New York

Fiona Rae

Ask not for whom the bell tolls. Clement Greenberg got it right when he took extreme value contrast as a sign of anxiety about illusionistic space in painting (criticizing, Franz Kline’s black-and-whites for being retrograde, championing the even glow of Barnett Newman). British artist Fiona Rae’s new “black” paintings update the maxim, presenting a parody of depth that is the flip side of the recently returned allover, color-saturated abstraction.

All eight of the large canvases contrast a flat black ground with brightly colored Richter-like scrapings and brushings, as well as two-tone rectangles, some so thin they appear more like bands than shapes. Rae eschews the denser feel of her earlier work for sparer, emptier compositions—in general, an improvement. The new strategy fails, however, in at least three of the paintings, which would be chilly enough without having a void at their centers (Persuader, 1998, and Night Vision 3000, 1998) or showing so much of the dull ground (Troop, 1998). The matte black is easy to look at, suavely smooth rather than sticky or crappy, but it lacks depth; Rae is no Rembrandt, or even Reinhardt. Her darkness issues not from the tortured depths but the blankness of the computer or movie saeen, and the titles—Evil Dead 2, Shadow Master—make clear that we are flashing on goth-inflected sci-fi.

These paintings aspire to the empty meanness of futuristic computer games; they might look perfect in a black-leather-and-chrome bachelor pad or on the set of The Matrix. As opposed to artists who, like Chuck Close, employ the techniques and practices of the digital, bending them to personal ends, there is a disembodied deadness here that aims to capture the detached glamour of the digital age, an abstract expression of a life spent before the screen. Rae’s marbled splats and squares seem like ghosts or virtual versions of real paintings, simulated de Koonings or Bacons.

One critic compared this recent group to works by Roy Lichtenstein and David Reed, other painters who keep their distance. But Lichtenstein was making a sophisticated joke about mark-making, while Rae heavy-handedly insists on the chestnut that expression is constructed—that hot splotches and cool geometry, can coexist in a single work. And while Reed makes works of great beauty, Rae’s paintings are only slightly beautiful (if that’s possible), not enough to be “terrible” in the sublime sense of the word. Just a little spooky.

The most recent painting is the best. In Curse of the Crimson Altar, 1999, the rectangles dominate the painting more fully, while the painterly passages seem to float above, throwing “shadows” onto the geometry below. The shadows amplify and complicate the depth created between “figure” and ground. But in the end, even this work repels. The paintings render abstraction topical, finding a way to connect it to a larger context. Rae draws both the titles and the deadening affect of her canvases from the same cultural well—video games, horror movies—as recent American school shooters. What purpose it serves to reproduce these effects and attitudes in a painting, I cannot say.

Katy Siegel