To read the hidden processes in the painting of Rose Wylie
The purpose of this essay is to explore the process and insight of Rose Wylie’s paintings. It is divided into 3 chapters; perspective, spontaneity and language. I have referenced related artists and events which influenced her in order to understand the contexts around her paintings. Researching her unique and challenging style helps me to develop my studio practice theme of simplistic representational painting.
Introduction Rose Wylie is a British painter born in Kent in 1934. She won the John Moores Painting Prize when she was 80 years old. When I first saw her paintings it was on the Instagram account of David Zwirner, which is a well-known commercial gallery with branches in London, Hong Kong and New York. The painting was a set of two canvases of a cottage style detached house drawn with light green bold lines. The composition is radically simple. The house is seen from the front, no sides or depth. The representation of the house could be seen as a stereotypical illustration of a house, complex objects and scenes are broken down into plain geometric shapes. This green house drew me to look further into her other work. Her other works are even more radical and challenging. Her style is brave in the context of Western figurative painting history. It is a mystery how I can still see that she seems to have the foundation of Western painting. Her works bring the fundamental question “What is painting?”. Therefore, I am interested in Rose Wylie. The words of “Child-like” or “Simplified” are used to describe her works, but her works are not naïve. They are bold and thick but with delicate observations of everyday life, her private memories and visual culture. I have continued to research about her since the last contextual essay, I want to explain them with new fields “spontaneity and language includes perspective which was a main theme in my last essay.
[…]I’ve been painting a long time and then suddenly it seems that they are more interesting than they were before, when in fact they’re not. They’re just the same. It’s a mystery to me” (Rose Wylie Wins John Moores Painting Prize aged 80, BBC(2014))https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-29281142, 2014)
2. Perspective 2-1. Tree Canterbury
Perspective, how we look at the work is an important part of her paintings. “Tree Canterbury”(1997)(fig.1) is one of my favorite works and it is especially strange in terms of perspective. It has a simple compositions, trunk, leaves, bird, horizontal lines and black shape. The slightly bending thick charcoal color tree trunk arches dramatically across from the center bottom up the 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 object. 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 the tree trunk 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. My expectation is that this painting is made with multiple perspectives.(fig.2).
(fig.1)(Tree Canterbury”(1997) Image from Cavalielo, J. Available at: https://twitter.com/Cavalierofinn2/status/956212257989505024 Accessed: 23 July 2019)
Rose points out French cubism painter Andre Lohte(1885-1962)’s exploration of ‘direction and ‘reverse perspective’. “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’”.(Rose Wylie, (2018)p.48). This has the visual effect that objects farther away from the viewing plane are drawn as larger, and closer objects are drawn as smaller. This technique is found in Byzantine, Russian Orthodox icons or pre-Renaissance and Asian art. 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. Another example to support my expectation to multiple perspectives in “Tree Canturburry” is from “PV, Windows and Flooreboards”(2014). there are three or four fashionable figures in a private viewing. Some are chatting and standing one is sitting. It is a room with windows and floorboards as the title mentions. They are drawn in simple horizontal and vertical lines. The gaps between the lines of the floorboards are even. No matter what the distance. If you look at only the right hand side of the canvas, you may miss the perspective, because the angled line at the edge of the floorboards is on the left side of the canvas, contrary to the right side edge of the floorboards which is not angled. Therefore, we know straight lines in her paintings could be treated as a line with perspective.
2-2. Giovanni di Paolo In the interview with a curator Clarrie Wallis from ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts London) Wiley answered the question about her influences. She said Alchemy manuscripts from Medieval times and early Renaissance paintings including the Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni di Paolo are her inspirations. Giovanni di Paolo (1398-1482) is an Italian painter from the Siena school. The Siena school bloomed in early Renaissance during the fourteenth century in Tuscany in northern Italy. They were an important center of painting, sculpture and architecture. At that time, Italian painting had been influenced from Byzantine art. Their special treatment of background as one single color normally gold without any depth. ‘vita icon’, a full-scale saint standing surrounded by his narratives. Scenes are directly and pointedly focused towards the icon, they kept their style in anti-scientific representation. However, in the 1260s, Sienese painting was appearing to be identified in their own special form. Dreamlike, decorative and distortion of time and place. Giovanni di Paolo was shifting to his new experimental style of painting cold and harsh colors in amplified stylized form. (fig.3)
(fig.3)(Giovanni di Paolo,(1440-1450) The Light from Paradiso. Image from British Library available at https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=56986 Accessed: 20 July 2019)
His later work “John the Baptist goes into the Wilderness’” (1454) has been Wylie’s long-term influence since when she had been to the National Gallery in London to see this painting when she was 17. There are duplicate images of the young saint, one is walking up to the mountain the other one is leaving his house in a cultivated field. Even though there is a distance between them, his depiction and scale is the same. These two unnatural multiple spatial representations are often seen in Wylie’s painting.
