Fiona Rae remembers acquiring a PowerBook in 1999 at about the same time that she met her husband and fellow artist Dan Perfect. Something of a tech boff, Perfect introduced Rae to the joys of Photoshop and the rest, you could say, is history. Already well established as one of the 'Freeze' generation of British artists (she took part in Damien Hirst's game-changing group show in Docklands in 1988), Rae’s creative outpouring over the past decade - a powerhouse of distinctive works juxtaposing her painterly skills with startling digital age iconography - is the subject of her latest show at Leeds Art Gallery.
Its rather baffling exhibition title, 'Maybe you can live on the moon in the next century', is incidentally borrowed from a painting Rae made in 2009. 'I tend to choose titles for my paintings that I feel have a note of ambiguity about them,' she says of her often teasing phrases. 'The grammar doesn’t quite make sense in them, it's almost a bit poetic. That title seems to me to be rather ludicrous and at the same time ominous, as if the moon is the only place left.'
Starting at the point in which Rae began referencing the changing visual language of the computer generation in her work, the Leeds Art Gallery exhibition presents a body of colourful and graphically abstract paintings. Incorporating complex typography, symbols and small figures or cartoons, their ambiguous nature makes them as amusing as they are sinister. 'I'm interested in how we perceive and understand imagery through its context,' Rae continues. 'In "Maybe you can live on the moon in the next century" (the painting) there are a couple of pandas. They gaze out at the viewer and disrupt the abstract picture space. It's not clear as to whether they are protagonists or bystanders, threatening or benign.'
Rae last showed in Leeds Art Gallery back in 1990, when she took part in the touring British Art Show, and says she is pleased to be back in the gallery's fold. Working together with curator Sarah Brown, Rae has chosen 17 paintings that define her past decade's work. The lyrical titles - such as ‘Press my buttons to give me food and love!’, 2006; 'The woman who can do self-expression will shine through all eternity', 2010 and ‘Bold as a wild strawberry, sweet as a naughty girl’, 2009 - are as dazzling as the works.
We tapped into the mind of Fiona Rae...
Summarise your work ethos in two words?
If you could save only one item from your office/studio what would it be?
The plastic dinosaur on my painting table.
What is your method of working?
It's changed over the years. Right now, my studio feels as though there's a constant conversation going on within it, with various canvases at different stages. Each new canvas that I begin tends to join in with the talk that's already going on.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what are you listening to at the moment?
I go through phases of listening to things but, recently, it's been Brian Eno and Kraftwerk.
What excites you/terrifies you on a daily basis?
Everything! Painting is really exciting but it's also terrifying. I can get awfully despondent and anxious if something seems to be going wrong, almost as though I'm wasting my life, but then a solution appears, rainbows break out, and things get exciting again.
Where do you feel most inspired?
In my studio, it’s my private cave space. Once I’m engaged in painting it’s like I’ve gone underwater and nothing else matters.