Rocky Horror Show

Painter, Painter

21 May 14 words: Wayne Burrows
The 'salon hang' in Nottingham Castle's Long Gallery has gone - to be replaced by a fresh new exhibition of contemporary British painting
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Dan Perfect: Transporter, 2013

Walk into the Long Gallery at Nottingham Castle and there’s a surprise in store. Where a selection from the city’s collection of paintings made between the seventeenth to twentieth centuries has hung since The British Art Show left town in 2010, there’s now an airy, clean space across which the vibrantly coloured paintings of Fiona Rae and Dan Perfect face each other. It’s the kind of transformation the Victorian gallery’s designers, whose fondness for eye-catching spectacle is often forgotten, would surely approve.

Fiona Rae has been regarded as one of the leading painters of her generation since the early 1990s, when she exhibited her pop-influenced abstract canvases alongside artists like Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume in shows like Freeze and Sensation. Dan Perfect has arguably maintained a lower profile with the wider public, though since the late 1990s his complex compositions, which refer to mid-century tendencies in painting, have been quietly winning admirers and collectors.

That the two happen to be married is not entirely coincidental, but despite (or perhaps because) of this, Painter, Painter is the first time they have shown together on this scale. It’s something of a coup for Nottingham Castle, and we caught up with both painters on the morning of the day the exhibition opened to find out more about the things that influence their work.

We’re in the Long Gallery and one thing that’s noticeable is the way youve separated the two bodies of work, so your paintings face each other across the room rather than mingle, which I assume is very deliberate?
Fiona: Yes, we considered it very carefully. We were interested in showing our two practices’ distinct identities, so in the Long Gallery, which feels like the main part of the exhibition, my work goes down one wall, Dans goes down the other. Separating the paintings like that keeps our individual voices clearly defined.

Fiona Rae: Does Now Exist, 2013

Dan: What was a surprise for us, when we began to put our work side by side in our studios, was realising just how argumentative our works could appear when shown together. Weve made a decision to avoid that, to some extent, by the separation of the two bodies of work. What we werent interested in eliciting was a direct kind of A and B comparison between one work and another. Were not responding conversationally in that way, weve got our own individual worlds that were lost in at the studio. I think whatever bridge is built between the two bodies of work is made in the eye and mind of the viewer.

As far as I’m aware, both of you pursue fairly pure painting practices.
Fiona: Yes, that’s true. We both make work on paper but we are both very much painters, which is why we chose the exhibition title Painter, Painter. That’s our job description and there’s no ambiguity about that. Everything you see is made of paint. That’s important because otherwise they would be different artworks. The actual paint marks embody the ideas and vice versa. It couldnt be made as a computer print-out or a video or anything else. It has to be painted.

There’s also an awareness of the histories of painting and the meanings of different kinds of techniques used by painters in the past. Looking at Dan’s work I’m made very conscious of a lot of 1940s and 1950s painting, people like Graham Sutherland and Ceri Richards, arguably styles that have been a bit out of fashion.
Dan: I feel close affinities with things like Surrealism, the compositions of Kurt Schwitters, a lot of things that were going on in the 1920s. Then when we get to the 1940s and 50s, Im definitely very interested in those kinds of biomorphic abstraction and landscape abstraction, both the British kinds you mentioned and those of people like Roberto Matta.. There’s an inventiveness, energy and imagination in those folded-up worlds that has a very strong appeal for me. There is also the influence of Jackson Pollock and many of the things that influenced him.

The titles also tend to hint at things like that, but sometimes throw you off the scent, rather than more directly explain what the pictures are about.
Dan: One painting is called ‘Howl’, which obviously echoes the title of Allen Ginsberg’s poem, and brings in all those ideas about the Beat Generation and their experiments with psychedelic drugs, the whole idea of remaking society and your own individual consciousness, but not, I hope, in any too-specific way. Another is called ‘Arcologies’, so there’s a link there to the words ‘Architecture’ and ‘Ecologies’, where the forms might suggest new cities and landscapes. The titles become little prisms that might change the way you look at the work but they’re not intended to be explicators or descriptors of what the work is. The title is just a small poetic addendum that adds something else to the work.

There can be a tendency to either name the landscape or emotion intended, and literalise the image in some way, or at the opposite extreme to use a formula like ‘Untitled’ that gives no clues or hints at all. Both your choices of titles seem to fall into more ambiguous or suggestive territory.
Fiona: For me the decision to start titling my work, a while ago now, was about the opportunity to make another kind of mark in the painting. My titles are usually a sentence or part of a sentence that is ambiguous, both in itself and in relation to the paintings I attach them to.. I think my influences in painting’s history are very distinct from Dan’s. I’m much more of a post-Warhol, post-Pop strategist when it comes to things like using found images, different kinds of marks, and found texts as titles. So for me it’s all about how I can use all these different bits of cultural flotsam and jetsam, all these bits of serious painting, and how I can put all of these appropriated and borrowed bits and pieces together, making them my own in order to come up with new paintings and new meanings.

