Jude Rae

Jude Rae works in conversation with space and light, playing with the eye of the viewer as her works shift and coalesce between representation and abstraction. Methodical in her process, she works with a range of mediums from video to etchings to realise the composition of her impressive large scale paintings. In this variety of form and content, what remains consistent is the artist’s awareness of a painting and examining what its role is.

Can you tell me about your upbringing, and how that has informed your artistic focus today?
My dad was a painter and he and my mum met at the Julian Ashton Art School. Mum was an amateur cellist and working as a life model. I went there on Saturdays when I was about 12, which was unusual, but my parents knew the Ashtons. We did not have much money but my sister and I grew up with art and music. I had to recalibrate my relationship to that culture as I got older.

Your earlier room details in the 1990s appear almost totally non-objective. What appeals to you about the interplay between realism and non-objectivity?
Those paintings weren’t so early – I was in my mid 30s. They are quite literal depictions of wall details, explorations of the idea that there might be no distinction between abstraction and representation in painting – that all painting is abstract. I was very interested in the ambiguities of representation: rendering what I was seeing in paint as sharp and soft gradations of colour and tone. I was painting representationally and presenting it in the guise of abstraction much like photographers like Siskind or Tillmans. Even prior to that I was asking myself the question: why paint? The fabric paintings were as much about this doubt, obscuring the subject of painting or painting the canvas itself, as they were about feminist discourse, which is how they were interpreted at the time.

By painting onto the canvas you are disguising the canvas and turning it into something that it isn’t.
Representational painting is a cultural construct. To think of the canvas as a window is an abstract idea. Approaching paint as coloured mud being moved around on a flat surface is quite concrete. Consciously or not, representational painters do both.

You acknowledge Gunter Umberg and non-objective painters as your influences. Which other artists or styles do you refer to?
Cezanne, Morandi, Matisse, Mondrian, Albers (both Josef and Anni) to name but a few. The Bauhaus was splendid. I love textiles, Modernist design and architecture – Ando, Zumthor, Eames – it has a lot to do with function and materiality.

Does that feed into how you approach the surface of a painting?
Touch is very important in painting. It took me years to realise that, while my father was a painter, my mother was an upholsterer. She had a store of bits of nice old linen and brocades, and that heavy upholstery material with texture and physical presence.

From small still-lifes to your larger interiors, there is a focus upon light and space. Is scale of similar importance?
Scale is important because it affects how I make a painting. Working large is entirely different to working on smaller canvases – source material, paint application … everything changes. A large painting is immersive, while there is more an object quality to a smaller work. Activating those large surface areas so they feel alive requires different solutions. I think I made progress in the Foyer works (370 and 371) that were in the (recently concluded) Drill Hall show in Canberra, A Space of Measured Light.

Alongside your oil paintings, you work with watercolour, etchings and lithographs. What attracts you to this variety of mediums?
Other mediums help me open up new ground but it always leads back to painting. Watercolour is incredibly scary for an oil painter – no second chances! With etching the delay is the thing. I had no idea I was so impatient. There is something about the way the relationship between the ink and paper is palpable and I love those velvety blacks. The metal etching plates have a powerful physical presence too, like sculpture in a way. I like soft ground etching because it is more atmospheric and offers more opportunities for a bit of foul biting and accident.

How often do you print?
I seem to have come around to it every 10 years but lately more consistently. It helps me work through things. The two Foyer Interiors in the show at FoxJensen in Paddington were earlier small versions of the big paintings I made for the Drill Hall in Canberra, but prior to making those paintings I made etchings. I think the delay and intensity of the printmaking process helped me clarify aspects of the composition.

What is the exchange between these different mediums?
It varies and can sometimes be a matter of chance. The horizontal painting in the Drill Hall exhibition started out as an idea for a video, which I make only occasionally. When I got back from Europe in February this year I was often walking through Liberty Place and the sun was positioned so that it caught in the rotating doors, breaking the view of the interior into slivers and facets. It was impressive and did something spatially quite different to what I had been working with in the airport interiors. I was trying unobtrusively to take iPhone videos but I needed a much bigger file so that I could slow it down. The security people didn’t like it at all. I delayed, the sun changed position and I missed the moment, so I focused on paintings instead.

What is it about painting that is more intense?
I think about Rodin’s remarks about his ‘St John’: he was talking about movement in stasis. He said the photograph lies because it freezes a moment whereas our perceptual experience is immersed in time. He created a feeling of movement in stillness by combining impressions taken over time. In doing so I think he also conveys a sense of time. It sounds paradoxical, but time experienced as timelessness. I think that painting can function in a similar way – an intensity achieved by the non-literal expression of something very complex, like the recognition of our experience of time or space.

What led to your ‘Beirut’ series, 2007-09?
In 2006 I had one of the Art Gallery of NSW Paris residencies. When I arrived what became known as the ‘July War’ between Israel and Lebanon had just broken out. I became completely immersed in the internet coverage and made drawings from it. The etching Beirut, July War (2006) shows a group of men standing on top of a hill watching Beirut Airport burning. The body language reflects a kind of helpless resignation and it seemed such an eloquent image of the civilian upheaval and chaos caused by war.

I was unsure how I could respond to this as an artist but I learned that after the conflict ended, people in Lebanon were getting injured and dying while trying to harvest their crops. I wanted to exhibit the drawings I had made in Paris but I felt to do so was exploiting the distress of others. I decided to show the drawings in one room and, with the gallery’s cooperation, set myself up in another room in the role of a Parisian street artist, making portrait drawings of locals for $150. We got a lot of support and made more than $4000, which I donated to an organisation that funded the removal of the mines and unexploded ordnance from civilian spaces.

What did this confirm for you as a painter?
It helped me process my feelings about art and politics. Before I settled in my mind the importance of painting in a more philosophical sense, I felt that I needed to do something like that to see how it felt. I think it helped me clarify why I believe that painting per se is important.

In 2009 I made a large painting of the men on the hill in Beirut which led to the larger paintings generally – the airport interiors. I already had an interest in architecture. Those highly reflective glass interiors are like halls of mirrors. The paintings explore the interplay between illusion and materiality in a different way to the still-lifes. The perspectival structures play off the grid of windows beyond which one can see the outside world. Still-life is such an interior genre. It was as if I needed the structure of the interior from which to consider landscape. I started to think of them as deferred landscapes.

How important is time for your process?
I am becoming much more aware of how I regulate time in my work process. I used to work very long hours. It was a necessary learning experience but I realised that sometimes I would make three paintings in one, and paint can become congested and lose vitality. Now I tend to get up and walk away more often, come back and see what I am doing with fresh eyes.

Paintings often become lighter, more evanescent as painters age (think of Morandi or Manet, and above all Cezanne!). Perhaps the paintings become lighter because the painter takes the time to let things to settle visually, stands back and sees anew. My father told me that Dobell once said to him ‘Turn paintings to the wall for a while David, you’ll be surprised how they improve!’.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 41, 2017

Jude Rae: 424 – 428
22 August – 19 September 2020
The Commercial, Sydney

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