Once Turner Prize shortlistee Fiona Rae – whose works gained notoriety in the 1990s alongside the likes of Gary Hume and Damien Hirst – will be exhibiting a ten year career retrospective at Leeds Art Gallery from tomorrow. Wonderland pressed Rae about her illustrious career.

Tell us what you’ll be exhibiting in Leeds.

I’m showing 17 paintings selected from the last ten years.

How do you think your work has evolved since discovering Photoshop? When and how did this happen?

In 1999 I met my husband, the artist Dan Perfect, who is extremely computer literate and who encouraged me to explore using the computer for my work. I have a tricky relationship with my computer; there are really quite sophisticated things I can do in Photoshop, little rat runs that I’ve got the hang of, but then quite simple things are often beyond me. In 2000, I started using contemporary fonts like Fufanu as geometric shapes in the paintings. Using Photoshop, I planned scale and composition and added flares and special effects to the graphic symbols which I could then replicate in oil and acrylic paint on the canvas. I could also come up with interesting colour schemes.
However, I’ve never planned anything more than a good start on the computer, and I’ve never used it to plan making marks, brushstrokes, drawing, or anything gestural or painterly. Often when I’m faced with an actual canvas in real life, things that seemed like a good idea on the computer screen melt away and I change and improvise everything anyway. The exhibition in Leeds begins with paintings made in 2000 when I started using Photoshop, and the world, both real and virtual, was able to flood in to my paintings; they became not only about exploring what was possible with so-called pure and impure abstraction, but also more directly engaged with the stuff that surrounds us all.

Explain the process – so you plan canvasses and concepts on Photoshop?

At the moment, I don’t plan anything other than colour ideas in Photoshop. I find that really helpful – I often take a digital image of a finished painting and flip through lots of colour versions to see what else might be possible. If the print out isn’t appealing, I try another one. It’s much easier than starting a two metre high painting and realising the colours are all wrong in the wrong kind of way. Wrong colours in the right kind of way or vice versa are what I tend to be aiming for; something a bit uneasy or unusual.

How would you say your early life in the far east continues to inform your work?

I think my early years travelling and living in different countries – Hong Kong, Australia, Indonesia – has had a huge impact on who I am, and therefore what kind of paintings I make. My father was British but my mother is Australian, and I think that gives me a feeling of otherness, of not quite belonging entirely. I think that a sense of anxiety and constant change is played out in the paintings; the constant jostling and synthesis of different kinds of painterly languages and images, the sense that there is no ultimate certainty. The colours of everyday street culture in Hong Kong, the neon lights, the cartoons I saw as a child, the bright tropical flowers in Indonesia, the Chinese calligraphy; all these were what I was brought up on, and I think give my paintings a distinctly non-British look.

How did becoming the first ever female professor of painting at the Royal Academy School feel?

I was thrilled to become a professor. And I was especially thrilled to be the first female professor of painting. I was shocked to find out that since 1768, when the Royal Academy Schools started, there hadn’t been a single female
professor of anything. Time for change!

“Fiona Rae: Maybe You Can Live on the Moon in the Next Century” runs until August 26th.
Words: Jack Mills


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