Recognition for women in the art world has not always come quickly. The artist Rose Wylie, born in Kent in 1934, is no exception. In 2010, despite her decades-long artistic practice, the Guardian newspaper crowned her ‘Britain’s Hottest New Painter’, and it was only in 2013 that Tate Britain dedicated a solo exhibition to her work. Even as she has been belatedly discovered in the UK, Wylie’s profile has remained low in Germany. The exhibition What Means Something at CHOI&LAGER in Cologne is only her third show in Germany, following two previous exhibitions at the Galerie Michael Janssen, Berlin.
The surface of Wylie’s paintings initially seems impetuous and uncontrolled. Her figures are simply drawn and comic-like, their details and surroundings spare; perspective and proportions seem of secondary importance. In her canvases, Wylie makes reference to movies, celebrity magazines and publicity photos, arranging her images almost like a film director: she seems to zoom in, freeze, use the shot/countershot technique and work with long shots and close-ups. For example, the desert scenes for Pink Table Cloth (Long Shot) (2013) she took from the film Syriana (2005). Sometimes text runs through her paintings like the closing credits of a film, acting as a sort of caption, with the actual subject located above it. In Jack Goes Swimming (Jack) (2013), Wylie has painted a hazy rear view of Philip Seymour Hoffman floating calmly in the water from the film Jack Goes Boating (2010); in Ray’s Yellow Plane (Film Notes) (2013), a yellow aeroplane circles in the sky in the film Rosalie Goes Shopping (1989). These fleeting cinematic images gain a new materiality on Wylie’s canvases.
Along with scenes from movies, Wylie’s paintings use source material from art history. Her four-part monumental painting Leeds Castle (4 Canvases) (2013) references English painter Robert Peake the Elder’s 17th-century portraits of King James I’s children, Elizabeth and Henry. In Going And Coming Back, after Van Gogh (2013), Vincent van Gogh turns up as a crumpled stick figure; the work draws from both Van Gogh’s famed painting The Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1888) and Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh IV (1957).
Wylie has preserved in her work an almost naïve directness. But her precisely formulated interest in art historical and filmic source material faces off against this inscrutable, jumbled and deliberately ‘raw’ style. Hers is a refined strategy of pitting apparent simplicity and directness against the works’ multiple medial coding. Wylie’s confrontation with art history evinces not only a profound knowledge but also a critical perspective vis-à-vis this subject matter. In 2012 she named her exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings Big Boys Sit in the Front; Wylie’s ‘anti-style’ may be, not least, an affront to continued male dominance in the art world. She would, however, likely find the label of feminism far too narrow, as her protest against the predominantly male history of art is only a small element in an oeuvre marked by carefree playfulness and subtle ironies that operate beyond such categories.
Translated by Jane Yager
First published in Issue 15