Rose Wylie is 83 years old. Her rise to fame has been fairly meteoric. Ten years ago few had heard of her, either in this, her native country, or abroad.
‘It shouldn’t be about age or gender or anything… It should just be about the quality of the painting’ – Rose Wylie
In 2009 things began to take off – she was one of seven finalists for the Threadneedle Prize. In 2010 she was the only non-American artist included in the Women to Watch exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington. In 2012 there was a retrospective at the enterprising Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, followed by a show at Tate Britain that, according to Wylie’s online biography, ‘featured recent works’. Search the online pdf of the Tate annual 2012/2013 Report for that, and you’ll find a picture of the artist herself, but no reference to any specific exhibition.
2014 was a landmark year: Wylie won the John Moores Painting Prize in Liverpool – its oldest ever winner. In 2015 she was elected RA, and in the same year, she won the Charles Wollaston Award for the ‘most distinguished work’ in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Her work is now represented by David Zwirner, a major international dealer, and has been bought by collectors such as the Japanese billionaire Yusasku Maezawa, who recently paid $110 million in a New York auction for a Basquiat self-portrait.
This is, however, a triumph with several curious features. The show at the Serpentine Sackler is admirably hung. In a gallery space that has sometimes in the past seemed cramped and cluttered because of the presence of intractable internal walls inherited from the building’s previous role as a gunpowder store, Wylie’s very large, often multi-part canvases are spaciously accommodated, Sometimes a composition that is a long strip will be hung so that it neatly turns a corner.
The strip-like format suggests an ancestry rooted in Pop Art. Other ancestors make themselves felt as well. There is a kinship with the Art Brut of Dubuffet. And there is certainly also a kinship with the current tribe of graffiti artists, for whom Basquiat was a founding figure – the first of the tribe to make it off down-at-heel urban walls and into the big salerooms.
And of course, Wylie is a major presence in two things that have recently had a major impact in the world of contemporary art. First, there has been a determination to recognize the contribution now being made by women artists. Secondly, linked to this, there has also been a wish to recognize the contribution made by certain very senior, till now neglected and, as it happens, mostly female practitioners.
Right now you’ll look long and hard for successors to the band of young divas and machos who formed a major part of the British YBA movement of the 1990s. Or for the equivalent of Basquiat, dead at 28, but already becoming well-known in New York by age 20. Or, even, to give a more remote example, also the subject of a current London exhibition – Modigliani, dead aged 35, and by that time with a well-established reputation, not only for his art (the Parisian art world of 1920, the year he died, gave him the equivalent of a state funeral), but also for beating up his girl-friends.
I mention these august names, not just because their work happens to be on view in London just now, in prestigious circumstances equivalent to the Wylie show, but because, maybe to my initial surprise, her work stands up well to theirs. She’s a breakaway talent. Not everything works, but when it does – then wow!
In a recent interview, Rose Wylie said: ‘It shouldn’t be about age or gender or anything… It should just be about the quality of the painting. That’s what I’d like to be known for. Paintings. Not because I’m old and the climate has changed, and old people are welcomed.’
‘The message is the painting. The painting is the painting.’ – RW
She added: ‘The painting isn’t about something. I think lots of people don’t understand that. They think it’s the message, which it isn’t. The message is the painting. The painting is the painting.’
What does this add up to? Queen Elizabeth I – very much a cartoon style version – appears. So do elaborate, wonkily inscribed scenes taken from films. So does a skeletonized horse and a very large red elephant, the latter confronted by a hardly recognizable lemur. So does a memory of a 1940 air raid over London, with dogs running about at ground level, and (at the bottom edge) smudges and speckles of paint recreating those on the skirting board of the artist’s studio. The curly tails of the dogs somehow replicate the motion of the propellers above.
What I suppose I like best are the paintings of people playing games, ball games for choice. One is called The Winning Shot. It makes you want to stand up and applaud.
These paintings are the exuberant work of someone who really likes doing what she does. Whose deepest pleasure is paint – paint as a plaything. The different things it can be made to do. The pink elephant mentioned was made directly with hands, not with a brush. Standing in front of it, you feel more light-hearted yourself. Here’s an artist who is really having fun. Who is not too much bothered about what you – her audience – think. An artist, in other words, of real independence of spirit.
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith Photos: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2017