Rose Wylie: Quack Quack

By Philomena Epps

Serpentine Sackler Gallery
Thu 30 November 2017 – Sun 11 February 2018

“A painting is not finally what it does, or what it makes, or what is has, or what it means,” Rose Wylie is quoted in the exhibition catalogue, “the painting is the meaning”. For the artist, inspiration for a painting can be found in a multitude of varied memories, experiences, or sources: from eating a chocolate Leibniz biscuit, to watching a Hollywood blockbuster or going for stroll in the park. All these inspirations are treated on the same plane, whether it’s a news story, a personal anecdote, celebrity gossip, or a canonical reference from the history of art. Even the strap of Nicole Kidman’s dress - worn on the red carpet - acted as a visual trigger for a later painting.

Rose Wylie, Choco Leibniz, 2006. Installed at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, 2017. Photo: © 2017 Mike Din.
Rose Wylie, Park Dogs & Air Raid, 2017. Installed at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, 2017.Photo: © 2017 Mike Din.
Rose Wylie, Park Duck, 2017. Installed at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, 2017. Photo: © 2017 Mike Din.

However, it is the park - notably Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, where the Serpentine is located - which is a central nexus for this exhibition, and mixes both new work and old. Along with park benches, ponds, and trees, birds, dogs, and ducks also abound throughout the gallery. Woof woof. There’s a cat too in Party Clothes (RW and Cat), 2016, and a rogue brown horse, wide-eyed with a lolling pink tongue in Irreverent Anatomy Drawing, 2017. The humorous, direct title of the show - Quack Quack - refers to Wylie’s childhood experiences feeding the ducks or sailing her brother’s toy boats on the lake in Kensington Park, when living on Talbot Road in Bayswater during the Blitz in 1940. These visceral early recollections are also mixed with more phonic, sensory memories of the sounds and smells of London during the war. ‘Quack quack’ easily mutates into ‘ack ack’, a term used to describe Second World War anti-aircraft artillery. In Park Dogs and Air Raid, 2017, Wylie pairs these two memories: an aerial fight between Spitfires and Messerschmitt aircraft, above the portrayal of the original Serpentine gallery and the round pond. 

The inclusion of Wylie’s studio skirting board at the bottom of this painting - an observed trompe l’oeil image - complete with paint marks, scuffs, and splatters, is an indicator of the amount of planning that goes into her paintings. They are planned and refined through an extensive drawing, research and visual note-making process. Wylie paints straight onto an unprimed canvas. These canvases, often averaging the same size - around 183cm - the size of the walls in her studio, are very flexible. Due to their homogeneous measurements they can be hung in multiples to create larger paintings, either stacked like Park Duck, 2017, or as with Red Twink and Ivy, 2002, or Yellow Strip, 2006, installed in corners and wrapped around the gallery walls. These expanding or extending sequences are cinematic, akin to film or comic strips, and indicate Wylie’s ongoing interest in Italian frescos, murals, and architectural friezes.

Rose Wylie, Kill Bill (Film Notes), 2007. Installed at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, 2017. Photo: © 2017 Mike Din.
Rose Wylie, Yellow Strip, 2006. Installed at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, 2017. Photo: © 2017 Mike Din.
Rose Wylie, Red Twink and Ivy, 2002. Installed at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, 2017. Photo: © 2017 Mike Din.

Wylie’s paintings start with one visual image, which she then records through the filter of her memory. They become ‘portraits of misremembering’. The original source material is never returned to. Driven by curiosity and experimentation, she has titled this approach as ‘What if?’ In Kill Bill (Film Notes), 2007, for example, Wylie duplicates the same scene from the film from two slightly different perspectives. She also often incorporates captions, or like in Pink Table Cloth (Long Shot)(Film Notes), 2013, which responds to the 2005 film Syriana, the names of actors and addresses: Tehran, Matt Damon, George Clooney. With the Syriana painting, Wylie wasn’t attracted to the actors, narrative, or politics of the film, but to the cinematography - the intrinsic value of the pink tablecloth and white suits as pure image. In antiquity or early Renaissance work, gods and saints would all have different attributes or characteristics in order for people to identify them. Wylie mimics this in her own practice, viewing people through their public image. Queen with Pansies (Dots), 2016, draws to mind the infamous Ditchley Portrait of Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts. The symbolism of the ‘eyes and ears’ at court, which often occurred in these contemporary paintings of Elizabeth I, are then transposed by Wylie onto her portrait of Elizabeth Taylor: ER & ET, 2011. Taylor was one of the first iconic celebrities, who played out her life under the scrutinous ‘eyes and ears’ of the media.

Rose Wylie, Queen with Pansies (Dots), 2016 © Rose Wylie, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, London, Photograph: Soon-Hak Kwon.
Rose Wylie, ER & ET, 2011. Installed at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, 2017. Photo: © 2017 Mike Din.
Rose Wylie, Pink Skater (Will I Win, Will I Win), 2015. Installed at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, 2017. Photo: © 2017 Mike Din.

The first painting in the show, Pink Skater (Will I Win, Will I Win), 2015, with a large smiling ice skater leaping across the canvas surrounded by red sparkling stars, epitomises Wylie’s accessible, simplified direct visual language. The use of bold hues, cartoon-like black outlines, and big graphic letters, all converge to create an aura of immediacy and spontaneous energy. The result is joyful and animated; the friendly figures staying with you on the walk back from the gallery through the park. 

Philomena Epps is a writer based in London. She is also the founding editor and publisher of Orlando magazine.

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