New York

Fiona Rae

John Good Gallery

The much-anticipated solo debut of this abstract painter from London underscored the fundamental difference between an artist whose work stands out in the context of a group show and one who maintains our interest throughout an exhibition. Though the premise of Fiona Rae’s work has become almost a cliche of post-Modernism—the polyglot “stacking” of styles and techniques within a single visual field—when the standoff between quotation and invention reaches a certain level of intensity, the collage effect is completely convincing. Precise, witty, yet almost freewheeling in its energy, a canvas such as Untitled (red, pink, yellow and blue), 1993, draws on a hodgepodge of painterly references, but determinedly keeps us from pinpointing where one technique blends into another.

In theory, a formula like Rae’s needs to be consistently applied, but in about half the paintings it falls short of the mark. Perhaps this is because she’s trying to make many of the “styles” quoted in her work appear more interesting than they do in their original Color Field or new image incarnations, and as a result certain paintings seem to be straining to maintain the all-important appearance of clever neutrality. Others suffer from not trying hard enough: Untitled (blue triptych), 1993, the most ambitiously scaled of her new paintings, falls into coloristic and compositional structures that are neither redeemed nor undercut by Rae’s appropriation of them; they just sit there. The resultant blandness is the Achilles heel of quotation: unless tied to some broader critical purpose, borrowing becomes just an empty formal exercise.

Because Rae’s work falls into the kitchen-sink school of abstraction, hers is a double-edged dilemma. She wants to sidestep identifying with her sources as vehicles of artistic belief systems, but she can’t avoid investing them with a jolt of painterly vitality that, in fact, gives her best pictures their charge. The problem is that this jolt is tied to certain conventions, and the paintings sometimes stake a claim to the privileges associated with those conventions even when their author seems to be looking the other way. Ultimately, I have little doubt that Rae’s talent and intelligence will get her out of the corner into which she seems to have already painted herself. What I do question, in light of her apparent commitment to remaining steadfastly noncommittal, is whether she shouldn’t turn the clever knob down a bit, and start turning up the real.

Dan Cameron