Painter/Painter: Dan Perfect, Fiona Rae, at Nottingham Castle
The Long Gallery at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery is an excellent setting for sixteen marvelous paintings, seven by Dan Perfect and nine by Fiona Rae. In the adjacent room there are some smaller works on paper by Perfect and collages by Rae along with a video about their respective practices. Curated by Tristram Aver, this must be one of the best shows I have seen in Nottingham for a long time, though we are doing well this year, a Tess Jaray exhibition having just finished at Lakeside and Somewhat Abstract continuing at Nottingham Contemporary until 29 June.
In London, almost a year ago I saw small paintings by Rae and Perfect in a group show at the Lion and Lamb Summer Saloon, and when, around that time, I also heard that the Nottingham show was being planned I thought that the two would make a brilliant combination, not knowing then that the artists are in fact married to each other.
I had been impressed by the Dan Perfect painting Operator, and much of what I admired in that little painting I am seeing again here at Nottingham Castle only on a much larger scale.
I wonder if the operator in the title is the artist, acting upon the materials of canvas and paint, or maybe even the painting itself as it operates upon me the viewer, changing my experience, visually and psychologically. Likewise, the huge painting Transporter, here at Nottingham Castle, affects me, taking me somewhere, similar to the way that a dramatic natural landscape might act upon my gaze, as if I were a passive observer, transported even to some ‘spiritual’ place, when in fact I am the one who is actively constructing the world I see. I am the operator, the transporter or the Generator, another of the paintings here. Then again, maybe the motifs, figures or gestures within each of these paintings take on such agency, painted marks or patterns first creating spaces that they then inhabit. In Generator clusters of atom-like, circular forms, seem to hover in spatial crevices, but take the motif away and no space is now perceived. In Transporter a blue disc atop a meandering line could be read as a wheel travelling along a highway, without the disc the line wouldn’t be a highway and without the line the disc would not seem to travel. Once the highway association has been made I am cued to read the rest of the painting as landscape, with trees and mountains perhaps, even whilst knowing full well that no such landscape has actually been described.
Whilst I may be paying too much attention to the titles and not enough to the objects themselves, I think Perfect chooses his titles carefully, so that when I come across a painting entitled Laocoön or another entitled Cerberus, surely I must be expected to think of, in the first case, the famous statue in the Vatican Museum, and its reference to Greek mythology, or, in the second, of the mythological, gigantic three-headed, creature guarding the gates of Hades. And in viewing the painting Cerberus I start to think that the central white shape might resemble a head of the dreaded creature, and then to wonder what might be guarded, i.e prevented from getting out of the painting into the external world, or vice versa. And even as I am talking to myself about this. I hear Perfect speaking on video about his paintings being abstract in the same sense that mathematics is abstract, i.e. existing in its own tautologous world.
Noting the title Laocoön, I cannot help but bring to mind the article Towards a Newer Laocoön by Clement Greenberg in which he made his (in)famous case for value in abstract painting based on medium specificity. Martin Herbert makes this connection in his essay in the excellent catalogue for this show. He also reminds us, if reminder were needed, that Perfects painting Full Fathom Five, borrows its title from Jackson Pollock‘s 1947 painting of the same name. In Pollock’s famous painting we find bits of the ‘real world’ embedded into the surface, objects such as nails, thumbtacks, cigarette butts, coins, buttons, and a key. The ‘real world’ has changed a lot since 1947, one massive change being the rise of the computer and digital media. Could it be said that embedded in Perfect’s painting are bits of the virtual world, using as he does in his practice, Photoshop to manipulate sketched material, a hard copy of which he then uses as a ‘score’ for the paintings? The digitized image finds its way into the painting. In Full Fathom Five a swirling gesture in the bottom left hand corner changes colour abruptly halfway through its stroke, it looks like a digital edit. Similarly, the very fine circular doodles in Transporter look a lot like digital doodles. I have the sense that I am witnessing a visual conversation between the digital and the analogue.
I think I find a similar dialogue taking place in Fiona Rae’s paintings, only here the digital seems to be referenced more in the synthetic colours and the insertion of manufactured collaged elements from childish popular culture, girly stationery, stickers of cute cartoon pandas, her now familiar mixing of crass pop decor with the tropes of Abstract Expressionism, that continues to have the power to jar, entertain, and provoke.
If Perfect’s paintings resemble landscapes Rae’s are more like full-figure portraits, at least in their orientation, there is something person-like in their physical scale, but optically it is space that seems to be portrayed. Both artists open up spaces that appear cosmic, Rae’s to an even greater degree, her choice often of blue hues, the inclusion of stick-on stationery stars and her tracing direction lines from their points all add to this impression of the stellar.
Rae’s has an amazing facility with paint, her dramatic swooping gestures look effortless and also delightfully intricate. There’s something Rauschenbergian about them in their faux authenticity, yet with playfulness and a much greater sense of enjoyment than in Rauschenberg. Rae seems to revel in the contradictions of technological culture. The suggestion of personal expression and subjectivity yet also its knowing denial. Her inclusion of geometric motifs, references also the Constructivist strand of abstraction, acknowledging both its promise and its failure. Am I indulging my imagination too much seeing in these paintings a hint at a new vision, an acceptance of where we are now, tentatively hoping for a future that is more than parody, irony and the feeling of being stuck?
In the painting See Your World, a synthetic sky is populated by squiggles, gestures and apparently decomposing cartoon pandas. It’s high-tech Abstract Expressionism-meets-Manga, that I think does reflect the contemporary east/west, post apocalyptic, almost sci-fi world we now inhabit, without quite representing it. Just as the pandas appear both cute and sinister, the technological future might seem both attractive and menacing. I am reminded of the small painting by Rae that I saw at that Lion and Lamb exhibition, Party Time is Coming, it might even be here already, and it’s not necessarily a good thing, even though I do think Rae’s paintings are a very good thing!
Dan Perfect and Fiona Rae’s joint exhibition, ‘Painter, Painter: Dan Perfect, Fiona Rae’, is on show at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery from 3rd May to 6th July. The exhibition, will travel to Southampton City Art Gallery 18th July to 18th October.