Rose Wylie review – childlike bursts of freedom and joy
Source:theguardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2017-12-04 Size:
This is how Rose Wylie paints the sun. She does a big yellow circle ……

Simplified but authentic … Cuban Scene, Smoke by Rose Wylie.Photograph: Private collection

This is how Rose Wylie paints the sun. She does a big yellow circle. Then she adds straight yellow lines around it. Underneath she does a couple of palm trees that are brown sticks with dollops of green on top. On the sea, she adds an outline of a ship with black smoke puffing out of it.

The teacher gave her a gold star and pinned it on the classroom wall. His name is Mr Hans-Ulrich Obrist and the nursery is called the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. The exhibition is called Quack Quack. Oh, and young Rose is 83.

It took me a while to come back to the palm trees in her painting Cuban Scene, Smoke (2016) and compare them with the Californian palms David Hockney paints. Hockney’s palms are more precise, but do they really say more about the essence of a palm than Wylie’s bursts of broad-brushed leaves? Painting is a wonderful, magic thing. That is why young children love doing it. Wylie has rediscovered in maturity the freedom with which we painted when we were kids. Make a dog. Make a duck. Make a V1 flying bomb.

‘She now paints with total freedom from any law of god, man or the Royal Academy’ ... Rosemount (Coloured), 1999. Photograph: Courtesy of Regina Gallery, Moscow

Memories of her own childhood well up in this strange, discombobulating, exciting exhibition. Wylie was born in 1934 and can remember the blitz. In her painting Rosemount (Coloured) the red outline of a V1 with its square wings flies over a roughed-out map of west London centred on a black silhouette of a factory with the name Rosemount scrawled on it. Bombs are falling among allotments and housing blocks. An eye looks up, seeing the V1. Among the bright colours, this painting speaks of horror, dread, explosions, death.

‘Intense pathos and suffering’ ... Jack Goes Swimming (Jack), 2013 Photograph: Soon-Hak Kwon/Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, London

Pain is written into the very flesh of a man posing uncertainly in trunks, ready to jump in a lake, in her picture Jack Goes Swimming (Jack). A brown line that runs down his pink back, with stitch-like marks at right angles to it, may be just a crudely drawn spine, or it could be a deep vertical scar from an accident or major surgery. Surely a scar, for this character running awkwardly towards the blue summery water, with his green-hatted head hunched down, communicates intense pathos and suffering. The painting’s title and various scribbles on its surface allude to the Philip Seymour Hoffman film Jack Goes Boating. I have not seen it, but the sadness of Hoffman’s death reverberates with this lonely swimmer.

The reason I believe it really is a scar on Jack’s back, not just a clumsy attempt to suggest his spine, is that as you spend time with Wylie’s paintings, little touches make it apparent that a five-year-old could not have done them. Tellingly, one of the most accomplished is also one of the earliest in the show. Tree Canterbury, painted in 1997, has a subtly shaded blue trunk and a deep green spatter of leaves. Suddenly it is clear where Wylie is coming from. The simplified but authentic eye for nature here is what got me making comparisons with Hockney. Wylie, however, has freed herself from the rules and traditions to which Hockney is fiercely loyal. She has escaped into the world of children’s art. Compared with this almost careful early work, she now paints with total freedom from any law of god, man or the Royal Academy.

Ray’s Yellow Plane (Film Notes), 2013 Photograph: Soon-Hak Kwon/Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, London

She’s far from being the first modern painter to find renewal in the bright colours and crude shapes of an art that seems artless. In 1908, Picasso gave a banquet for the untaught artist Henri Rousseau to which all the movers and shakers of Paris modernism were invited. Was it a piss-take or a homage? A homage. Picasso really did revere Rousseau’s bold, colourful comic-book jungle scenes because, as he admitted, he himself drew like Raphael in early life and had to learn, as an adult, to paint like a child. Another great naive modernist was Florine Stettheimer, a society figure of jazz age New York whose crazy canvases, painted without rhyme or rule, are today regarded as masterpieces of spontaneous dadaism. Even in Britain there was the amateur artist Alfred Wallis whose sea paintings were praised by modern artists (although that didn’t save him from dying in a Penzance workhouse).

Wylie is in no danger of the workhouse as her paintings are highly collectable. Several works here have been lent by wealthy Russians. Is it all a bit of a scam? She is not genuinely naive, let alone a child. She went to art college. Is this a terribly sophisticated put-on?

Queen With Pansies (Dots), 2016. Photograph: Soon-Hak Kwon/Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, London

Anywhere but Britain, I might think so. Yet the sad truth is that we still need the shit kicking out of our staid, conservative artistic tradition. For all the Turner prizes and the Grayson Perry TV shows, when it comes to painting we still queue up to admire the correctly painted swimming pools of Mr Hockney. We still expect painters to do a proper, hard-working job.

Well, painting is not a job, it’s a joy. The freedom and courage of Rose Wylie shows a way forward for painting in this century. She proves why painting is better than video art, performance art or digital art. Because it is braver.

Rose Wylie: Quack Quack is at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, from 30 November until 11 February

[Editor] 姜鑫

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