The history of painting hangs heavily over Fiona Rae. The one-time YBA’s work is full of references to abstract artists such as Gerhard Richter or Willem de Kooning, but there’s a struggle here. Hers is a battle between expressive freedom and intense density, between washes of paint that drip lazily across the canvas and thick, oily gestural marks – showing Rae to be more than just the sum of her influences.
To stop you drifting off into these vast fogs of Technicolor abstraction, Rae introduces tiny hints of reality. Kitsch symbols of childish exuberance – pandas, stars and daisies – act as ridiculous figurative signposts dotted across the works, undoing the earnestness of each painting with their alarming cuteness.
Although knowingly playful, at their best these new large-scale works (many over two metres tall, all 2012) can feel monumentally tense, with paint thrashing violently across the canvas. Pieces like ‘Something Is About to Happen!’ are all harsh darkness and chaos. Repeatedly reworked, they show an artist in conflict, fighting to bring a work to life. The quiet beauty of ‘I Need Gentle Conversations’, on the other hand, is a breathless moment of emotional exhaustion. It’s these extremes that are by far the most successful points in Rae’s exhibition.
But the pandas and stars are impossible to ignore. These camp little characters act like distractions scattered across the works, deflecting attention from how busy and overwrought the canvases actually are. But in reality they serve to highlight the struggle of making art and Rae’s deep need, not only to paint, but to justify the act itself.