Lessons of a lifetime inform Wylie’s wondrous art

[Photo: Kaila Jones]

This season’s exhibition at the Gallery at Windsor features the work of Rose Wylie, a contemporary British artist who is represented by David Zwirner Gallery in New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong. Her exhibition at Windsor, which continues through April 30, includes a videotaped interview with Wylie in her studio and an illustrated checklist with an essay by one of the show’s curators.

In the last decade, Wylie’s paintings have been awarded prizes by the Walker Gallery in Liverpool and the Royal Academy of Arts in London; she was elected a Senior Royal Academician by that distinguished body in 2014.

Born in 1934, Rose Wylie is 85 years old. Her painting style has the directness of a child and the knowing wink of an artist who has reinvented painting by adopting an intentionally naïve style. Coming later in her life, international notice and praise is likely no less sweet than the acclaim awarded to those whose career has barely begun. Wylie’s life has been an eventful one, whose experiences she puts to use as the raw material of her art.

Wylie studied at Dover School of Art in Kent from 1952 to 1956; in 1957 she married fellow painter Roy Oxlade. Not long thereafter Wylie gave up painting to raise the couple’s three children. She returned to art school when she was in her 40s, graduating from the Royal College of Art in London in 1981 with a Master of Arts.

Her work reached a wide public through a 2010 column written by Germaine Greer for the Guardian. Titled “Who is Britain’s hottest new artist? A 76-year-old called Rose Wylie,” the article was occasioned by the appearance of Wylie’s painting, “Lords and Ladies,” in a show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.

“Women to Watch” was curated to showcase up-and-coming artists. Of the eight women featured, Wylie was the sole artist from outside the U.S. In her column, Greer wrote about her visit to Wylie’s studio, describing Wylie as rebellious and Wylie’s art as expressing “anger about the kind of art teaching that makes most kids give up making art, or turns their individual ways of seeing into A-levels.”

“Lords and Ladies,” the painting that led to this appraisal, measures a few inches over 11 feet tall and 7 feet wide. It features a bride standing atop wedding cake beside her groom; the latter is modeled on a 1620 portrait of Philip IV of Spain.

Wylie is known for quoting details from art historical paintings in her own exuberantly brushed work. She is just as well-known for the large size of her paintings. She works on them in smaller, manageable sections in her studio – a remodeled bedroom – in her home of more than 50 years in Kent, England.

A painting at the Gallery at Windsor is in that vein. “Elizabeth and Henry with Birds” of 2013 is based on two separate portraits of the children of James I of England. Painted by Robert Peake the Elder, the portraits, executed in 1603 and c. 1610, respectively, depict the 7-year-old Princess Royal (later Elizabeth of Bohemia), and her brother, Henry, Prince of Wales. Henry didn’t live to be much older than the teenager shown in Peake’s portrait; he died at age 18.

In her painting Wylie unites the children in an outdoor setting. Henry’s depiction retains his bright red hose and the glove that he holds in his right hand, although the latter looks more like a small tire pump than a glove. In Wylie’s reimagining of Elizabeth, the princess is much perkier than the frail wraith of Peake’s depiction; the lace fan she holds has been transmuted in Wylie’s version into a paddle-like object.

Above them, in a child-like approximation of perspective, stands the Rochester Castle in Kent, a structure with which neither Elizabeth nor Henry had association. Wylie passes the nearly 1,000-year-old landmark when she rides the trail into London, and used the castle’s boxy shape to echo the square corners of her composition. To enliven the pictures, Wylie painted birds swooping in joyful flight in front of the stony façade; one of the birds even buzzes Elizabeth’s head, its path through the air indicated by a C-shaped brushstroke.

The several pieces of canvas on which Wylie painted the picture were later adhered to stretched canvases that, when assembled as a single entity, measures a stately 16 and one-half feet high. Alas, the gallery’s ceiling is too low to accommodate the painting as envisioned by Wylie, and the painting has been hung in two parts. The upper section with the castle hangs on a free-standing wall inside the gallery’s first room, while the bottom section with the figures is hung adjacent to it on the wall to our left.

Whether or not you are familiar with Wylie’s work, this uncoupling is confusing for visitors. If this is a first-time encounter with “Elizabeth and Henry,” the visitor will mistake it for two separate works; someone already familiar with the painting might be disappointed to see it presented thus. The illustrated checklist of the exhibition skirts the issue by referring to the painting as “Component 2/3,” “Component 1/3” and “Component 3/3.” Huh?

The other walls of the gallery hold drawings that, as a rule, are executed on pieces of bond paper that have already seen use as a form letter or mass mailing; Wylie sketches on the unprinted backs of these. The choice to draw on what some may think of as scrap is only partly a statement about the reuse of a perfectly good piece of paper. Although Wylie’s drawings are records of the thought process that precedes (and sometimes accompanies) the act of painting, her casual choice of support suggests that Wylie does not think of her drawings as precious relics of her process.

In this show, Wylie’s somber painting “War Memorial” is accompanied by a preliminary drawing done on a white catalog envelope, complete with stamps. On it, in cursive, Wylie has written, “On a shed envelope,” interlacing the words with the drawing to make them one with the composition. In doing so, Wylie suggests that the reused envelope and the notation about its state are no less important than marks she has made that we think of as art.

The final room in the gallery is dedicated to three drawings and two paintings on the theme of Snow White – not just any Snow White, but the humble lass Walt Disney turned into an animated film icon. In December 1937 “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was released in the U.S.; Wylie first saw it in 1938 when it arrived in England. She was 4 years old at the time, and has since noted that the film left an impression on her.

Based on a German fairy tale, Disney’s “Snow White” is told from a uniquely American point of view. It’s a fable that reinforces our belief that cheerful perseverance, a penchant for hard work and the preservation of a type of innocence – born as much of isolation as of moral fortitude – will someday be rewarded with personal wealth and power. It worked for Rose Wylie, at any rate, whose art world ascendency is a type of Cinderella story.

Wylie did not arise fully formed with an MA from the Royal Academy. Neither was Wylie’s art born in a vacuum. If the works in the Gallery at Windsor remind you of American rebels, Philip Guston and Jean-Michel Basquiat, that’s no coincidence. Wylie has looked at, and admired, a lot of work from past and recent art history, including that of her lover, friend, colleague in art and husband of 57 years, the late Roy Oxlade.

Guston’s work was influential to Oxlade, and evidently to Wylie. She shares Guston’s decision to start anew at mid-life. Wylie was 45 when she returned to art school; Guston was 49 when he abandoned the abstract expressionism on which he had built his career. He turned instead to the development of a cartoonish representational style that shocked his audience.

Guston focused on assembling a series of pictographs (hooded Klansmen, hobnail boots, corpulent male heads in profile) with which he described 1970s America. Wylie is just as intent in limning the impressions of a lifetime in the context of the world today.

‘Let it Settle’ is open to the public at The Gallery at Windsor by appointment thru April 30. For reservations call 772-388-4071.

Leave a Comment