British Artist Rose Wylie's First Exhibition at David Zwirner, Hong Kong
“I don’t know what you think of the title of my new show, ‘painting a noun...,’” says the British artist Rose Wylie as she sits in her dining room admiring the bright winter sun dappling the wooden table in her Kent cottage, “but I do like nouns.” Her latest exhibition, which opens this month at David Zwirner’s gallery in Hong Kong, is a collection of more than 20 canvases depicting spiders, tennis players, women in various guises and trees.
“I’m not doing a political issue or a concept, I’m not doing a narrative, nor a landscape or a portrait; I’m not doing something in relation to something. What am I doing? I’m painting a noun: a duck or a primrose leaf or a leg. Nouns are ontological things and to me are more important than adjectives.”
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It’s this sort of rigour that has seen Wylie, now 85, reach her prime as a painter later than most artists. Her large-scale canvases, robust and colourful, often annotated with scrawly text and layers of collage—all of which might seem imperfect, unruly even, at first glance—are in fact joyously vital, dynamic and precise. She paints with nuanced references to history and less subtle observations of popular culture. Wylie paints and draws ordinary things, regular people as well as celebrities, things she spots online, in magazines or films. And, over the past decade, her work has been selling at a rate of knots.
From Grim to Lackadaisical
There are amusing examinations such as a depiction of the singer Madonna in tiny, spangly shorts sitting with her legs apart, which Wylie spotted and noted during a UK television talk show appearance, (“I’m a fan, she’s a risk taker”) or long-held memories represented in her work, including Doodlebugs, the terrifying bombs dropped over London by German forces during WWII, which Wylie lived through as a child.
There are touches of a very English, dry sense of humour, too, as well as references to sports, cinema and nature. There are also images of her neighbours, strangers on trains and details from her beautifully overgrown garden that she steadfastly refuses to prune.
Her portrayal of arguably simplistic forms feels playful and impish, but don’t be fooled—Wylie is profoundly serious and every inch of her canvas, every mark she makes, is highly considered. Her process has remained unchanged throughout her career, cutting by hand from a roll of heavy canvas, which she then prepares herself using a domestic broom and rabbit-skin glue in an annex off the side of her kitchen. She has lived and worked in the same house for 51 years. “I don’t like pretension, I like availability and democracy,” explains Wylie. “I’m hugely serious about trying to get quality into a painting. I don’t like crap, but I do like irreverence.”
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A Lifetime of Art
Wylie has been an artist her entire life. Having graduated from Folkestone and Dover School of Art, Kent in the 1950s, she stopped painting for a while to raise her children while her artist husband Roy Oxlade (who passed away in 2014), worked. All the while she delved deep into literature and philosophy. “I was reading, going to shows, participating in debate— my whole life was always about painting, but for a while I wasn’t doing it. Suddenly you do and you’re not bored with it so you can go at it with a certain obsession.” Is she now obsessed? Her output certainly suggests she is. “Probably,” she concedes. She resumed painting in the late 1970s with a masters degree at the Royal College of Art in London, from which she graduated in 1981. She’s worked tirelessly ever since.
Success and attention are words that make Wylie bristle, but that’s what this past decade has brought. Along with a slew of solo exhibitions—including at the Serpentine and Tate Britain in London, the Städtische Galerie Wolfsburg in Germany and at Space K in Seoul—she was also elected a Senior Royal Academician in 2015 and has won numerous important art prizes, including the John Moores Painting Prize, presented by the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool in 2014; and in 2015 the Charles Wollaston Award at the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
“I think I’d use the word inclusion rather than attention,” says Wylie as she inspects an unfinished painting pinned on the wall of her first-floor studio, which is strewn with paint pots and piles of newspaper. “At a certain point no one considers you an artist. You’re simply left out. And then suddenly you’re invited to the Turner Prize dinner. That wouldn’t have happened before. You can ask, ‘does it matter?’ Not particularly, but then it’s nice to be included. It also means you don’t have to think about presentations or framing—everything is done for you, which is nice. Success is such a frightening word. Recognition is nice though.”
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Claim to Fame
Rodolphe von Hofmannsthal, director at David Zwirner, which has represented Wylie since 2017, explains her recent rise in popularity: “Rose’s paintings speak a universal language,” he says. “Her work is democratic and relatable to people from all walks of life. Because of this, her work is popular all over the world, and she has a global collector base that is growing year on year. Rose is a dream to work with. She is one of the hardest working artists I know, and also one of the most focused. I learn something new every time we meet.”
Wylie seems unfazed and, more to the point, entirely unchanged, by her public profile and the rising demand for her work. “Everything is exactly the same,” she says with certainty. It seems a genuine sentiment looking around her home—there are vines creeping through a window, plasterwork is patched over the dining table, books stacked high and art and posters on every surface. One senses she’s itching to get back to her studio and stop talking soon. There’s just one local assistant who helps her move canvases around, but otherwise it’s all her own effort.
“I just think I’m going to do something so I do,” she says matter-of-factly. “I don’t twiddle around at meetings, coffee mornings. I don’t read anymore, so I have a lot of time. I used to read hugely... but I stopped when I started painting. I do painting related stuff most days. The room is always as I left it. It’s heated and I can just work. It’s an ideal situation.”
Wylie prefers not to work in themes though. “I don’t think you get the best stuff if you’re doing a theme because you’re only working around a set idea,” she explains. “A sudden fling into the unknown, or something challenging is more fun for the artist and can be more productive. On the other hand, if everything is coherent—the public like coherence. Often something comes up and I work with it.”
Her catalogue suggests that perhaps painting women is of enduring interest. Among the women featured in the Hong Kong show are blonde glamour girls as well as a high-profile female tennis champion—she’s not keen to name her in case she doesn’t like the image.
There’s also a painting Wylie has named Naff Bride. “I was flicking on my computer and I saw an advertisement for bridal photography,” explains Wylie. “There was a bride standing there looking very glamorous, but utterly ridiculous. She had all the props: an archway to stand in, flowers, her hairdo, the frock, but no groom. It was just about the bride, which struck me as somewhat in the wrong direction. She was incredibly naff, so I drew her. She was also a blonde, so it fitted with some of the others I’d painted.” That’s about as close to a concept as Wylie gets.
Wylie answers with characteristic frankness when asked how she knows she’s completed a painting. “I think it stops being wrong,” she says. “It stops giving you a pain when you look at it. And to keep making that judgement about how it’s going to work out can be extraordinarily torturous. As soon as you’ve done one you’ve got another to do. I’ve said it’s like Sisyphus. This isn’t external pressure it’s internal. You’re in the problem again.” And with that, Wylie heads back to work.
Rose Wylie's art exhibition "painting a noun…" will be held at David Zwirner gallery from January 10 to February 22.
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