Fiona Rae

Night Vision


Not on display

Fiona Rae born 1963
Oil paint and acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 2440 × 2135 × 51 mm
Purchased 1998


Rae’s paintings push abstraction to the edge of figuration. She studied Fine Art at Goldsmith’s College London (1984-7) and participated in Freeze, the seminal exhibition of young British artists (subsequently known as yBas) organised by Damien Hirst (born 1965) in London’s Docklands in 1988. Her paintings of the late 1980s comprise rows of miniature pictures, each made up of a combination of colours, forms and brushstrokes, against a neutral ground. In these works, the graphic qualities of individual pictures result in the appearance of a pictograph, each one resembling an unknown letter or symbol. This sense of meaning is undermined by the evident materiality of the paint. In the early 1990s she expanded and developed these structures to cover a single canvas. In such paintings as Untitled (yellow) 1990 (Tate T06482) and Untitled (grey and brown) 1991 (Tate T06481), the background is made up of blocks of a variety of geometric and organic forms in monotone colours, usually identified in the title following Untitled. These monotone sections provide the stage for a virtuoso performance of painterly mark-making. Dribbles, squiggles and smudges overlay wider bands of gestural streaks made using a brush loaded with more than one paint colour. The canvas may be turned several times after the application of paint, resulting in drips travelling in different directions. Finely delineated lines in a variety of styles trace under and across areas of paint smeared with a finger tip. On the same canvas, thick patches of impasto contrast with Pollock-type spatters and crude graffiti strokes depicting no recognisable form. Rae’s paintings recall aspects of the work of such American Abstract Expressionists as Willem De Kooning (1904-97) and Cy Twombly (born 1928) and German painters Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) and Georg Baselitz (born 1938), combined with more contemporary cultural references. She has said: ‘I have an unhierarchical approach in that any one kind of painting language is potentially as interesting as another. And in the work itself nothing takes precedence. I guess that’s what you call democratic.’ (Quoted in Fiona Rae 1996, p.24.)

Night Vision belongs to a series of ‘black’ paintings Rae made in the late 1990s, following a claustrophobic ‘black and white’ series. In the latter, bright, multi-coloured concentric discs float in a highly textured ground of white on black, painted using a variety of techniques, including marbling and dragging with a wide brush. The ‘black and white’ paintings exude vibrant and often discordant energy, the urgency of which is heightened with such titles as Untitled (emergency room) 1996 (Tate T07462). By contrast the ‘black’ paintings are sombre and restrained. Such titles as Evil Dead 1998 (Olbricht Collection, Essen) and Shadow Master 1998 (Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain d’Auvergne, Clermont-Ferrand) confirm dark, even sinister, associations. Night Vision, like all the ‘black’ paintings, has a uniformly black ground, rolled on in acrylic. Extended rectangular forms in bright monotone colours, each outlined with another colour, float horizontally and vertically on this ground. The geometric planes of these rectangles contrast with other, organic, elements applied to the canvas with a mixture of acrylic and oil paint: air-brushed clouds of even darker black, narrow bands of streaky white texture outlined with fine white lines and a series of wriggling multi-coloured brush marks which hint at animal cartoons. In contrast to Rae’s earlier paintings, in which frenetic surface activity conveys a sense of expressive spontaneity, each mark in Night Vision appears judiciously selected and deliberately placed. She has said: ‘painting is an intellectual pursuit, but I feel very emotional about it’ (quoted in Kent, [p.3]). Like the other paintings in the series, Night Vision is a controlled and balanced composition in which Rae has drawn skilfully on her repertoire of painterly marks to produce a moody atmosphere contained within a conceptual structure.

Further reading:
Fiona Rae, exhibition catalogue, Carré d’Art, Musée d’art contemporain de Nîmes 2002, p.53, reproduced (colour) [p.103]
Fiona Rae, exhibition catalogue, Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin 1996
Sarah Kent, Fiona Rae Gary Hume, exhibition catalogue, Saatchi Gallery, London 1997, [pp.3-9 and 16-47]

Elizabeth Manchester
February 2003

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Technique and condition

The painting was executed on a single piece of medium weight plain weave cotton duck canvas that is stretched over a sturdy expandable stretcher and attached with wire staples at the rear. A white acrylic gesso primer was then applied to the stretched face of the canvas and around all the tacking margins to the rear turnover point. The primer would have been applied in a fairly dilute form and the canvas weave texture is still very visible through the resulting thin layer.

The paint is thought to be principally acrylic emulsion, although the artist has written 'oil + acrylic' on the reverse of the canvas. The black background colour is certainly acrylic and would have been applied directly to the primed canvas. It covers the entire stretched face and all four edges of the canvas (although the top and bottom layers are not completely covered). This paint layer is extremely flat and uniform in appearance and would have been thinned with water and probably applied with brush. The next areas of paint application were the rectangles and outlines, their straight edges probably being achieved with masking tape. These colours also appear to be acrylic emulsion. Next, the areas of thin but glossy black paint were applied, which appears to be the oil paint. Finally the thick and often-blended areas of colour were applied, again in acrylic emulsion. These paints would have been mixed on the canvas extremely rapidly and brushed and/or pulled around the canvas. A combination of wet-in-wet and wet-on-dry was employed. They are of far higher gloss than other areas of acrylic paint and exhibit a relatively diverse surface texture, including variations in thickness, the presence of air bubbles and areas where an upper layer has been 'torn' slightly on application to reveal areas of the underlying colour.

The painting is in excellent condition. Providing some basic precautionary conservation measures are taken to reduce handling (such as its display behind a barrier etc.), the painting should remain in this near pristine state.

Tom Learner
August 2000


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