SK The spontaneity and randomness in your work seem predetermined or studied. They hover somewhere between letting go and having control; exactly how much of it is predetermined?

FR I never know quite how to draw distinctions between letting go and having control. It seems to me that one would only let go when one has control. Otherwise it’s a mess. I might work out some kind of structure but within that I might allow for change, spontaneity. Or I might not. Sometimes I don’t work out any kind of structure.

SK Do you use a computer?

FR No, but I have used a photocopier to change the scale or format of a painting or its colors, to see what it will look like.

SK The way you paint is quite clean. At what points do you make the decisions, because they seem fairly clear? How do you compose your work, what is your methodology?

FR It would be hard to describe this, part of the methodology is to be open to change and reversal. However, it’s inevitable that one ends up with a system at various times that works and I stay with it until it starts falling apart.

SK What are your feelings on the tradition of abstract painting? What do you think of British painters such as Alan Davie, John Hoyland, etc.?

FR It’s hugely complex, I suppose. It’s something that one might look up to, and be in awe of, and in another way is totally available for one to use. Sometimes I see it as a huge lexicon that I can dip into and re-use, a way of finding different ways of using paint or meaning that I couldn’t come up with if I sat in a small room by myself. I love the tradition of abstract painting. I look at European and American abstraction with all their differences, and also a lot of figurative painting—like Picasso and Guston. Abstract art is by no means the sole inspiration for my own painting. Obviously some artists mean more to me than others. In my opinion there isn’t really a great tradition of British painting in which I’m interested.

SK Do you see your project as one of redemption or self-consciousness? In other words, is it about maintaining abstract painting, or is it a progress report on the state of abstract painting?

FR The word redemption implies that abstract painting is in a state of sin and that someone’s supposed to rescue it. I’ve never felt this—I acknowledge that my endeavour is a difficult project after all that’s taken place in modernism and post-modernism, but I don’t believe in the supposed death of painting; nor do I believe in painting furiously apologizing for itself.

SK Again, I think you are taking what I say literally: no one can deny the massive doubt that surrounds painting’s viability, and some critics and curators have out and out dismissed painting. We, as practitioners, cannot simply ignore this, but find ways to stand up to the challenge of our times. That’s not necessarily just the criticisms coming from institutional and academic corners, but from a genuine inquiry as to how painting can help measure our values or lead us to question those values. Painting has to have a level of self-consciousness to achieve that. That is not an apology but a desire to be active, rather than passive. But because of the criticism of modernism and formalism in the ’80s, any use of appropriated forms is viewed as cynical.

FR I agree with you. Of course one has to be aware of the threat to painting, the question now is how actively does one join in the debate. For me, making good paintings is the most resolute response. To crusade on behalf of painting sounds like a critic’s job. Although, obviously, I have a critical position: I’m not picking up where the Abstract Expressionists left off as if nothing had happened in between.

As for appropriation, it’s not cut and dried, but I think there’s a distinction to be made between the appropriation which is a time-honored device used by artists where they borrow or steal from other cultures, genres, individuals, in order to enrich their own work and to make of the stolen goods something new and the appropriation which is a self-conscious reason for the entire existence of the work. I don’t think I’m cynical when I appropriate forms. The nearest I come to that is when I see it as a useful ironic device.

SK Does opening up possibilities for abstract painting mean that you’re more interested in sustaining the project of abstract painting as opposed to perhaps capitulating to its limits?

FR The two positions are mutually dependent, not mutually exclusive. If one achieves something new it’s always tested against something already known—this is how recognition works—therefore opening up new possibilities naturally entails finding the limits of what has gone before. I do not predict a point of exhaustion where there are no more possibilities. I’m certainly trying to see what I can include—I admire the work of Richter and Polke—it seems to me that they find new and exciting ways of making paintings. There’s no inhibition about the possibilities.

SK I don’t think they are always mutually dependent. Just finding the limits is not enough—it’s what one does with those limits and here I will say the term “use” is appropriate—it’s how those limits are used that may or may not provide further possibilities. This leads to another question which has to do with your approach to painting: Is it analytical or is it intuitive?

FR I might think I’m being very strategic, but in the end my intuition comes in and dictates which part of my strategy I’m going to follow in the painting. There’s a point in the studio when I’m being intuitive, but maybe that intuition is being directed by my idea, strategy or process. It’s a difficult question. How would you answer that?

SK I view my work as a dialogue between those two issues. I can’t say that I don’t think about my approach, or the concept behind my work; however, at the same time, the process of painting is intuitive.

