The conundrum of blurring reality

By Adam Gifford

New Zealand artist Jude Rae.
New Zealand artist Jude Rae.

Faced with Jude Rae's paintings of bottles and vases, the cursory observer might drop the M word: Morandi. More rewarding may be to ask why they are not like the work of the Italian master of the still life.

"I am much more attached to describing than Morandi was," says Rae, back briefly to open the show from her base in Sydney. "I would not presume to have the extraordinary ability Morandi had of combining description with something that is more to do with the way paint sits on canvas in a sort of abstract, non-figurative way.

"I flail about at the descriptive end of things and I would love to be more in command of what I am doing but then I don't want to be Morandi either. He is as much of a touchstone for me as Chardin, or Cezanne."

It was Morandi who declared, "Nothing is more abstract than reality," something that resonates with where Rae has gone. Most of her work is still life, although there is the occasional exquisitely rendered figure.

She describes still life as "the lab rat of genres" - which is why it was so important at the turn of the 20th century when painters were coming to terms with the impact of new technologies like photography.

"Still life is not just about formal relationships. To me it is about the ability to sit there and question my perceptions in a very quiet sort of frame and the obvious comparison is when I substitute objects like bottles for a person and that is an entirely different experience.

"It nudges philosophical and existential questions in a very practical way - there is another person in the room, and that is a very confronting and complicated situation and I find it sort of horrifying and fascinating at the same time."

Assembling elements for a still life is the starting point for a painting, not the end point. It's about making choices, but also setting limits. "The interesting thing about working in a representational or realist idiom is that it sort of mucks up the formal perfection of your own little world, you can't just do what you want to do. There are elements of chance. There are other considerations, such as me wanting to neutralise a lot of the suggestive or symbolic freight that certain objects carry with them, that tends to bleed through to a lot of still lifes, so there may be a nostalgia or there are readings attached to an object."

The latest work has more colour than other recent shows, something Rae thinks is cyclical in her work.

"It comes and goes. I think I am getting more confidence," she says at the age of 56. "I don't have to worry so much about what I do and that brings me more engagement with the palette. I think it is pretty arbitrary, it just happens to be the framework I work in. I just want a reason to put a cool blue against a warm French blue and I'm referring to the background and the tabletop, but it sort of doesn't matter."

She occasionally leaves underpainting exposed, in particular a translucent burnt sienna.

"Most of the paintings are cool, so the red functions to enliven a primarily cool palette," she says. "I used it strictly as underpainting for a long time. Then I started contriving to reveal it in ways that were a self conscious allusion of the constructedness of the technique."

That is part of Rae's broader agenda as a figurative painter to use elements from the 20th century abstract tradition.

"Having looked a lot at Robert Ryman and other painters who approach painting as object, I am sorting my way around. I suppose it's part of my attempt to understand painting for myself.

"It articulates for me the growing certainty that there is no such thing as representational painting, all painting is abstract, and painters since time immemorial have approached painting as object, but the foregrounding of that in the 20th century caused a chasm to develop between painters."

Rae says her painting is a dialogue with her father, a gifted painter who was unable to pursue his passion.

"He studied at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney which was like this 19th century colonial outpost of the Slade and he came of age just at the point after the war when the finer points of figurative painting weren't exactly in the forefront of anyone's mind ... As one inherits from one's parents, I grew up with his sense of disappointment. I also now realise he wasn't actually fitted to operate in the art world, he was too internally tumultuous and contradictory."

Rae herself earned a diploma in drawing and painting from the Julian Ashton school before completing a bachelors degree in art history.

She moved New Zealand in 1990, doing a fine art masters at Ilam in Christchurch. She says the shift was the best thing she could have done. "It got me out of the place [where my father was] and allowed me to invent myself.

"From that distance I was able to embrace the idea that has pretty much pushed me along, that it must be possible to find a contemporary articulation for the sorts of values that informed the best of his painting and the best of the painting that came out of the 19th century."

What: Jude Rae New Paintings
Where and when: Fox Jensen Gallery, corner McColl and Roxborough Sts, Newmarket, to September 29

- NZ Herald

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