“Red Twink and Ivy’” (2002) and “Green Twink and Ivy” (2003) are good examples. There are a couple of women with tags (it seems like a paper fashion doll) floating somewhere in an urban square or pedestrian road. There is a gigantic sized cat in the same scene. Its size is the biggest in the painting. The ground is represented as a simple square grid which doesn’t change size by distance or angle. The size of the girls are varied but it may be that these girls are the same person. In religious painting including Buddhist, Byzantine and early Christian paintings, the size of the person is decided by their importance. The strange scene of “ John the Baptist goes into the Wildness” is because of this reason. However, for us, it is hard to see this in the same way as they did. We simply enjoy it as a visually interesting composition rather than religious devotion. Seeing is not only done with the eyes. Wylie’s unbalanced proportions of people and scale is not unreality, this is one of the realties.
3-1. Cut and Paste
Being spontaneous is not as easy as we think. In my practice, I value spontaneous events and actions because this gives me surprises and requires intense concentration in order to catch unobvious thoughts and shapes. However, I found it difficult to control and rely on making paintings only waiting for when the opportune time comes. I need tactics for making myself free from pressure, as well as working towards a works completion. In the case of Wylie, her simplictic style is not created instantly. There is a hidden path to each finalized painting. She does cut and paste both in drawings and paintings. In “Footballers Heads”(2004) (fig.4) each of the 15 heads of footballers has been cut and assemble together in this painting. There is a full body main player in the center, but his body parts are also assembled with different cut canvas pieces. There are sketches for this painting, which are also a collection of individual heads with cut and paste technique. We can find there are some repetitive heads that are a result of her searching for the best shape and line. She picks drawings from other drawings to make one painting. This process allows to her to make a mistake and be spontaneous. In the ICA interview, she said she uses cheap paper so she doesn’t’t feel any guilt to use and cut it. She can redo as many times as possible until the work reaches her quality line. As a result, sometime a drawing becomes thick from piles of added papers. It finally arrives at the correctness in her decision. The layers and layers of collaged elements tells us about the time working in the studio laboring in the decision making but not in a forceful way. She releases herself from pressure to make something “better”. She knows a quality will be created during this process and simply works until picture gets its correctness. This simple but concrete idea of making works inspired me a lot as a painter.
(fig.4) Footballer’s Heads, (2004) Image available at http://alice-pattullo.blogspot.com/2012/09/rose-wylie.html, 24 July 2019.
