Fiona Rae returns to New York with a show at Pace Wildenstein (3rd Nov – 2nd Dec) of her polished abstractions, consolidating a mid-career reputation. Rae emerged with a wave of Goldsmith College graduates in London in the late 80s and her brand of abstraction remains rooted in the combination of contrasting techniques and forms that ‘deconstructed’ preceding styles, or perhaps abstracted deconstruction. It was essentially an eclectic or pluralistic style.
Precedents arise firstly in the work of Gerhard Richter and to a less extent Sigmar Polke. Richter’s dragged and melded colour fields, combined with hard edge shapes, flat or single colours, modelled or graded bands or lines, set a bold and simple challenge to the parameters for abstraction in the early 80s. Less conspicuously, these and other options arise in American abstraction at this time where Minimalism expires in lavish permutation. Gestures, geometry, system, calligraphy, novel pigments and support all compound the elements of abstraction. Artists such as Terence la Noue demonstrate this steady accumulation of exotic motif, pattern and decoration, process and materials. Later artists such as Willy Heeks settle for much less of the range, prefer to stress a simpler set of contrasts.
But Rae’s contribution owes less to American examples, grants drawing and irregular line a greater role than in Richter and assembles elements upon a consistent background or field. Subsequently works confine colour to black and white, divide elements between the gestural and the geometric, line and plane without extending support or materials and later include graphic or print motifs, including stars, flowers and alphabet. The current work adds organic or biomorphic flourishes, occasional linear volumes that recall the technical drawing used in the work of Lydia Dona. The abiding lure remains how and how much figuration to allow, rather than whether the abstraction is ‘pure’ or abstract enough. This interest in a range or spectrum of abstraction provided a dominant current throughout the 90s, eventually giving way to stricter interests (see Post 2).
The work of Albert Oehlen offers useful comparison. Over the same period he is also a keen compiler of techniques. Stripes and biomorphic shapes, hard edge geometry and flat colours again meet gestural pouring and mixes, printed fabric support (after Polke) and more concrete or figurative motifs. But Oehlen is not content with assembling them upon a unified ground, instead allows this too to be fought over. The result is predictably a good deal more inclusive and chaotic than Rae. Oehlen subsequently turns to Photoshop for additional repertory and applies them by inkjet printing and inevitably photographic and more concrete depiction followed.
By contrast, Rae may seem timid and tasteful, too fussy and restrained, too feminine and English to match the ruthless and exuberant German. In fact the pervasive floral motifs in the present show seem to court just such a response. But this is deceptive, to say the least. Examples of Prunella Clough, Gillian Ayre or Therese Oulton demonstrate that female English abstractionists lack nothing in rigour, vigour or invention. Actually the difference is less national or gender-based than a matter of temperament or personality. Rae’s style is a tidy, musical set of harmonies; Oehlen’s a restless, daring storm. If her slice of abstraction seems less compelling or provocative, it nevertheless reinforces some links between the abstract and figurative, painterly and print standards, the linear and tonal. Their use builds meaning and options where it can, rather than everywhere or anywhere.
For clearly, there is never room for everything, and some elements preclude others. An all-inclusive range for abstraction is not to be had anymore than a single strict set of minimal elements. The project is sometimes seen as a final, nihilistic or despairing step for abstraction in painting, a pluralism that surrenders to anything goes. Rae perhaps does not push things far enough, but this is no worse than pushing them too far.