Untitled (emergency room) 1996 is a very large portrait-orientated painting, almost square in its dimensions, by the British artist Fiona Rae that features a range of abstract forms in opaque colours. The canvas is covered in a variable black and white pattern in which the acrylic paint is mottled, marbled and dripped in cloudy formations, as well as dragged in broad horizontal and vertical bands. On top of the black and white base sits a series of concentric discs of differing sizes that are unevenly arranged across the composition. Each is precisely painted in two colours – one for the middle section of the disc and another for the outer ring – with a palette including grey, green, pink, purple and yellow. Pools of sky blue paint also appear throughout the work, sometimes spilling over the circular forms, along with further dribbles, rubbings and smudges of paint.
Born in Hong Kong in 1963, Rae moved to Britain in 1971, and lives and works in London, where this work was completed. Untitled (emergency room) is characteristic of her practice of using a variety of techniques (including markings made with rags and rollers), stemming from both careful planning and improvisation, to create complex abstract imagery and a range of surface effects. In a statement on this work in October 1996, Rae said:
Untitled (emergency room) is a painting without clear ground or fixed certainties. The title might suggest a t.v. hospital drama, a more general state of anxiety or something else altogether. The black and white marks seem to form and reform themselves like the T1000 terminator in Terminator 2. This gives a sense of unease; it’s as if the very fabric of the painting could also be its undoing. The circles pop up like cosmic viruses. They are ambiguous in their relationship to the embroiling ground and yet they are constituent in a world where one element is reliant on the next in order to construct meaning and make things visible.
(Quoted in Museum of Modern Art, Oxford 1996, unpaginated.)
The influence of the liquid metal T-1000 character in James Cameron’s film Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), to which Rae refers, can also be seen in the title and fluctuating black and white forms of Rae’s contemporaneous painting Untitled (T1000) 1996, which was exhibited alongside Untitled (emergency room) at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 1996, as part of the group show About Vision: New British Painting in the 1990s.
In contemporary reviews of that exhibition, the curator and art historian Andrew Wilson claimed that Rae’s paintings upset ‘the traditional figure-ground relationship’ (Wilson 1996–7, p.9), while the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon described Untitled (emergency room) as ‘a picture of something about to take shape before it has actually done so’ (Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘On the Surface’, Independent, 19 November 2006, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/on-the-surface-1353083.html, accessed 15 June 2015). In 2002 the curator Simon Wallis offered a detailed analysis of this painting:
The visual intensity of works such as Untitled (emergency room) 1996 with its panicked, packed, airless qualities, offers little space for manoeuvre and no point of direct entry. Nothing appears settled or relied upon: there is nowhere for the eye to rest and the viewer is forced into a channel-surfing mentality that flits over the surface trying to make connections while being seduced simultaneously by the near manic level of painterly activity. It’s as though we are watching the painting remake itself before our eyes through its avoidance of definitive resolution and embrace of life’s inexorable contingency.
(Simon Wallis, ‘Transitions: The Work of Fiona Rae’, in Carré d’Art – musée d’art contemporain de Nîmes 2002, p.52.)
Rae studied at Goldsmiths College in London in 1984–7, where she was taught by the British artist Michael Craig-Martin. In 1988 she participated in the exhibition Freeze curated by the artist Damien Hirst (born 1965), a show that is widely acknowledged as marking the beginning of the YBA (Young British Artist) movement. With their combination of vibrant colours and energetic forms influenced by a range of cultural sources including cinema, graphic novels and digital technology, Rae’s paintings may be compared with works by other painters associated with the term YBA, such as Richard Patterson’s Painted Minotaur 1996–7 (Tate T07344) and Peter Davies’s Small Touching Squares Painting 1998 (Tate T07426). Although predominantly abstract, Rae’s paintings have also occasionally incorporated figurative elements, including expressive typography in works such as Moonlite Bunny Ranch 2003, and small cartoon-like pandas, a recurring motif in her work from the mid-2000s onwards (see, for instance, Bold as a wild strawberry, sweet as a naughty girl 2009).
About Vision: New British Painting in the 1990s, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford 1996, reproduced, unpaginated.
Andrew Wilson, ‘The Vision Thing’, Art Monthly, no.202, December 1996–January 1997, pp.7–9, reproduced p.7.
Fiona Rae, exhibition catalogue, Carré d’Art – musée d’art contemporain de Nîmes, Nîmes 2002, p.52, reproduced p.88.
Supported by Christie’s.