Fiona Rae: See Your World, 2013

It can also seem as though Dan’s images are much more traditionally resolved, while yours seem to deliberately resist that kind of resolution.
Fiona: As a painter I do want to take each painting to a point where it could all fall apart, but where - just for this one split second - you have an image, and the painting is that image. Another split second and it might all have changed again.

One painting here [‘Dusk brings your eyes’] reminds me of those photographs you see from particle accelerators, where the impact and traces of something have been recorded, but in an instant so short that it’s a case of blink and you’d miss it. It might never happen again in exactly the same way – and a fraction of a second either side of this image and it might all have returned to chaos again.
Fiona: Yes, the title maybe doesn’t really make sense in a literal way, but it does give you something you can take that kind of poetic reading from if you wish to.
Dan: That is one of the biggest differences between us, in the way we make work, because Fiona’s work is improvised directly on the canvas while mine is very carefully planned, so that might explain the impression that my paintings give of being more carefully pictorially resolved. My drawings are different, they’re entirely spontaneous and free associative, but then the method when I come to making the paintings is totally considered and deliberate.
Fiona: I improvise everything. I have no idea what is going to happen when I stand in front of the canvas, which is both exciting and terrible.

There’s also that distinction between what Fiona called her post-Warhol, ‘Pop’ sensibility, and Dan’s referencing of what I suppose you might call a ‘Beat’ or even classic mid-century Modernist sensibility.
Dan: That is another fundamental difference between us. I mean, even at art school, for me, it seemed like Andy Warhol was playing this endgame with art, he was bringing about the end of art with an endgame from which you couldn’t escape. Nevertheless, my own interests go further backwards in time and that earlier time is now what most often informs the work I make. But that isn’t to say Fiona’s post-Pop sensibility isn’t every bit as serious. It might be much more serious in a way.
Fiona: Oh, definitely!

You say that jokingly, but there is a sense in your paintings that you are looking for an escape from that endgame, looking for the next viable move in painting after something like Warhol happens.
Fiona: I think I keep inventing my own endgames, try to explore all the possibilities within those, then find another move, another arena inside which I can make paintings. In the group of my big paintings in this main section of the gallery, I made decisions about including certain elements and actions that would take place on each canvas, then seeing where those parameters took me. All of these paintings are a result of that particular set up.

They are all very different in terms of colour, technique and style, but there are things that seem to unite them too, like the little pandas and stars.
Fiona: Yes, the drips, too. These were some of the elements I decided would be included and from there it was trying out the possibilities those elements presented as I worked. I should also say that the little nameable images, like the pandas and stars, aren’t stickers or collaged onto the canvas – they’re actually made of paint that’s built up to help them stand out as reliefs on the canvas surface.

A similar question could be asked of Dan’s paintings, as to whether they are a series or a group of discrete, unconnected works? They do seem to follow certain patterns in terms of format and composition.
Dan: I was very surprised by that because I don’t think of them as a series in any way, and think of them as highly individual pictures, each of which has been quite bounded in the making and generation of them. Im surprised they have the kind of homogeneity and consistency that they do, seeing them all hung together in this space. They are paintings made mostly over the last two years or so and to my eye they are all very different but then, of course, my eye is honed to notice all the tiny differentations rather than the larger scale similarities you notice are there.
Fiona: It does look very much like I have a clear series of paintings and Dan has a clear series of paintings here too, and I don’t think we knew that would happen. It’s been one of the big surprises, for us, of showing our work together in this space.

I know with Fiona’s work, this is a very different selection to Maybe you can live on the moon in the next century, which was shown in Leeds a couple of years ago. That covered a much broader range of work from a lot of different stages in your career to date.
Fiona: Absolutely, and I know Nottingham Castle were very concerned not to simply repeat that Leeds exhibition here. The Leeds exhibition went back to 2000, when I was still using fonts and lettering, and went all the way up to 2011, I think, so it covered about a decade of work. The only painting this show has in common with that one is ‘Shifting sands dusts its cheek in powdered beauty’, from 2010, which we felt was a good lynchpin kind of painting to use as an introduction to the more recent works, none of which were included in the Leeds show. It is also one of my personal favourite paintings, so it’s like a lucky charm I’ve brought in.

