I was thrilled to be invited to the Fiona Rae Press day At Leeds City Gallery last Thursday. It was awesome - her paintings are so colorful.
There is a tension between the physical and the virtual with regards to the visual arts; so much of the art that we see is on a monitor via websites such as this, as well as endless blogs and social networking sites. The online artspace is huge, and the use of computer technology allows for even more artistic possibilities to be realised. I had only ever seen the work of Fiona Rae on a computer screen, and whilst her huge paintings are much better appreciated in the gallery space, her (later) work incorporates an important digital aspect which illustrates such possibilities.
'Maybe you can live on the moon in the next century', curated by Sarah Brown, is an exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery of 17 paintings by Rae from the last decade of her career. Two rectangular, tall white rooms provide an appropriate space for her work, in that her large canvases are neither diminished nor amplified. Instead, in a chronological order, the paintings are left in conversation which one another, and the development of her work is thus evident. Rae graduated from Goldsmiths in 1987, and for many people at that time, painting was over and done with. Paint as a medium seems to play a large part in the subject of Rae's work; throughout, she seems to deal with as much of the history of painting as possible, experimenting with many different combinations and in doing so, breaking and challenging set traditional rules. Black is consistently used throughout her work amongst a huge variety of vibrant colours, and there are countless mark-making methods in each individual canvas: this is exciting, rebellious painting which makes for a fantastic show. There is an energy about this exhibition that reminds me of a child creating a scrapbook, and indeed, Rae indulges in as many different kinds of visual and textures as she likes. Rainbows, typography, drips, sprays, fairies, outlines, pandas, glitter, nebulas and words all come together to create a very rich image, yet there is no hierarchy in her work. The disruption of space within the canvas is highlighted by Rae's extensive use of layering, however, this layering is not obvious. What appears to be at the back of the painting can act as the protagonist; there is movement in her work and it is really good fun to look at. Rae likes things that aren't quite what they initially seem, and that we might see something different to the next person is her paintings is also an evident ambition. Balance is therefore vital in her work - particularly with regards to her wonderful use of colour: mint, bright lavender, bubble-gum pink, sky-blue, magenta, mustard yellow and sky blue all come together, with neither engulfing the canvas. On top of this, Rae's final brushstroke is the title of each painting. Whilst a lot her early work takes the cool and ironic stance of remaining untitled, the development of her work allowed for the naming of her canvases with fitting, found sentences, which get attached to the painting towards the end of its completion. The sentences often feel quite awkward or ambiguous; they are strange in that many are translations from Eastern to Western language, which could refer back to her childhood of living in Hong Kong and Indonesia. This strange use of language reflects her own strange way of painting, but either way, the signs and language in her work also retain the necessary balance that I believe makes her paintings such a joy to see.
Looking around this exhibition, I couldn't help but consider the process, and it was fascinating to hear Rae explain her practice. Whilst all of her paintings have a spontaneous kind of energy to them, there is also the consideration of her work being somewhat calculated. Indeed, her later works in particular are thoroughly planned in photoshop, as a 'fantastically useful' palette in which to try out colour schemes and feed in digital images into the paintings. This kind of layering is not evident in her paintings - there is no collage on her canvases; everything is masked out and stenciled into place. The way that Rae brings this use of computer technology into painting makes for an impressive result, however, the difference between her earlier works (which didn't rely on a software program for their appearance) and her later creations is interesting. There is so much more space in the first canvases in the exhibition; much more space to imagine and drift around in. Her later works are beautifully impressive, however, there is a strong sense of anxiety in the thoroughly built-up, almost claustrophobic images. A strong subject of her work is an investigation into the mapping of the modern mind - how the brain processes information overloads that we experience as a result of an abundance of communication. This show is named after one piece made in 2009 and this body of work is taken from the 20th and 21st century. The possibilities of the future seem to play on Rae's mind, and indeed, technology has enabled a development of her own work. However, 'Maybe you can live on the moon in the next century' has threatening undertone to it as a sentence and as a painting. The kind of anxiety/pleasure tension in her work is culturally relevant, and I think this show is appropriate to the interesting relationship between the physical and the virtual that many people are beginning to challenge in their art and even in their everyday experience of it.
Happening from now until 26th August 2012