2000 Words Contextual Practice

The inside of ‘Tree Canterbury’

The purpose of this research is to understand my studio practice in context. To help to find the area I am interested in, I will explore British painter Rose Wylie’s ‘Tree Canterbury’ (1997) as a center point to find the language, historical events and other artists related to the art work.

Introduction Rose Wylie is a British artist born in 1934. She creates paintings and drawings that are powerful with radically simplistic forms and structures that seem uncomplicated. Her style is brave in the context of Western figurative painting history. It makes me wonder how I can still see that she seems to have the foundation of Western painting. Why are Wylie’s works still seen in the context of fine art paintings? Her works bring the big question of “What is painting?”. “What makes it a good painting?” This is a reason that I chose her as my contextual practice research subject. I will pick one of her art work as a center point to understand and explain what I found through the research into “perspective” “ scale” and “ decorative representation”.

First Impression

Unfortunately, I have never seen her art works in a real life. The first time to know her paintings was from a contemporary art gallery David Zwirner’s promotion photo on their Instagram account. The size of the canvas is famously large. The width often reaches more than 3m, you need to walk from edge to edge to see the detail. The language of “Simplified” or “Child-like” to describe her works is rather weaker than the impact of the image when you see her paintings. The drawn lines are so bold that they become surfaces. While looking at her works in books, I realized the painted images are really specific, like a visual sign telling us what it is. Furthermore, she uses words as one element of her paintings, as well as the titles, explicitly indicates the scene or objects. This supportive information ensures the audiences interpreted the painting in the way the artist intended. So, I vaguely thought these paintings are not created “to be paintings” they have the function of visual communication.

‘Tree Canterbury’

(fig.1. ‘‘Tree Canterbury’’ (1997)) This is my wonde, one of her works ‘Tree Canterbury’ catches my attention especially. It has a simple compositions, trunk, leaves, bird, horizontal lines and black shape. The slightly bending thick charcoal colour tree trunk arches dramatically across from the center bottom to up at the right-side corner. A mass of solid green leaves stays at the left top side and seems to be pushing the trunk uncomfortably. The bending trunk has a solid black shadow alongside it. We may have seen this familiar view a thousand time. Tree, shadow and leaves. However, there is something wrong with this scene excluding the style of the art work. The position of the black shadow is the most awkward objects in here. Let us assume that this is a shadow, what creates this shadow? The first thing I can think of is that this shadow is created by tree itself. The sun is in a low position, maybe in the late evening, casting a long shadow on the wall. In this case, the horizontal lines will automatically be interpreted as a vertical wall. Another case is that this shadow is made by the leaves at the top left, with the sun positioned directly above. This would position the viewer above the tree, looking down from above we can think the leaves block the sunlight to cast a shadow on the ground. In this case the horizontal lines become the ground. (fig.2).

When I thought of this second case, I didn’t want to know the direct answer from the artist or critics. Because I was so excited that it appears as distorted dimension. Intertwining perspectives drag me inside the painting.



I want to insist the ‘Tree Canterbury’ is made with a multiple perspective. In her interview by ICA Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, she explained 15th centuries Alchemy manuscript is one of her inspiration for her paintings. Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Di Paolo (1398-1482) is her long-term inspiration since her trip to Europe to see art in 1948. In addition, Wylies points out French cubism painter André Lohte (1885-1962)’s exploration of ‘direction’ and ‘reverse perspective’. This is so interesting. “line of perspective in drawing can go the opposite way”. “The lines of sight ‘open out’ from the narrow concentration of ‘near’ to wide inclusion of breath, in the distance of ‘far’. “(p48, Rose Wylie,C.Walls, Lund Humphries). This has the visual effect that objects farther away from the viewing plane are drawn as larger, and closer objects are drawn as smaller. It is opposite to the conventional liner perspective in which closer objects appear larger. This technique is found in Byzantine and Russian Orthodox icons or pre-Renaissance cultures and Asian art. I was shocked to realize I was not aware of that even though the most of Japanese paintings are made using this perspective and it was a major way of looking in all over the world. She explains ‘I also use perspective … and sometimes within the Eastern perspectival theories of André Lohte or the principles of Russian icon painting. Or I may organize space from the ideas of “objects in isolation” of Fernand leger, or some system or another of the most important form as the biggest (i.e. head or eyes).(p50, Rose Wylie,C.Walls, Lund Humphries). In Chinese painting, the viewpoint from which a landscape was painted was not a fixed one as in linear perspective. It was in the form of what we may call multiple perspectives. A landscape is seen from an elevated point of view, bird’s-eye-view, however it still allows a frontal view of objects. The viewpoint is mobile and parallel lines do not converge towards a vanishing -point but remain parallel. The result is a feeling of panoramic immensity, a sense of movement and participation. One is looking at the scene as from a slight eminence, in detachment, and yet simultaneously wandering through it. According to David Hockney who has been experimenting with ‘reverse perspective’ and multiple perspective from Chinese painting ‘Perspective takes away the body of the viewer. You have a fixed point, you have no movement’.(p142, David Hockney, Tate)With fixed perspective, the eye cannot move through the painting and the audience is still outside the painting. Hierarchical scale can only exist with multiple viewpoints as it provides other information which cannot exist in fixed perspective compositions.

