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 (grey and brown) 1991 (Tate T06481), the background is made up of a variety of geometric and organic forms in monotone colours, usually identified in the title. In colours ranging from neutral white, beige, browns and black to vivid pink, yellow and turquoise, 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-like 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.)
With large areas of white ground left untouched, Untitled (yellow) is an unusually empty painting for its period. It marks a transition between the earlier rows of painterly symbols on a white ground and the intensely busy and colourful compositions Rae produced in the mid 1990s. In the top left corner an area of monotone orange develops into a cacophony of energetic and colourful forms. These include a thick, dark streak extending vertically three-quarters down the painting, accompanied by an area of purple paint, half covered by white smeary marks, which dribbles down beside it, a tree or polyp-like pink form sprouting orange streaks in the centre-right of the canvas and a dramatic red line, the result of a single brush-stroke, which undulates down the right side of the painting. On the left side, beside the dark streak, a rounded black form resembling an element from a Rorschach diagram is edged with pink and yellow specks. Small pink blobs exude hair-like black lines. Another fine black line wriggles across the canvas from the upper left to the pink polyp. The painting offers a series of visual symbols, which hint at but deny legibility, at the same time as emphasising the luxuriant texture and rich colour of the medium. The composition appears chaotic but is the result of studied decision on the part of the artist. Rae’s paintings explore the balance between a controlling principle or concept and the unpredictability (and uncontrollable nature) of expression. She has explained:
Everything is happening by accident. But what interests me is at what moment does the accident actually happen? The accident might have taken place in my mind. How do you know what is the accident and what is the intention? You may point out that this part is really controlled but I might think of it as the biggest accident of all. It is not at all what I meant. It is not what I intended ... intention is what an accident is. I mean an accident is when your intention isn’t carried out in a sense ... the brush stroke is always a representation of itself at the same time. I watch myself having an accident.’
(Quoted in Fiona Rae 1996, p.28.)
Fiona Rae, exhibition catalogue, Carré d’Art, Musée d’art contemporain de Nîmes 2002, p.50, reproduced (colour) [p.80]
Sarah Kent, Fiona Rae Gary Hume, exhibition catalogue, Saatchi Gallery, London 1997, [pp.3-9 and 16-47]
Sean Rainbird, Turner Prize 1991, exhibition brochure, Tate Gallery, London 1991, [pp.8-9], reproduced (colour) [p.8]
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Technique and condition
Painted in oil on primed cotton canvas, large areas of the coloured ground remain untouched.
The artist prepared her canvas by stretching medium weight cotton duck, supplied by Russell & Chapple onto a stretcher made by Bird & Davies. The canvas is sized with two coats of rabbit-skin glue and primed with Spectrum thixotropic alkyd primer. The ground colour is made by applying a second coat of alkyd primer coloured with oil paint.
Executed over a period of a few days, Rae used artists' oil colours made by Sennelier and Schevengingen, 'Old Holland' paint. These were mixed with a wide variety of painting media including waxes, oils, resin varnishes and alkyd painting media. Rae experimented with these additives to modify the qualities of her paints which she generally applied with brushes, using masking tape to define the flatter hard edged forms.
The few fine cracks resulted from contact between the stretcher and canvas during painting and handling after it had left the artist's care. Rae has cleaned and repainted some areas, notably the pale orange area in the top left hand corner.
The painting is neither varnished or framed.