3-2. Memory as a subject of matter Her subject matter varies from the Queen of England to Hollywood celebrities, everyday life motifs such as flowers, her cat, doormat, her childhood memories in War time, sense from films and media such as newspapers or magazines. In contrary to the variety of subjects, she doesn’t mix images from different sources. She sticks to one subject she chooses and polishes them to their best condition. In her Kent studio, she is surrounded by texts and images, spreading accumulated newspapers on the floor. The pile of newspapers is the source of unintentionally picked subject matter to her. The words and images jump into her eyes. They are irrelevant direct information, but she believes this is connected to her inside in a direct way. There is a decision making which occurs when she chooses the image. In the ICA interview, Wylie explained the work of “Inglorious Basterds (Film Notes)” (2010) for the question about using film and memories as subject. She uses a film scene she watched and remembers. She has never gone back to the scene to check the information and visuals. She refines the images to the closest stage of the impression she has. Accuracy is not correctness of information or subject, accuracy relates to her memory of it. In this painting, there are three figures in Nazi uniform, one of them is a headdless. She thinks the Nazi uniform is powerful, so she checked in books to see the details of Nazi uniform but did not refer directly to the film. The impression and scene is a trigger to her private sense rather than the subject itself. Films are a flood of sequences of spontaneous images for her. Scenes from the film turn become private memories with emotions. Using film scenes as a subject shows her respect of film as a form of art but also simply she loves it. In the interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist she mentioned
“My memory, as I‘ve said, isn‘t good. But because it isn‘t good, what sticks is important to me. I think stuff that connects with me is important. […]I think it‘s a useful sidestep from the literality of direct observational drawing, when things can get very caught up, in direct observation. Rather than imaginative jumps into something. I think memory helps the imaginative jump into something which is real. And therefore it‘s not arbitrary. It‘s a curious kind of concreteness, but it is concrete” (Serpentine Galleries (2017) Rose Wylie interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist at her Kent studio. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCC24dZpG2s (Accessed: 15th July 2019)
I was wondering how she does this cut and paste style on canvas, I went to see her work at Tate Britain which was the first time to see her works physically. It is always great to see the real work. She applies paints thicker than I thought, and there are traces of cut and paste in the surface including the side of the canvas which is not related to the painting. Unprimed canvas are left as it was but most of the surface was treated somehow by editing or touched by hand. This is a set of four canvases “Pin Up and Porn Queen Jigsaw” (2005). (fig.5) Two canvases on the top side contain two figures one is a girl and one is a big head with dotted lines and numbers on the background while two canvases below have no figures and are painted thickly in solid green. It became a quality of object. As title “jigsaw” suggests, it seems these four canvases could be grouped together in a variety of combinations. This painting has been through many stages; subjects, drawings, selection from them, working on canvas, cut and paste then finally, be stretched. Last result is always incredibly simple.
“Good paintings look as though they simply happened. As though they were inspired by the gods. But everyone knows that paintings don’t drop out of the sky. A painting involves concrete decisions, craftsmanship that begins with a blank canvas in the studio. She is finding a piece to be fit in the right place, otherwise the piece will never fit in the studio” (The word are not in their proper place, 2011, p.157)
(fig.5)( Pin Up and Porn Queen Jigsaw (2005) Image from Tate Available at https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wylie-pin-up-and-porn-queen-jigsaw-t13784 Accessed: 27 July 2019)
4. Language 4-1. Handwritten Texts
Written texts are frequently seen in Wylie’s paintings. They perform directly to enforce the paintings. They are titles of films, directed indication to the painted objects, names of the place. For example, in the drawing “Daffodil” (2009), there is a daffodil drawn with color pencil in the center and the text “daffodil” is written with pencil below of the paper. The painting “Rosemount” (1999) is based on her war-time childhood memory. Texts are in here like ‘fruit tree and vegetable’ ‘next door’ and arrows pointing in different directions in the garden seem to be recalling her past. Others are names of actors and actresses seen in “Inglorious Basterds (Film Notes)” (2010).(fig.6) Her texts are straight forward both in meaning and hand writing style. To use texts as the visual form in painting is not unusual, it can be seen in different cultural places and times. Middle ages manuscripts which are Wylie’s inspiration, contain texts in their function of books for learning, such as the bible, apocalypses, music, lives of saints, histories, literature, science and medicine with its beautiful decoration. Texts on manuscript were written by scribers who were monks, artists, lay men and women, full-time students and lawyers for their extra income. Their main job was copying the texts to another manuscript by hand. Writing is a practical action for telling information to others. The style of scripts changed depending on their function, from smaller and more readable for portable books to highly decorative gothic style font for religion texts. There are interesting facts on the early medieval period scribes, at that time reading and writing were not general skills so mistakes often happen and corrections were written or inserted into the text. Scribers left their comments about this such as ‘This page was not copied slowly’, or ‘This lamp gives bad light’ ‘This parchment is certainly hairy’ (The art of medieval manuscripts, 1997, p.34.). They are excuses for these mistakes, they can’t erase them when they make a mistake because of the nature of the materials. These highly personal informal sentences make us feel closer to the writer even if it was written a few hundred years ago. We can perceive the personal presence of the writer from their voice and character of writing. Writing is direct, an expression of our personality to communicate with other people.