Scale and Distance

Her first encounter with art was on a trip to Europe in 1948, where her mother took her to the Prado and the Louvre. When she was 17 years old, she went to London to look at the painting of Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Di Paolo (1398-1482). He is one of the great scenery painters in the era. Her long-term inspiration ‘St John the Baptist retiring to the Desert 1454’ where the young saint is depicted twice, one is leaving his parent home and one is walking into mountain. Natural perspective is ignored, and both are drawn in the same size even though they are at different distances. Except for the period between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe, historically most paintings represented the size of figures as relative to their importance in the composition. Physical distance from one another and the foreground is not realistically represented in painting. It is also largely found in early Buddhism paintings. The figure of the Buddha transcends in size and importance all other figures. Human are tented to draw taller than other subject-matter, whether mountains or trees, regardless of their proximity. This ‘hierarchical perspective’ is a natural expression of the minds of human being. The sizes are shifting depending on its importance. We can see through children drawing, they draw their parents in a big size, others in a small size.

Decorative Representation

(fig.3.) In ‘PV, Windows and Floorboards’ (2014) (fig.3.) which is a large work made up of two canvases. There are people wearing fashionable business suits standing and sitting in the room with evenly fixed-width horizonal drawn lines. From the title, we can think the lines are floorboards. When you look at the right-hand canvas, you miss the edge of the floorboards which gives the sense of perspective. In this case it looks like a vertical wall. If this side of the painting was cropped, the composition resembles what we find in ‘‘Tree Canterbury’‘, where the thick horizontal lines are interpreted as the floor. These simple representations are often seen in Wylie’s painting.

(fig.4. ‘Saint Clare Rescuing a Child Mauled by a Wolf’ Giovanni di Paolo, 1455-1460) As I mentioned before, her long-term inspiration Italian painter Giovanni Di Paolo, I can see that he turns natural beauty into decorative pattern. Mountain, house and field are deformed into his soft geometric style in a carefully arranged composition. I am especially interested in the way the fields of this painting (fig.4) are represented. Far distance fields are created into an unnaturally regular pattern, like a carpet. It appears rigid and there is little sense of material. This combination of pattern and scenery is somewhat unnatural; however the final result gives a sense of harmony. He is from Sienese School which flourished in Siena, Italy between the 13th and 15th centuries and adopted techniques and traditions from Byzantine art. Incorporating the gold background and timeless figures that give spiritual force to icons. They began to convey a physical as well as a spiritual reality. In that time of the Renaissance the principles of humanism and individualism were increasingly celebrated. This was parts of a changing sense of self and visual reality. The focus was shifting to Christ’s human experience on earth. Blending observations of nature and decorative representation is a way to show a reality which includes the spiritual inner world.


At first glance, the reverse perspective, and inappropriate size and scale could be seen unrealistic or childish in the society of natural realism and one-point perspective. Even though I am from a non-Western county, I found myself stuck in the idea unconsciously. Now I try to switch my way of looking in an attempt to observe scenery using reverse perspective. I felt the effect of the eye focusing on a distant viewpoint, this spot becomes enlarged, and it is possible to create multiple focal points to the side. I found that seeing in this way feels familiar, something that I have already been doing. In addition, it leads me to observe my surroundings in multiple perspectives like in Chinese painting. To capture myself as a inside of the scenery to understand the space surrounding me. How many times do we ever stop at one point in our everyday life to see the scenery? The eyes are always moving except while we are sleeping. We move our body and eyes to observe and understand things from multiple angles. This is the main way we absorb our visual surroundings. My aim was to look at ‘‘Tree Canterbury’’ in one of two possible ways. After the research, I learned her deep knowledge of art history and interests towards perspective and scales inspired from pre-Renaissance was an important key. She is blending both modern and historic approaches to looking at scenery and view. I am inspired by these multiples approaches to perspective and they support many elements within my own painting.


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