Friday, December 1st, 2006

Fiona Rae at PaceWildenstein and Callum Innes at Sean Kelly Gallery

PaceWildenstein until December 2, 2006
545 West 22 Street between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 989 4263

Sean Kelly until December 8
528 West 29 Street between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 239 1181

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, November 9, 2006 under the title “Making Art out of a Mess “

Fiona Rae I'm learning to fly!! 2006 oil and acrylic on canvas, 84 x 69 inches Courtesy PaceWildenstein
Fiona Rae, I'm learning to fly!! 2006 oil and acrylic on canvas, 84 x 69 inches Courtesy PaceWildenstein

What’s not to like about the paintings of Fiona Rae?  Once you resign yourself to the logic of postmodernism in which cacophony is just a complex way of describing harmony, and entropy is a sophisticated spin on order, then you are in the right mindset to sink your gaze into the baker’s dozen of boisterous, busy canvases at PaceWildenstein’s cavernous W22nd Street gallery.  You are at the mercy of what Dave Hickey, in his catalogue essay, terms “benign hysteria.”

Ms. Rae has sustained a high-wire act in quality “Bad” painting since her precocious launch at London’s Waddington Galleries in 1991.  Born in Hong Kong in 1963, she trained at London’s Goldsmiths’ College where her peers included Damien Hirst who selected her for “Freeze,” the landmark 1988 group exhibition that launched the YBAs, as Britain’s neo-conceptualist new wave were known.  Her riffs on High Modernism, splicing together banal imagery from animation and pop culture with virtuoisic painterly effects culled from the history of abstraction, sat well with the disparate strategies of cool affront that characterized that movement.  She was shown at the Saatchi Collection with Gary Hume, and in the notorious “Sensation” exhibition at the Royal Academy and Brooklyn Museum.

What set her apart from many among her iconoclastic generation, however, was an earnest commitment to easel painting, to the joyful conundrum of making art out of mess, design out of disorder, and of exacting purposiveness out of doodles, squiggles, and balletic brushstrokes.  Her stylishly cool deconstruction of painting over the last fifteen years has sustained exuberant energy and panache.  Each new series is spritely and fresh: she perpetuates the “Y” in YBA.

But she never breaks ground—even within the “end game” painting culture of postmodernism, in which the notion of new ground is suspect and fraught anyway.  The essential ingredients of her chemistry lesson experiments with style have been in the textbooks for decades: a collision of high and low, an extraction of abstract patterns out of accumulated pop culture references, decorative order out of ornamental overload.  Her aesthetics don’t differ substantially from those of Sigmar Polke, or of the German pop abstractionist’s disciple Albert Oehlen, who was seen recently in New York and reviewed on these pages.  I would argue that Ms. Rae does it “better,” by which I mean that her canvases are spunky, sumptuous, and unabashedly hedonistic in ways that are alien to those artists, who are somewhat severe and po-faced in their assaults on aesthetic quality.

In her latest body of work Ms. Rae revisits the kind of overt pop source material that characterized her early work but began to absent itself in the interim.  Where Disney characters found favor in the early 1990s, Japanese “decal” is now her kitsch resource of choice.  These are the transfer images collected by Oriental schoolgirls with an avidity familiar in the west from the old cult of baseball cards.  These are copied by the artist with formidable precision and take their place amidst contrastively painterly strokes, drips and splurges, making her surfaces dense lexicons of markmaking possibilities.

A little deer in various colors, a cross between Bambi and the Babysham logo, is a recurrent motif.  So too are stylized, friendly little skulls, stars, flowers, computerized lettering.

“I’m learning to fly!!” (2006) has eleven of these deer, in synthetic colors, scaling or projecting themselves from various painterly shapes and arabesques that consequently read as an abstracted playground scaffold.  As is typical of her compositions, there is a pronounced ground, in this case a contoured “sky” of pale blues, against which the various marks and motifs float in a flattened, shallow foreground space.  Brushstrokes vary radically in terms of perceived speed, temperature, and body: There are smooth, slick curles of single stroke black; squiggy back and forth strokes of green accumulating into a bulbuous form; cartoon-like outlines; Abstract Expressionist-redolent drips; an hazy, atmospheric candyfloss-like area of pulsating complementary blues, mauves and purples.

All of the paintings have at once a totally saturated “all-overness” and a relentless unwillingness to submit to an organizing principle.  This is what gives the show its unity—or, if you don’t buy her aesthetic, its repetitiveness.  She proves that anarchy is ultimately as compelling a design dictum as order.  There is, in other words, abundant method in her decalcomania.

Callum Innes Exposed Painting Cadmium Red Pale / Vine Black 2006 oil on canvas, 81-3/4 x 79-3/4 inches Courtesy Sean Kelly New York
Callum Innes, Exposed Painting Cadmium Red Pale / Vine Black 2006 oil on canvas, 81-3/4 x 79-3/4 inches Courtesy Sean Kelly New York

On first impression, the severe streamlined abstraction of the celebrated Scots painter Callum Innes (born 1962) represents a marked contrast to Ms. Rae’s busy eclecticism.  He is reportedly the Hollywood minimalist of choice, collected by Jennifer Lopez among others: To Ms. Rae’s high-low, his appeal is to J-Lo.  But the reductive Mr. Innes and the all-inclusive Ms. Rae actually tap similar tastes for cool décor and formal precision.

His fulsome exhibition at Sean Kelly includes large works on paper from 1990 and from 1996, one canvas from 1992, and several rooms of his new series of “Exposed Paintings”.  The progression seems to be from serial arrangements of atmospheric, dripped or applied marks to more schematic, hard-edged grids that contrast dense and opaque areas of paint.

Closer examination of the new series soon confounds any idea that the works are as simply made as they initially look.  They appear to be neat arrangements of a dense black rectangle, a smaller rectangle in washy gray, and a block of semi-opaque color, a different color in each canvas.  But edges intriguingly recall colors or tones from other, non-contiguous areas.  It transpires that the artist’s process involves what he calls “unpainting,” a painstaking removal of areas that leaves faint vestiges in unexpected places.

It would be a flight of poetic fancy, however, to imagine a sense of absence and loss corresponding to Mr. Innes’s precious process of removal.  The slight ambiguities he generates are of a formal rather than emotional character.  The work is a handsome handsome, unthreathening fusion of the rugged and refined.