In Fiona Rae’s canvases, cute cartoon animals stop brush strokes dead in their tracks. Over a Japanese lunch, she tells Sarah Greenberg why. Photograph by Julian Anderson
As I press the automated sliding door to Umu, a Japanese restaurant in a mews off Berkeley Square, I feel as though I have stumbled into an opium den – the hushed tones, dark wood, crimson cushioned divans and Asian-inspired interior have a slightly illicit feel. Everything here is aesthetically attuned, from the artful food and furnishings, to the gleaming knives displayed behind the sushi bar. As I wait for my guest, the painter Fiona Rae RA, I feel as if I could be in a scene from Kill Bill just before the fighting starts.
This setting seems an appropriate meeting place for an artist who sees beauty as potentially dangerous. Her canvases explode in a riot of colour, with pastel pink and purple confronting black brush strokes, kitsch cartoon pandas, Bambis, flowers and glitter interrupting the flow of gestural, abstract marks. ‘I see my paintings as disruptive. The different elements are all in some kind of debate with each other.’ Is there a feminist aspect to her distortion of pretty icons? ‘Yes, I’m always asking what sort of imagery is okay to use in serious art. These cartoon images are things you might associate with teenage girls, an idea of the feminine, the decorative – why can’t I put them in serious art? There’s something threatening about prettiness, and often these things in my painting flip between something cute and something horrific. I’m constantly having a dialogue with the painting as I am making it, asking what would take it further, what would challenge it in an interesting way?’
Rae has chosen to meet at Umu as a treat: ‘I discovered this spot when the owner bought some of my work and invited me to lunch here with my dealer Timothy Taylor,’ she says. ‘People assume I love Chinese food, because of my childhood in Hong Kong. But I prefer Japanese food – all the individual, jewel-like pieces, and you can see what everything is.’ This Michelin-starred, Kyoto-inspired restaurant specialises in kaiseki: the Japanese equivalent of haute cuisine. Daunted by the complexities of the menu but still curious, we ask the chef to prepare seasonal specialities for us to share. We cross our chopsticks, hope for the best and are delighted by the array of exquisite dishes that arrives at our table, accompanied by hot green tea.
We start with tuna tartare atop a mixed cress salad: two cuts of fatty tuna drizzled with plum sauce and olive oil that has a deep, smoky flavour. Next a golden crown of tiger prawn tempura appears with mixed vegetables and lotus root: ‘It looks like a box of matches – quite amazing,’ enthuses Rae as we dip these crispy batons into dashi sauce and green tea salt, so they taste sweet and salty in the same bite. Plates of wild sea bass sashimi follow, along with wonderful sushi that includes our favourite: langoustine topped with chopped ginger leaf. Finally, a sculptural dish of black cod glazed in sweet soy and topped with fried leek, beetroot and burdock arrives. This feast of contrasting colours, flavours and textures – ingredients you would never think of combining but somehow cohere – reminds me of Rae’s paintings.
A Goldsmiths graduate, veteran of Damien Hirst’s ‘Freeze’ show and Turner Prize nominee in 1991, Rae (b. 1963) belongs to the YBA generation and had to defend painting when all around her were pronouncing it dead. ‘People were telling me it was not worth bothering. Back then it felt embarrassing to be a painter, using this splashy, slightly emotional stuff. So I found a way to make cool and ironic paintings to indicate that I understood the problems with painting, but nevertheless I thought there was something to be done.’
Why was she always so passionate about painting? ‘I couldn’t help but be drawn to the idea that you move this stuff around and you can make images and marks and a whole world. It is an arena in which your imagination can do anything. You are in control of what you create – with media like video or sculpture you tend to need other people’.
In the past ten years, Rae’s work (on display in Leeds this spring) has blossomed. ‘Around 2000 the world came flooding into my paintings,’ she says. Two things occurred to prompt this shift: ‘I met my husband, the painter Dan Perfect. These are paintings made since I met him. I can’t imagine not being with another artist. It’s such a strange life, so it’s great to have someone who completely understands why you are the way you are.’ Equally important to her work though, was getting her first Apple PowerBook and using Photoshop: ‘Now I take a digital image of a painting and mess around with it on the computer, trying out new colours. It’s had a huge effect on the way my paintings look and how I make them – there is more freedom, more emotional expression, more daring.’
Over desserts of blood orange and lychee sorbets (me) and fruit salad (Rae), I ask if she enjoys being part of a community of artists at the RA? ‘It’s amazing to encounter artists of different generations and types of work – normally I would never meet them.’ Is there anything she would like to change about the institution? ‘We need more women and more ethnic diversity. But Lisa Milroy RA and I have had success in changing the Laws so they don’t just refer to men.’
Now that she has been appointed Professor of Painting at the RA Schools, what advice would she give her students? ‘One of the most important lessons I have learned was about giving yourself permission to do something, and sometimes you need a tutor to help you do that. Society doesn’t always want to let you change things – people often prefer the status quo. But to be an artist of any interest, you have to rupture something, you have to do the difficult thing, and to do that, you have to give yourself permission. And if you find something you’re really good at, don’t dismiss it – enjoy it and be the best you can be.’