(fig.6) (Inglorious Basterds (Film Notes)(2010) Image from The Irish Times (2015)Available at https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/art-and-design/visual-art/rose-wylie-s-goal-to-paint-like-a-five-year-old-1.2138696 Accessed: 27 July 2019)
Wylie’s texts are expressive. She repeats the title of the work itself, describes the objects drawn or maps the place with her well-selected brush strokes. Texts and painting outlines are of a similar strength, there is no background or foreground. Texts are often appealing to painters, the American painter Cy Twombly uses scribbled handwriting as painterly marks. Erasing, lines words and numbers in lightly touched pencil, stains of crayons and dirt of paints. He leaves space blank in a similar way as Chinese and Japanese painting. Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara screams his personal frustration on his cartoon like drawings, breaking through his feeling of isolation. Jean-Michel Basquiat developed texts and visual culture married in an expressive graphite method. In terms of writing, Chinese developed calligraphy into a sophisticated high art form. They developed calligraphy with a flexible brush to allow visual expression to be made with a variety of shapes of brush. Chinese characters are pictograms. The appearance is complicated and difficult for people who don’t use Chinese characters, but they are more practical than they think. They are consisting of combinations of primitive elements. For instance, combining the word for ‘women’ 女and “’child’子 means ‘love’好. ‘Tree’木will be forest 森by repeating ‘tree’ three times. This practical system was recognized by about 200 B.C. The number of characters went to 40,000. There are many styles of texts created in calligraphy because of brush. They are written in definite sequence and single strokes of the brush. Quality of line is produced by the pressure of the brush. There are three characteristics in calligraphy one is “bone-system” ku-fa, ‘flesh’-jou-fa- and ‘sinews’ – chin-fa-.
The characteristic is known to Chinese scholars as the “bone-system”, ku-fa,, or structure. And it is form calligraphy that the idea of ku-fa become a keytone in Chinese aesthetics. There are two more ideas which define the system and formal expression of Chinese characters: the ‘flesh’ -jou-fa- which means the consistency of the brushmark, its thinness or thickness, and the more of less liquid condition of the ink; and thirdly the ‘sinews’ – chin-fa- in other words the method of binding the independent strokes together- the composition of the whole character.(p199, Chinese Art, 1964)
Calligraphers developed the potentiality of brush marks, examining the pressure, ink and paper conditions to see the details of the brush marks. This might be off the subject, but in Japan it is a still hugely common to write a CV by hand. The reason for this is that employer thinks they would be able to see the candidate’s personality by their handwriting. Are their handwritten letters neat or rough, small or big, be able to manage the paper clean without any mistakes. This is influenced by Chinese calligraphy philosophy “Heart and hand must be in sympathy” (p200, Chinese Art, 1964 ).
4-2. Sound of words as a non-hierarchical humor As well as the writing, the sound of exhibitions and titles in her works are also straightforward and simple. The title of a drawing of gas is “Gas”, the title of a drawing of daffodils is “Daffodil”. Exhibition titles such as “Quack Quack”(2017) at Serpentine Gallery, London, “Hullo, Hullo” (2018) at CAC Malaga, Spain , “Woof-Woof “ (2013) at Haugar Vestfold Kunstmuseum, Norway. They are all repeated words or onomatopoeia. She talked about her exhibition title in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist for her commissioned solo show at Serpentine Gallery in London. In the interview, she brought Dada up when she is describing the title “Quack Quack”. Dada is an international movement which emerged in Zurich around 1917. Dadaist denied the value of art established all traditional notions of taste in art and literature. They instead believed in “non-art”. The name of Dada was decided because it is a nonsense, baby-talk word and meaningless. Repeating simple animal sound “Quack” is relevant to her childhood memory in the Kensington Garden as her private memory but this sound opens up to other people as humor. In a radio show with comedian Stewart Lee, he said he found the exhibition title sound funny. “Quack Quak” or “Woof-Woof“ are not needed to be translated in foreign language. Great poetry in the local language cannot always be great or the same when it is translated into a foreign language. Language is rooted in the culture, philosophy and perspective. There are words which cannot be translated in a same way into other languages losing local dialects, shared common ideas, contexts and rhythm. That’s why she used these words, the sound itself is complete, don’t contain any further information. The sound of the word is the title, a bit silly and funny but everybody equally understands the character and humor of the title and her attitude to art without any cultural gap.
