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    fiona rae:
retro meets rococo

by David Cohen
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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. With Hume she is currently showing 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.

When at 28 Rae was shortlisted for the 1991 Turner Prize, together with Anish Kapoor (who won), Ian Davenport and Rachel Whiteread, there was justified suspicion in the art world that the prize had been sucked into an orchestrated campaign of hype.

The reception I gave the young "upstarts" (actually I'm the same age as Rae) in a feature article in the London Times was ungenerous. Rae's iconoclasm seemed to me to wallow in nauseating art historical repetitiveness. She would collide sources as disparate as Hofmann, Richter, de Kooning -- and Donald Duck. "Her strategy has paid a rich dividend, for admirers speak of her in the same breath as the artists she pastiches, whereas really her art is something of a footnote to the Bad Art movement which flourished in the 1980s," I wrote at the time.

Not that I was blind to the appeal of her robust sloppiness, her tongue-in-cheek virtuosity. The raw talent was plain to see, an authentic style bursting to escape the strictures of a junk philosophy. I even included a kind of escape clause -- for her and for me: "One feels that, left alone to work things out in her studio, the sheer joy of painting would be enough to exorcise the atrocious pedagogy of Goldsmith's." Against the odds, that's what has happened. She has worked-through the limitations of her youthful excesses to the beginnings of a mature style, all the while retaining her early energy. Specifically in the pictures of the last two years, since her most recent (second) show at Waddington Galleries in London, Rae has catapulted herself into a new painterly orbit.

Rae would probably be as scandalized by my appreciation of her new work as I was by the neo-conceptualist impertinence of her debut pictures. I am, after all, casting her as a traditional "good" painter when so much of her cutting-edge cachet depends on a supposed deconstruction of quality, an endgame cannibalization of painterly styles and idioms.

With cool, chic nihilism she plays hard and fast with the tropes of gesture and expressionism. So fast, indeed, they hardly have time to be tropes: they are gesture and expressionism. Great, but where can such a contradiction lead? One direction, suggested by the triptychs of 1994, is further into dense, heavy painterliness. These canvases are saturated by bursts of dissonant color and contrasts of flatness versus fidgety dabs and hatches. But coolness is so intrinsic to her artistic personality that when the marks get angry, associative, in any wise "hot" she is just out of her depth. She hasn't the right soul to be a Philip Guston.

Better to go the other way, towards coolness, lightness, frivolity. Virtuosity was already there in the individual marks and flourishes of the brush; now, it must have seemed to Rae, the decorative and compositional impulses need be stifled no longer. Color harmony, evenness of touch -- or at least commensurability of touch -- and compositional integrity began to be given their due in the very long horizontal friezes that made up her 1995 exhibition at Waddington from which Saatchi picked up several juicy examples.

The transition, completed in the subsequent works, is from a baroque that is heavy-handed and conceptually loaded in its vulgarity to a rococo of delectation and delight. Before she was appropriationist; now she is retro. Instead of direct quotations from specific painters, a general 1970s mood is summoned as much in the forms and colors and textures of fashion and decor as the fine arts. It is an amazing achievement on her part to leave behind the worst of her earlier postmodernism without reverting to the sort of formalism that held sway in the era evoked by her retro shapes and colors. One motif really singles Rae out as retro: the funky disks and hoops which have come to populate her pictures. These appear in nursery pastel tones, pinks, oranges, lilacs, turquoises, at once joyous and tacky.

Her art is an improvisational accumulation of fantastically involved and involving details, and yet she has an ability to juggle detail and totality without subserving one to the other. And there is just as much spatial complexity as in the earlier works. If anything the newfound harmony that predominates heightens the irregularity of lesions when they do appear. Instead of the violently conflicting blocks of color of the 1994 triptychs, the canvases are filled out with a black and white moiré effect. Equilibrium is achieved more through dissonance than assonance, to be sure, but the dissonance is all the more compelling for being within a given scale (12 tone rather than diatonic, to pursue the analogy) and achieved by forces that work together. Now compositions are radically decentered rather than just bloody-mindedly all over the place.

Fiona Rae is showing with Gary Hume at the Saatchi Gallery, Jan. 16-Mar. 23, 1997, 98A Boundary Road, London NW8 0RH England.

Art critic DAVID COHEN is based in London where he writes for the national press and for a variety of art magazines around the world, including Art in America and Sculpture Magazine.