In The Studio: Fiona Rae, artist

'My husband encouraged me to be more myself – to be what I'm really like...'

Karen Wright
Thursday 10 May 2012 16:02

Fiona Rae is what some would probably consider an old-fashioned artist, a "mere" painter. Her studio, in London's East End, showcases everything you might expect: rows of brushes, tubes of paint and canvases. I am surprised, however, to enter first a clean and tidy space, and find a large computer on a sleek glass table and the biggest printer I have ever seen. On the facing wall, shelves contain pots of glitter labelled with seductive names; "river green" catches my eye.

Rae, who has an exhibition opening in Leeds, was included in Freeze, Damien Hirst's groundbreaking warehouse show of 1988, and has been labelled a Young British Artist, having studied at Goldsmiths alongside Hirst and Co. She recalls being taught by Michael Craig-Martin, often considered the group's father figure, but also remembers with fondness several tutorials by the late Helen Chadwick, the strongly conceptual artist who taught her, she says, "important things about a work's surface".

After college, she was included in the 1990 Venice Biennale. Shortlisted for the 1991 Turner Prize, Rae became that rare artist of the period – a fashionable painter. Perhaps it was her unusual mash-up of imagery for a painter, bringing together Bosch with elements from popular culture (comic books, science fiction, film) which made her work appealing to both the avant-garde and traditional constituencies.

Rae's painting area feels more familiar to me. A table is covered with an array of brushes of all shapes and sizes – "twenty-five years of collecting, that is," says Rae – while on a palette on the floor, orange jostles with fuchsia, lemon yellow, and purples. These almost fluorescent colours, evident throughout Rae's work, stand well apart from the murky, muddy, fleshy tones of many of her English painter peers.

Rae touchingly admits the influence of her partner, fellow painter Dan Perfect, saying: "He encouraged me to be more myself, what I'm really like and what I really like." I look at a strong group of recent paintings, where a number of cartoon-like pandas have taken centre stage, amidst some of the glitter from the first room. The inspiration, Rae says, came from stuffed animals discovered last spring in a cheap souvenir shop in New York's Chinatown. Dangling one in front of me, she remarks that with their glittery eyes there is something both playful and sinister about them. I am amused to note that they are lying today on a large book about Reformation-era artist Lucas Cranach, another indication of Rae's catholic tastes.

There is a connection in these recent works, both of energy and imagery, to Hong Kong, where Rae was brought up, she recalls, surrounded by the imagery of the east, with its mixture of kitsch and high culture. She admits regularly buying a tonne of stuff, like the pandas, even though "only a little of it catches," she says. "Who knows, until it happens."

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