Fiona Rae

Nietzsche’s vision of the creator as a tightrope-walking acrobat seems a particularly apt description of British abstract painter Fiona Rae. At the time of her first solo show, in 1991, Stuart Morgan compared her to a juggler “playing for time,” and Richard Shone continues the circus metaphor in his catalogue essay for her most recent show. Shone seems, though, to be itching to throw Rae a big bouquet, noting that the new work extends beyond the “flirtatious ludic quality” of her earlier paintings, and that this time the “tightrope is long and high, the safety net seemingly miles below.”

The typical Rae painting is a zestful if messy dogfight of varied painting styles. A biomorphic form straight out of Miró might get dive-bombed by bits of De Kooning or Disney, or a Gerhard Richter smear might be stalked by a Pollock squiggle against a backdrop of Hockney blue. It’s all a comedy of painterly mannerisms, but Rae doesn’t allow her playful appropriations to degenerate into art-historical train-spotting.

Her new works represent an intriguing departure from the earlier ones, in which a square or nearly square format gave each piece the air of an art-historical Pandora’s box refurbished for the age of the video display monitor. Now Rae is painting pictures that are up to four times as wide as they are high—these elongated horizontals evoking scrolling, potentially endless expanses.The paintings are now more consistent compositionally, with configurations of circles strung out, parallel to the picture plane, across white grounds like cogs, rollers, wheels, grindstones, or circular saws. These vaguely futuristic elements are then shifted, scrambled, blurred, and sometimes obscured by the usual cast of disparate marks.

Rae’s new format strongly resembles that favored by the British landscape painter Ivon Hitchens. The wide, horizontal canvas was his hallmark: a typical painting would consist of black, brown, green, purple, and gray blotches arrayed across a white ground. Not only are similar color schemes now prevalent in Rae’s work, but her paintings seem to have moved outdoors, to map the vicissitudes of the weather.

This mixing of mechanical and pastoral elements suggests that Rae is creating a kind of industrialized landscape in which a war is waged between culture and nature, between the geometric and the organic, between the classical and the grotesque. In the painting, Untitled (white, green and black) [all works 1995], circles float in clouds of greenish-gray paint, inevitably evoking compasses or targets. Standing in front of them the viewer feels like a navigator, compelled to travel through an unmappable space.

James Hall