Trying to like Rose Wylie

Rose Wylie’s exhibition Big  Boys Sit in the Front is showing at the Jerwood Gallery until 1 July. I went to see it on March 17, the day the Jerwood opened, and I very much wanted to like it because:

  • Wylie is a woman and women artists are still hugely under-represented in galleries
  • Wylie is 78 and has been described as up and coming; this is the ultimate answer to all those who think they are failures if they haven’t won the Turner Prize, made a million, or got a first novel published by the time they are – 30, 40, 50 or 60. (Actually if you have set your heart on the Turner Prize and you haven’t won it by the time you are 50 – tough because that is the age limit)
  • I really want the Jerwood to succeed and for everybody to flock to it because it has such wonderfully interesting art

But,  I must admit to having been underwhelmed. Her work is odd and didn’t really seem to be odd in a good way. Though the works were paintings in that they were painted they seemed more like drawings and pretty crude ones at that. So in March I had a fairly brief look around the Wylie and thought maybe the next exhibition will be better and went on to look at the permanent collection.

But other people made me think again – my daughter said I should watch the video about her; it hadn’t been showing when I visited. David Hammick one of the University of Brighton tutors came to talk to us – his exhibition is running at Brighton Museum  – he said something along the lines of “she is the real thing” Though he didn’t say real in what sense. The Guardian said she had “the fluid, confident touch of a gifted draughtswoman”

So, I thought I should go back for another look particularly as I couldn’t think of anybody else’s work they remotely resembled– that has to be worth something.

So today I watched the video – an afternoon with Rose Wylie by Adolfo Doring and spent some time looking at the paintings trying to understand them; it was all made enormously much easier because I ran into Myles Calvert there. Myles is a brilliant print maker who has been working as a Tutor at Sussex Coast College– he was responsible for the Toast Exhibition we had at the college.  He said they had grown on him. So apart from the Guardian and the Jerwood itself, that’s three people I knew giving them a kind of endorsement.

Wylie herself certainly comes across as odd in the video but definitely odd in a good way. Indeed definitely cool. She described how she could remember being taken to Snow White at the age of four and being terrified of the Wicked Queen. The paintings seem to have a Disney or at least a cartoon like influence. She explained how she always wore the same clothes as she was a “radical non consumer”. Her delivery was wonderful; I loved her description of how she liked to stuff the shoulders of her clothes to give the impression that she had larger shoulders but liked it to feel rather precarious and that the stuffing could slip to give her an extra sexual appendage. She thought her paintings were like that –

“I think what we look at is important; the food we look at is important – long pause – that is why I like vegetables; I like cabbages to look like cabbages and paintings to look like paintings.”

Getting better with water

Then Myles explained the painting Getting Better with Water as Wylie had explained it to  him at the private view. The painting is in four parts and it is about her friend Louisa who was undergoing chemotherapy and needed rehydration because apparently chemotherapy leaves you dehydrated. The painting can be considered in a clockwise direction the top right segment shows Louisa looking thin and dry; in  the bottom right segment we see her looking more hydrated; she is then contrasted in the other two segments to the Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington – with the broadness of her shoulders there is possibly a reference to Wylie’s own desire for broad shoulders. The names of Louisa and Rebecca are there, scrawled on the painting; originally an aide memoire that got incorporated. Many of her paintings do incorporate text but apparently with this one she had not intended to do so at the outset.

We then looked at Twink Green, Twink Red, Twink Blue the enormous paintings  which run around the walls of the gallery. Very few artists would be unbothered by the order but Wylie, it seems, didn’t care. The figures in the paintings have little tabs attached to them, like the paper clothes that I put on cardboard cut out people when I was a kid. What Wylie seems to have achieved is that she effortlessly continues to be able to draw and think in a child-like way that seems totally unaffected. Her paintings tell stories. You don’t necessarily know what they are, but you know they are there. The cat in the picture is her cat

Something is going on with those trees. I found the painting had the ability to take me back to being a child. When I was small I apparently showed my Dad a drawing “ that little girl is going to be surprised in a minute” I said; he asked me why; “because there is a lion behind that tree.” There was no hint of a lion to be seen. So I think I understand where Wylie is coming from; she hasn’t lost the ability to see the lions.

5 thoughts on “Trying to like Rose Wylie

  1. there’s something of the jolly gustons about her. I love Philip Guston’s work. I fond there is something awkward in rose wylie’s work which I very much enjoy. They are disarmingly charming but at the same time somewhat unsettling. Thanks again for making me think about her work

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