History Painting: Rose Wylie
Plymouth College of Art Gallery and Plymouth Arts Centre
28 March - 30 May, 2018
Review by Eva Szwarc
It seems near impossible to refer to the style of a Rose Wylie painting without mentioning the word childlike. Even on canvas, brush-strokes and mixes of paint still carry the instinctive childlike motion of the impulsive hand that struck them there. Bold colours form a wide range of wilful distortions among the eclectic compendium of characters inhabiting Wylie’s visual world. Spanning both Plymouth College of Art Gallery and Plymouth Arts Centre, the multi-site exhibition explores history through contemporary, historical and cultural references, all wrapped within Wylie’s visually resplendent approach in which an ice-skater mid-air, Elizabeth I gowned in powder-white, figures of a Tarantino film and a Native American sitting wide-eyed and distressed upon his horse, can be found.
At Plymouth College, large canvases dominate the gallery walls and upon closer inspection, reveal the artist’s processes. Measurements are scribbled in pencil along the edges, underlying sketches can be seen between strokes of paint and even brush hairs that have come loose embed themselves within the compositions. The viewer is offered transparency of even the initial markings, which adds to their ocular innocence. Unbridled from the refined and regimented, the work is borne in exuberant honesty and conceals nothing. Subjects are captured in such fleeting shapes yet are relatable - take the adolescent awkwardness of rectangular-shaped girls, in ‘Wearing a Check Skirt’ (2002), or the nonchalance of a nude woman facing away and alone in ‘Girl in Lights’ (2015). Though often stoic or faceless, these portraits are deeply personable, communicating more than meets the eye and inviting energy rather than objective representation.
In the more intimate space of Plymouth Arts Centre, Wylie’s paintings become more contextually charged, bringing the images into a closer dialogue with one another. On the ground floor, half of ‘Parks Dogs & Air Raid’ (2017), comprised of four-panels, shows Swastika-stamped aircraft with comic-style explosions dispersed across the sky. Although not on show, the lower half depicts the ground below - a manor house and green are disconnected islands afloat on a sea of black paint as dogs saunter across. The scene is a resurrected memory of the Blitz in London during the artist’s childhood. In truth, Wylie’s paintings are all resurrections of memory. These memories stem not only from lived experience but from the impressions left by cultural media, particularly film. ‘Inglorious Basterds (Film Notes)’ (2010), for instance, draws on Quentin Tarantino’s narrative with a jarring composition; text is reversed and broken down whilst images are interrupted, and faces are rendered either vague, shapeless or removed entirely. The composition resists a linearity - akin to film’s ability to flash forward or jump back - which in turn implies the permeable nature of memory. Hanging adjacent to ‘Park Dogs & Air Raid’, a large painting suggests the vast mediums through which history as memory is constantly reshaped, reimagined and retold.
Alongside older paintings are a body of new works, through which Wylie responds specifically to the Mayflower voyage. As Plymouth prepares to mark the four-hundredth anniversary, Wylie paints the darker colonial implications of the ship’s departure. The most overt, ‘Red Indian History Painting’ (2016), plays out across two separate canvases. In one, a ship charges with jagged and explosive-looking sails, directed towards the second canvas on which a Native American is chased, uprooted, against the backdrop of a map. The controversial caption is explored further within the composition, where it is given but a sliver of space. the remainder of which, ‘AND MAYFLOWER’, dominates in blood-red as if threatening to obliterate the caption altogether. The text nods to the discriminating terms to which Native Americans were and are reduced to and the displacement to which they were and are still being subjected. And yet, even in these images relating to identity and colonial displacement, Wylie still manages to insert her signature playfulness. At the prow of the Mayflower presides a small, buxom and blonde figurehead, who is given more detail in a separate painting. She faces the viewer head on with a quizzical brow, in much the same way as Rose Wylie looks at the world through her painting.