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Fiona Rae, one of the Young British Artists (YBA)

November 10, 2009

Recently I’ve come across quite a few artists I hadn’t heard of before  (a whole group of them in fact whom I hope eventually to do individual posts on) and they are all really good, most gaining acceptance at an early age, most British (hence the YBA acronym). And I’ll  begin with Fiona Rae.

Rae was born in 1963 in Hong Kong and moved to England in 1970, where she attended Croydon College of Art (1983-84) and Goldsmiths College (1984-1987), and was one of the artists in the seminal Freeze exhibition curated by Damien Hirst in 1988. It seems to me that when Charles Saatchi buys an artist’s work, that artist has it made, and after he bought some of Rae’s work it was shown in the major 1997 Sensation exhibition, which brought Britart into the establishment as it was hosted by the Royal AcademyLondon, before touring abroad. She was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1991, and in 1993 for the Austrian Eliette Von Karajan Prize for Young Painters. She was commissioned by Tate Modern to create a 10 metre triptych Shadowland for the restaurant there in 2002.

From Magazine Features – fiona rae: retro meets rococo

Despite her best efforts, Fiona Rae has emerged as a true original. She has an icy nonchalance and a deep-frozen conceptualist agenda, but her painterly exuberance is positively scorching.

Her reputation is still welded to the group she has helped define, known under the aliases of Cool School, Brit Pop or Goldsmith’s Generation. Goldsmith’s was her college in south London where classmates numbered Damien Hirst (who included her in his 1988 “Freeze” exhibition), Julian Opie, Ian Davenport and Gary Hume. At the time of this article’s publication (my words) she was/is “currently” showing with Hume in a two-person exhibition at Charles Saatchi’s spacious private museum, running until the end of April. The esthetic of the Cool School can be summed up in three words: vacuity with attitude. Apolitical, anti-expressive, stand-offishly enigmatic and anti-romantic, neo-conceptualism in its British guise was first and foremost about playing the system.

Untitled (one on brown), 1989

It’s interesting that Rae uses Photoshop to create her abstract compositions. She supposedly layers her patterns on the canvas in the same way Photoshop layers are formed on a screen – quite a feat in itself. Her results remind one of psychedelic rock posters and traditional Oriental decorative prints simultaneously, although her work has a more natural and less controlled look to them.

Untitled (yellow), 1990


According to the Royal Academy of Arts, Rae’s paintings contrast flat areas of color with sign-making. This includes elements of text and pixilation. Throughout the 1990s her work became more structured and began to concentrate on particular motifs.

From artnet and Timothy Taylor Gallery:

Untitled (orange, green and black), 1991 Oil on canvas, h: 84 x w: 60 in

Fiona Rae, Untitled (orange, green and black)

Rae makes highly coloured, vivid abstract paintings that draw on and develop a variety of formal, painterly motifs. Common to all her work is the self-conscious juxtaposition of flat areas of colour with dragged, daubed or scumbled paint marks. Although her compositions can appear accidental, almost arbitrary, close inspection reveals a highly controlled handling of paint and style and a tight underlying structure. As her work developed throughout the 1990s it became still more structured, and focused in a more condensed manner on certain motifs. Untitled (Parliament) (oil and acrylic on canvas, 2.74×2.44 m, 1996; London, Saatchi Gal.) presents varied target motifs, perhaps referring to paintings made in the early 1960s by Kenneth Noland, floating in a furious field of black and white. The stillness and formal calm of the circles plays off the chaos of their surround, an instance of the strongly antithetical juxtapositions that Rae often employs.  Her approach to painting is based on a playful engagement with her predecessors, using both quotation and a repertoire of surface effects to suggest both the superficiality and self-absorption of the act of painting. Tate Collection

From Christie’s:

Untitled (Parliament) 1996 Oil on canvas 108 x 96in

From artnet:

Blush, 1997 oil and acrylic on canvas, 96 x 84 in.

Fiona Rae, Blush

From artnet:

Swamp, 1998 Acrylic and oil on canvas, 96.1 x 84.1 in.

Fiona Rae, Swamp

From artnet and Timothy Taylor Gallery:

Untitled (red) 2003 Mixed media on archive paper, h: 19 x w: 13 in

Fiona Rae, Untitled (red)

According to Rae, in an interview in The Observer from September 20th 2009:

What I love about painting is that it embodies a series of thought and feeling processes. It’s all there on the canvas as a record. I can put something on the canvas, consider it, adjust it, remove it, replace it, add to it, conceal it, reveal it, destroy it and repair it. I can be in a good mood, a bad mood, a cheerful mood or a destructive mood – it’s all useful.

I tend to improvise what I do on the canvas. I have a vague roadmap in mind, but usually have to abandon it pretty sharpish. I use canvas on wooden stretchers, prepared with a couple of coats of acrylic primer. I then paint the canvas a flat colour in acrylic paint. Acrylic is a good base for oil colours. It provides an even, unabsorbent surface, whereas oils absorb other oils at different rates and you can end up with a dry, patchy or cracked surface.

From artnet and PaceWildenstein

Cute Motion!! So Lovely!! 2005 Oil, acrylic and gouache on canvas h: 91 x w: 75 in

Fiona Rae, Cute Motion!! So Lovely!!

If I want to paint a hard-edged graphic symbol such as a letter, I usually do this in acrylic as well. Occasionally I use gouache on some of the little images, in order to have a different kind of look to the paint. Each type of paint has a different quality and texture, and I think it adds to the visual richness to apply colours using different paint media.

From artnet and Timothy Taylor Gallery

We go in search of our Dream…. 2007 Oil and acrylic on canvas, h: 84 x w: 69 in

Fiona Rae, We go in search of our Dream....

I use oil paint for all the brushstrokes and drawing – this is because oil paint is so flexible that I can adjust what I’m doing almost endlessly. Oil paint is the most fantastically malleable substance: once you’ve figured out how not to turn everything into a sludgy grey, oil paint remains wet long enough for endless changes of mind, and because of the way the pigment is held in the oil, it is beautifully luminescent. Read more from Ms. Rae at: Artist Fiona Rae on how she paints

From artnet and Buchmann Galerie

Untitled (butterflies) 2009 Oil, acrylic on cellulose canvas, h: 7.1 x w: 5.9 in

Fiona Rae, 01: Untitled (butterflies)

In a statement for a 2005 residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, she commented: I like lively, heartfelt and witty art that can also be cool and ironic. Doesn’t necessarily have to be painting, but that’s my favorite thing, partly because I think it’s the hardest way to be fresh and original in the 21st century.

Rae is now a Royal Academician and also a Trustee of the Tate Gallery, both significant accolades for the artist.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kimberley permalink
    December 20, 2009 4:55 pm

    I really really love her work the colours and patterns make me want to look and think about it. I love drawing and painting similar art pieces to hers and she is one of my favourite artists i would love to meet her. My favourite piece is the last one a have one so similar in my art book.
    :D:D Kim

  2. hannah browning permalink
    May 26, 2010 5:43 pm

    I really love Fiona Rae’s work and am doing an exam on it know i have to chose a piece of her work and copy it in a painted collage

    • islandlass permalink*
      May 26, 2010 9:56 pm

      Sounds like fun! Good luck with it.

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