There was an exhibition curated by Mami Kataoka called “Laughing in a foreign language” at The Hayward in 2008 in London. This is more than ten years ago so the society must have changed since then, however the concept was to explore humor in contemporary art and whether humor can act as a tool for understanding the unfamiliar which in this exhibition meant foreign culture and language. The curator herself experienced the difficulties in transforming her own humor into a different culture. Humor depends on language and the shared social backgrounds, common sense and historic events. In one sense things which are foreign or unfamiliar tend to be “funny”, but it depends on your perspectives or group of people you are belong to.
Japanese artist Makoto Aida found foreign language especially English frustrating. Because he has a strong complex of not speaking English, he made a fake demonstration “Your Pronunciation is Wrong!” in New York in 2000 where he told Americans to not use difficult pronunciation (In the demonstrate, they focus on Japanese pronunciation however, half of the volunteer participants were Chinese). This is his self-deprecating humor. He laughs at himself as a loser as well as indicates his criticism towards the art world being dominated by English. Language is treated differently when it is within the community or outside. When it is used outside of its location, more widely spoken, influential language tends to be chosen as a standard. How can we be neutral in many different situations and environments in language? The words of Dada or Quack Quack choose to not relate to any contexts. It is a positive attitude of being “not-related” which makes all people no matter where you from included in the sense of humor.
Conclusion I looked through her works with “perspective”, “language” and “spontaneity”. What we now know from these is that in contrast to her spontaneous painting style, the process of making is delicate and based on her rich knowledge of art history and self-awareness. She knows herself. Her answers to questions from interviewers are honest, logical and personal which give inspiration to not fit ourselves in to the existing framework. I would like to say that she achieves her unique style without destroying or disturbing herself, her strong belief in her correctness in painting. She successfully establishes a new style of painting as a women painter. Expressions of poetry and everyday life from her past to presence, creating a non-hierarchical world.
References Clarrie, W. (2018). Rose Wylie, London: Lund Humphries.
Blanchflower, M and Gryczkowska, A and Larner, M, Rose Wylie Quack Quack (2017). London: Serpentine Galleries and Koonig Books.
Rose Wylie big boys sit in the front (2012) London: Jerwood Gallery.
Groenenboom, R.(ed.) (2011) The words are not in their proper place. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.
/Pope-Hennessy. J. (1993) Paradiso The Illuminations to Dante’s Divine Comedy by Giovanni di Paolo. London: Thames and Hudson.
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(1997)The art of medieval manuscripts
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Media References BBC Radio4-The Only Artists, (2017) Rose Wylie and Stewart Lee. Avalibale at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09gh9cy (Accessed: 10 July 2019)
Serpentine Galleries (2017) Rose Wylie interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist at her Kent studio. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCC24dZpG2s (Accessed: 15th July 2019
Frieze, At Home with Rose Wylie, 2013, Available at: https://vimeo.com/81988242, (Accessed: 24th July 2019.)
Doring, A, An Afternoon with Rose Wylie, 2012, Available at: https://vimeo.com/38142219, (Accessed: 24th July 2019)
BBC(2014)Rose Wylie wins John Moores Painting Prize aged 80’https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-29281142
BBC(2014) Rose Wylie Wins John Moores Painting Prize aged 80. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-29281142 (Accessed: 2 July 2019)
Rose Wylie: Likeness in the Unlikeness (1995) London: Reed’s Wharf Gallery.
Clark, M. and Osterfield, M. (2010) It Doesn’t mean Anything But It Looks Good/Lily van der Stokker. London: Tate Publishing.
Jaray, T. (2012) Painting: Mysteries & Confessions London: Lenz Books
Friendly Good (2018), Amsterdam: Roma Publications.
Yoshitomo, N (2010) Nobodyknows, Tokyo: Little More.
Bye Bye kitty!!! (2011). New Heaven: Yale University Press