Fiona Rae: New Paintings at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

Fiona Rae: New Paintings at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

Since Rae’s 1991 Waddington Galleries show announced her as a distinctly postmodern abstract painter, it has been common to consider Rae’s work a delicate play between chaos and order. Rae comments: “it’s not that I want to question in a self-conscious way the act of painting, it’s just that I cannot pretend to the idealistic purity of a modernist artist.” So in her 22 year career she has repeatedly re-invented her way of painting: switching from expressive, painterly marks that resolve in the picture space as figure and ground, to “all-over” type abstraction, and back again.

2013 and the Timothy Taylor Gallery sees a slight return to the early 1990s. Flat colour is affected by drips, spills, and overlaid with impasto detail and signature flourishes – Bacon-like multi-paint sworls; energetic half-asterisks. This time, however, the painterly flourishes are undercut by divertimenti – a small cartoon panda appears as a character to unite the series, and small Technicolor glyphs and doodles flash in the corners to decline the ‘idealistic purity’ of the brushwork.

This brushwork has gained confidence. Instead of scattered dabs and streaks we have huge areas of painterly action, usually in a single mass, the best of which is surely Something is about to happen! (2012): an explosion of purples, yellows, and oranges, whipped up by electric blues and pinks and the raw excitement of Rae’s handling, yet still balanced within the rest of the picture.

When Rae’s painting goes well the feeling of a composed picture is allied to bursts and accents of colour – strong bright blues and pinks/reds mainly – from her bravura mark-making. These individual moments stay within the composition sufficiently to hold the picture together, but also enable Rae to dodge the urge to over-organise, dominate, or impose some strict architecture on the whole. They are not decorative, they are compositionally integral on the picture surface, but also function as extras, as foregrounded decoration, in pictorial space. New Paintings can present themselves as interchangeably figure-on-ground and “all-over”, which lends them rhythm and interest; walking the line between two streams of Western abstraction, and between order and chaos.

There is, however, a risk involved in manoeuvring such a heavy concept. Occasionally, both streams lend her their pitfalls, conspiring towards a rhythmless, flat painting with neither carefully created compositional space nor interesting-enough marks to act as figure to strong-arm the background. In such circumstances there may not be a painting left to undercut with stars and small pandas.

Herein lies the actual danger accompanying some postmodern practice – allowing (accidentally or otherwise) the jokes and humble trivialities to become the art phenomenon in themselves. What was included to undercut becomes the headline act in a by-now-cancelled show: undercutting needs something to undercut; humility needs something to be humble about. All is not lost for Fiona Rae, but there needs to be excitement to then be nonchalant about. There is definitely some excitement in Fiona Rae’s New Paintings, but only some.

Jack Castle

Fiona Rae: New Paintings, 18 January until 23 February, Timothy Taylor Gallery, 15 Carlos Place, London, W1K 2EX.


1. I need gentle conversations, 2012. © Fiona Rae; Courtesy, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London.
2. The sun throws my sorrow away, 2012. © Fiona Rae; Courtesy, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London.
3. I always wish you every happiness with my whole heart in the distance, 2012. © Fiona Rae; Courtesy, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London.