from the Indipendent Sunday 24 January 2016
Rose Wylie: The octogenarian
painter whose overdue success shames ageist attitudes
Until quite recently the Kent-based artist was only known to a
small group of art world cognoscenti
Rose Wylie is a painter based in Kent, so it seems
particularly appropriate that Turner Contemporary in Margate chose
to open its 2016 programme with her work. And what a triumph it
is. Seeing the paintings stacked up in the light-filled space,
observable both from below and above, they form a charming mini-chapel
of vibrant colour and artful simplicity.
Until quite recently Wylie was only known to a small
group of art world cognoscenti. The art world can be a mean place.
If you dont make it as a young emerging artist, chances
are you will be out in the wilderness until you might get discovered
in your twilight years. Rose Wylie is a case in point. In 2010,
aged 76, Wylie was the only non-American in Women to Watch at
the National Museum of Women the Arts in Washington. Germaine
Greer wrote an article exalting her in response to this show;
she was given a spotlight show at Tate Britain in 2013, won the
John Moore painting prize for painting in 2014, was elected a
Royal Academician in 2015 and was featured in the 2015 Royal Academy
summer exhibition, winning the Charles Wollaston Award for most
distinguished work in the exhibition.
In 2012 I did a studio visit with Wylie. She was
living and working in a small village in Kent in the modest house
that she shared with her husband, painter and writer Roy Oxlade,
until his recent death. When I visited, she and her husband chortled
about the day a lorry rumbled down to their cottage and took away
the paintings that had been stored unwanted in the garden shed,
the men wearing white gloves.
Until recently Wylie always painted her unstretched
canvases on the floor. She and her cats would walk on them, Wylie
in her stilettos, often denting them and dropping ash from her
cigarettes on to their surfaces.
She has had to revise both her dress and technique recently;
shes now wearing serviceable trainers and painting on the
wall after three hip replacements.
Wylies paintings are particular, the surfaces alive with
her own distinctive vocabulary. They are instantly recognisable
in the way that work by only great painters are. They often initially
appear naïve, as if a cruel child might have done them, but
there is a sophistication in these pictographic images. Her juxtapositions
are sometimes cruelly comedic: one of my favourites is a portrait
of tennis star Andy Murray, his mouth drawn as a large screaming
orifice, all his determination writ large in his expression.
Wylie was born in 1934 and attended the Folkestone and Dover
School of Art before much later attending the Royal College of
Art where she graduated in 1981. Wylie is not bitter about being
discovered late, but she is thrilled to be hung more prominently
in exhibitions. She had children and made the choice to look after
them, allowing her husband the freedom to teach, paint and write
to support the family. Lack of money was not a limitation to her;
she and her family had strategies to overcome this, offering informal
painting classes at their house and turning the garden into a
place for students to camp. In a short film accompanying the exhibition,
Wylie says that friends of her children asked why she was always
dressed in the same clothes; her reply was as a radical
non consumer, I prefer dealing with what I have. This attitude
permeates the paintings, Bagdad Café (Film Notes) 2015
includes a depiction of a page from a desk diary, turned upside
down, testimony to a day when Wylie did not have any paper and
used the diary to capture an idea.
Film is rich source material for Wylie and she often names her
characters, although it would be hard to recognise George Clooney
from the sketchy depiction in a scene from Pink Table Cloth (Long
shot, film notes) 2013. Wylie says that she loves film, but that
the first time her mother took her to see Walt Disneys Snow
White, aged four, she was too terrified and had to be removed,
inconsolable, from the cinema. Her first trip to a famous museum
the Louvre aged 15 bored her rigid as she could
not relate to the grand paintings: I had no means of understanding
them. She painted in her school books, spending all her
pocket money on paints, and filled in the lines and diagrams of
whatever text book she could find.
I compare her trajectory to that of another female painter, American
Dana Schutz, whose work bears a similarity in its scale of ambition
and its quirkiness. Schutz left art college and was taken up by
a trendy New York gallery; her work quickly soared in price and
by the time she was in her late 20s she was selling paintings
on the secondary market sell for well into six figures. Success
like this is hard to sustain, particularly in a fickle, style-led
world where works are now being traded like stocks and shares.
Recently, I have interviewed several senior woman artists, such
as Susan Hiller, who remark that they are relieved that they have
not been under the glare of the market place. Famous enough
to make my work is the pragmatic comment that resonates.
It is only recently that it was thought possible to make a career
out of being an artist. It was Damien Hirsts generation
in the early 1990s who broke through the barrier of success. Yet
it is important to remember that it is still a tiny minority who
bear most of the fruits of this success. For every one successful
artist there are many others assisting in studios in order to
be able to achieve their dreams. With colleges becoming more expensive,
and studios and small galleries increasingly under threat by property
developers, London as a centre of the art world is looking more
and more perilous.
What I love about Turner Contemporary is its bold and fearless
programming of both international artists and complicated projects.
This is the first time it has used the atrium space for painting
and it highlights again the beauty of the museums location,
the very site of the guest house where Turner stayed while in
Margate and that inspired many of his watercolours. Architect
David Chipperfield has designed a museum that, even before it
is five years old, has attracted a massive and loyal audience.
It is actually free, unlike other museums (such as the Tate) who
proclaim to be free, but charge large amounts of money to attend
their temporary exhibitions.
I like to think that William Turner himself would have admired
Wylies attitude. Her obsessive need to draw, make visual
notes and observe would have impressed him. While there were few
female artists in his time, he would have admired a woman who,
rather than taking it easy in her 80s, is embracing her ability
to share her work and ideas with a younger generation of artists
and continues to make new work.
While I stand in the atrium absorbing the fearless colour and
enjoying the humour in her content, a fellow viewer says that
she thought the artist was young because the work was so contemporary
and fresh. It was only when she saw the film that she realised
that the artist was older. She suggests that perhaps artists should
only be shown when they are 80, turning the shameless ageism of
our world on its head. Surely Wylie or Phyllida Barlow, another
British artist now having a long overdue success, would make worthy
candidates for the next British pavilion in Venice.