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Artist Rose Wylie Charts Her Own Course

At 88, Rose Wylie still cherishes the idea that to be an artist is to defy convention. Take her studio, on the upper floor of her cottage in Kent, a couple of hours from London, where she’s lived for 53 years. The floor is covered in old, screwed-up newspapers, which she uses to clean her brushes. There’s a huge mound of discarded furniture and paint tins halfway down one side of the room. Wonky cabinet shelves groan with detritus, including the box that housed an Easter egg Wylie once painted.

“It’s source material,” the artist says in a cut-glass English accent as she sips a cup of tea. “I don’t want to be caught up in the idea that you must tidy up, which is what you get as a child: ‘Clear the cupboard, clean your paintbox, your drawers are a mess.’ When my paint tin is empty, I just throw it on the pile. Sometimes, if you have a very clean, sterile working situation, it takes time to keep it like that, and when you come in you don’t start messing it up. For me, the paints are already out. I can come in and just start working.” This mainly happens at night—the day is taken up with a great deal of procrastination. At around 11:30 PM, Wylie will head to the studio. “Time passes and it’s suddenly 3:30 AM,” she says. “But I get up late.”

The day I visit, there are three vast paintings on unprimed and unmounted canvas, which she has made for her forthcoming show at David Zwirner’s Los Angeles gallery. One has a bright green background and a pink pedestal with a Battenberg cake and a slice of ginger cake on it. On the left is a menacing black shape that turns out to be another, lumpier table. The actual cakes Wylie painted are on a plate on the floor, amid the discarded newspapers—she decided to eliminate the plate after contemplating the picture for a few days, worried that it was “irritating and fiddly, too much narrative, not right. And now it’s hugely better.”

Though they may initially appear crude, there’s a great sense of exploration and vigor in Wylie’s paintings. They are always deeply considered and informed by art history. “All the early Renaissance people like Giotto and Fra Angelico—I think they’re great,” she says. “They do strong images and they’re not bound by European notions of skill. It’s closer to antiquity, closer to children, closer to comics.” And closer, of course, to Wylie’s own style.

Her subject matter can come from any source, be it people-watching, a late-night trawl of the Internet, or movies and books. (I spy a copy of Spinoza’s philosophical essays in a sideboard in the kitchen.) Wylie was particularly inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds, and made a painting of Christoph Waltz’s “Jew hunter” character Hans Landa. “People say I do celebrities—I don’t,” Wylie says. “I mean I do, but that’s because they turn up in the paper.” Downstairs there is a severe portrait of Emily Maitlis, host of the BBC show Newsnight. The point is, Wylie says, that these are simply the images that are around in the present day. “In antiquity, they made a mosaic that had a wine glass, it had women, it had curtains,” Wylie says. “You respond to what you see.”

For most of her life, the world responded to Wylie’s work with indifference. She was born in 1934, the youngest of seven children (“so I always had to fight a bit”), and at 18, went to Dover School of Art, then Goldsmiths in London; she caused a bit of a stir as a model when she was painted as part of an advertising campaign for Aero chocolate bars. In 1957, she married a fellow Goldsmiths student, the artist Roy Oxlade, and put her career on hold to raise their three children. “People ask, ‘Are you resentful?’,” Wylie says. “Well, no, because children are invigorating and hugely important. It’s art in a bigger sense—you’re helping to form them by conversation, what you’ve been listening to, the home environment.”

In 1979, she and Oxley enrolled at London’s Royal College of Art as mature students, and Wiley started painting again, but her canvases didn’t sell. Things didn’t change much until 2010, when the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. featured Wylie in their Women to Watch exhibition and bought the work for their collection. The feminist writer Germaine Greer interviewed Wylie and concluded: “Word has got out that she is seriously cool.” Exhibitions and prizes followed, and Wylie found herself an art star in her eighth and ninth decades.

She’s happy that success didn’t come sooner. “I think it’s a trap,” she says. “How do you keep it going? If you do something too different, people don’t like it. But if it’s all behind you, it’s done.” Working in obscurity, Wylie says, gave her the freedom to do whatever she felt like doing, “something with quality, something which was unencumbered by being leant on.”

There’s a great example of what she means in the studio—a painting of three fleshy green and black columns which, as the daubed words “April,” “March,” and “Tulip” indicate, are tulips before their bloom. Wylie sketched the flowers as they grew in her garden, and the final work sprang from those drawings. “I think they have discreet authority,” Wylie says, adding that the painting is “not light-hearted, it’s not decorative, it’s not girlie.” There’s a smear of paint at the bottom of the canvas. “I love it,” she says, once again celebrating the creative potential of mess. “My son said to me, it could become an affectation. I said, well, yes—but it hasn’t. It just dropped off the brush.”

Source: W Magazine

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