FR If it were intuition gone wild, it could be a nightmare. On the other hand, a purely analytical approach might be deadly dry. If such a thing could possibly exist. I mean, there’s always a point where it has to have a form or presence and therefore invention of some kind, so in that sense intuitive decisions take place even in the driest part of the work.

SK Unfortunately, paintings are categorized into an either/or, for example romantic or cerebral methodology. Somebody like Barnett Newman might be more analytical about painting, and Rothko might be more intuitive.

FR I find these distinctions quite strange. The extension of this argument is that one is being entirely objective, the other subjective. One might feel that Van Gogh had a very romantic approach to painting, and yet I think his method was incredibly rigorous. When you are confronted with a Van Gogh painting, how on earth can you discern whether it was arrived at intuitively or analytically or both.

SK I think that the methods we have in order to judge a painting depend on certain classical notions of what good art is. And a lot of that has to do with clean hard lines, or perfection in terms of …

FR Golden sections … The equation is as dumb as the straight lines equal rigorous approach and fuzzy lines equal romantic approach. People have a lot of preconceptions about what paint language means: pink paint isn’t serious, but black and grey is, and I don’t understand that.

SK These known attitudes are what I’m interested in questioning or dispelling in painting. And this type of metaphor is possible in painting. For example, your paintings depend on the collaging of spaces and painterly effects, do you use them purely as formal devices, or are you interested in the idea of multiplicity, diversity, and disparity?

FR I’m not sure if it’s possible that something could be a purely formal device. In my paintings I generate scenarios where several disparate elements can coexist and tussle with each other. It’s not a social charter or manifesto but the implications are widespread. It’s obvious there’s some type of pluralism at work here, albeit an esoteric one. Maybe it’s because this is the type of society I’m part of. I allow as many influences to enter my work as possible, and to interact with each other. Sometimes it seems like Minimalism takes a swipe at Abstract Expressionism or vice versa—this jockeying for position is my way of avoiding the inertia endemic in late 20th-century pluralism.

SK You have different disparities going on in one painting, and yet you have groups of paintings that are similar to one another.

FR The need to repeat whole sets of disparities from painting to painting is a way of indicating that it’s not a random process, that there is a lucidity that’s evolving. If one sets up a language for a painting then one wouldn’t necessarily dump it when one moves on to the next painting. You’d prove (in the sense of test) it as many times as it still interested you and had resonance. If paintings are made within the same period of time, they’re bound to have quite a close relationship. When I chose a group of paintings to show, I chose a family, but it didn’t mean there weren’t strange cousins.

SK You look at other things, outside of art, such as cartoons. What else do you look at and what are the reasons for that?

FR Yes, I look at all kinds of things—sales catalogues, photographs I take, other people’s photographs, signs and symbols, street furniture, furniture … There is a need to subvert my own taste and find the opposite to look at. I think about the need to change my own diet, or keep it fresh.

SK You went to Goldsmith’s College. And a lot of your contemporaries are conceptual artists. What do you think of your relationship to them?

FR I suppose I think my attitude to painting is fairly conceptual.

SK Does being a woman affect your work at all? Painting has been pretty much out-and-out macho.

FR I don’t know what it’s like to be a man, so it’s an impossible question to answer. I don’t think there’s any limit to what I can do. It’s not something that I worry about too much. I just do what I want to do.

SK What is it you want to do?

FR My goals are very much in flux, and I’m not sure until I make the paintings. I think it’s quite hard to predict what it is you want something to look like because it’s always so different once it’s made. Do you find that?

SK Well, to put it in a very general sense, it would be that I would like to make something that I’ve never seen before. I guess that would be my goal. But that in itself is very broad and of course I use history. So certain parts of it could be familiar, but the totality hopefully wouldn’t be …

FR I think it’s when you don’t recognize something that it starts getting quite interesting.

SK But the criteria for judging is always dependent on something that is known before. It’s a dichotomy, because we’re using basically an out-dated mode of judging something new. So as painting tries to find its space, metaphorically, it defines itself—as you paint. The act of painting itself changes the terms: that’s its biggest possibility.

FR Absolutely. You end up using dubious sounding words like “alchemical” to describe painting, but it’s this incredible activity.

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Originally published in

BOMB 49, Fall 1994

Featuring interviews with Kiki Smith, Arthur Miller, Steve Malkmus, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tom Noonan, Fiona Rae, John Edgar Wideman, Frank Pugliese, Diamanda Galas & John Paul Jones, and David Bowes.

Read the issue
049 Fall 1994