Fiona Rae, Maybe You Can Live on the Moon in the Next Century, Leeds Art Gallery

 

Fiona Rae describes her love of painting thus: "You get to invent a world and you get to be in charge of what happens in that world. And you don't really get to do that in life, do you?" She smiles at the camera and continues to work on the lilac space around a pink Hallmark-esque heart, superimposed on the canvas. A lime-green thread appears, faintly, under her brush.

The scene belongs to the Tate film that runs on repeat in the gallery, documenting Rae in her Hackney studio. She comes across as utterly serious and charming, but the painterly worlds over which she rules are anything but: combining eerie gimmicks with the freedom, urgency, and eloquence of Abstract Expressionism, they seem stranded in a kind of digitalised purgatory. Other than re-iterating the decentred craziness of postmodern culture, or the lunacy of an information-saturated age, what do these paintings actually do? To look at them is to be both attacked by a confusion of imagery and held at bay, blinded, blocked out. They offer nowhere for the gaze to go. Far from an unsettling or provocative experience, these plasticky mists and suspended graphics induce a sense of profound tiredness.

Born in Hong Kong, Rae, 48, is a former YBA who graduated from Goldsmiths in 1987 and participated in the notorious Freeze show, organized by Damien Hirst in 1988. She was taught by Michael Craig-Martin, nominated for a Turner Prize at the age of 27, and elected to the RA in 2002. The 17 paintings that hang in this wonderful space were made between 2000 and 2011. Rae has insisted that her work is sincere, not ironic – in which case, the titles are alarming: My Favorite Puppy's Life (2004), Moonlite Bunny Ranch (2003), Lovesexy (2000), and We Go in Search of Our Dream... (2007). The latter is one of the more engaging, albeit syrupy, works; its swoops of turquoise and thick, bushy blues are vivacious rather than panicked. Winged creatures soar upwards and scatter around the branches of a tree, blurring into a watery sky.

To reach for something out of one's reach may point to an artistic yearning for transcendence, but it also resonates at the heart of consumer desire, which Rae references again and again: the cute/sinister bunnies, pandas, stars, and angels look less like sincere aesthetic gestures and more like the exploded detritus of a Claire's Accessories sale.

 

To 26 August (0113 247 8256)

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