Dan Perfect: Laocoon, 2013

It’s also one of the few, and maybe the only image in this selection, that still has lettering as part of its design.
Fiona: That is the only one in this show. It’s not immediately clear that it is lettering, as it’s the remnant of something thats been over-painted, that has dissolved and decayed and is almost not there. The title is from Krazy Kat, by the way, which I love for its sing-song, made-up language, and I feel a strong affinity to that way of constructing something. The way that the Krazy Kat cartoon strips use slightly broken bits and pieces of language to construct new meanings resonates very strongly for me. One of my favourite quotes from Krazy Kat is “language is that we may misunderstand each other”, which is written in a slightly misspelt way. It’s fantastic.

That links quite neatly to something I was going to ask about the way you both use elements of figuration. Suggestions of representation seem to come in and out of focus. In Dan’s paintings there are suggestions of maps and landscapes and buildings, without the images ever resolving entirely into those things, and in Fionas work there are little bits of figurative imagery that appear, disappear and get over-painted. I wondered what your interest is in that relationship with figuration.
Dan: I think of us both as painters dealing with things on the cusp of abstraction and figuration. Certainly myself, in terms of the kinds of forms you mention, and in Fiona’s case with the images of stickers and decals and other kinds of additions.
Fiona: There’s that sense of those things being nameable: that’s an angel, that’s a star, that’s a heart, that’s a panda. I’ve definitely played with that level of ambiguity between figuration and abstraction.
Dan : I think that’s it, it’s not really figuration, it’s imagery. The things in Fiona’s paintings are about that little piece of the world that is recognisable and nameable. My evocation of figuration is all about - I thought about this the other day in fact – a return to life drawing. In the end, these are all figures moving through some kind of undergrowth or thicket of information and experience and sensuality – a very tactile world – but they are bodies represented from the inside-out rather from the outside-in, so it becomes about how it feels to be a body. So in that sense, these paintings are masses of sensations, accumulated and conglomerated, but my sense of figuration is what I can best describe as a kind of imaginary real space that we are inhabiting rather than a total abstraction. But we’ve both had to think about some of this recently, about what our relationship to abstraction is, and it’s quite a difficult one to answer.
Fiona: We have very distinct relationships to abstraction, too. Listening to what Dan says about figures painted from inside-out, or moving through thickets of information where the figures might operate, is a good way of summing up briefly what Dan’s work is doing, but I think I do something quite different. I think for me it’s about the way I use brushstrokes, so the brushstrokes themselves are as phenomenologically present as possible, so they don’t illustrate other things, even where they might suggest other things. For me it’s always a brushstroke, an abstract mark, a moment of colour, a moment of line…but they are also places in which shapes and things that you might interpret are forming and reforming.

Another aspect is simply that by being placed in this space, which is a historical gallery that is usually hung with historical paintings, there’s a sense that this work is now in a dialogue of some kind with those histories.
Fiona Rae: We do feel amazingly privileged that Nottingham Castle has moved the salon hang of the collection to create this show, and I think there has been some thinking around the idea that a gallery that usually shows a history of paintings is now showing something of the present of painting, and bringing a bit of the ‘shock of the new’, to borrow Robert Hughes’s line, into the Long Gallery. That’s definitely very exciting for us, and I hope it’s exciting to those who will come here and see this contrast.

Maybe the real question is about whether the fact of placing the work into this historically loaded context also brings meanings and connections into the work that you may not necessarily have intended when the paintings were made.
Fiona: I’m always up for any interpretation people might have, and Dan and I are both part of the long and venerable tradition of painting so if there are echoes or associations that people pick up on that’s great. That just makes it richer for everyone, doesn’t it?
Dan: I think the main thing about the work we both make is that everything is in the work itself. There’s no particular idea that needs to be imparted separately from the work because it’s all there in the materials.
Fiona: I always think of my paintings as proposals, I’m not laying down any hard-line position on anything.

There’s a lot of very sensual pleasure in the marks, colours and materials here too.
Fiona: That’s certainly very important for me. But then making the paintings is not always enjoyable. Because I improvise, my work can go very off-piste and end up in disastrous situations where I’m struggling to recoup something out of it. But in a way some part of me must enjoy that, or I wouldn’t put myself through it, so maybe the point is just that it’s not all joy and delight, there’s also some despair and wrestling on the way I go about trying to get to a painting. The finished thing should have vestiges of all the possibilities that went into its making because that’s what gives it the richness.
Dan: That’s how painting draws people in.
Fiona: Its also just because what paint can do, as a medium, is extraordinary. In the end, we both exploit those possibilities in our own paintings as fully as we can because we both believe that painting is the most incredible medium.

Painter, Painter is at Nottingham Castle until Sunday 6 July 2014

Nottingham Castle website


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