A Rose is a Rose is a Rose…

Michael Glover questions the New York painter David Hornung about his admiration for the work of Rose Wylie

MG: Why is Rose Wylie one of your favourite painters, David?

DH: I am impressed by the authority of her belief in her process, her subjects and her very idiosyncratic visual lexicon. She’s always unpredictable and utterly independent; she holds nothing back.

MG: Can you describe what appeals to you about those paintings of hers? Is it their spirit, their fiercely reckless and independent attitude, their teeming content, their way of making?

DH: First, of course, is their spirit. They are boisterous, open and drolly absurd, all of which I find irresistible. They are also, surprisingly, both fragile and robust. Fragile because her rendering of objects feels speculative, as if an amnesiac was using drawing to tentatively reacquaint herself with the things of the world. On the other hand, her paint handling is sturdy and eloquent. I would say that as images, her paintings skitter, but as physical objects, they rumble. You have to see her work in person to fully appreciate its curious duality.

MG: Rose has acknowledged the importance to her of the later work of Philip Guston, when he abandoned abstraction for figuration of a particularly brash and cartoony kind. He was so vilified for doing what he did by the critics! Do you recognise the common ground with Rose’s work? Can you talk about that a little?

DH: That’s very clear. Most obviously is their willingness to chuck the comfort of conventional drawing for an elemental visual language that risks being seen as clumsy, but which puts how they think and feel about things above the mere transcription of appearance. Both painters draw with paint spontaneously with no preparation and in a way that invites chance. And both tell stories about their subjects through the bold use of distortion, composition and unexpected relationships in scale.

Compare, for example, Guston’s Stationary Figure (1973) and Wylie’s Pin Up and Porn Queen Jigsaw (2005). Both are large canvases, Guston’s is 196 x 326 cm. and Wylie’s is 346 cm square. Both begin on neutral light toned backgrounds that show through in places, and both prefer the directness of drawing in paint as a mode of visual discourse. A more subtle but important similarity is their use of color. Both rely intentionally on the same elementary strategy: choose very few distinct colors and don’t intermix them to generate complex tones. Instead, with the odd exception, both Guston and Wylie simply add white or black for lightness or darkness. This elementary approach to color is perfectly in sync with the knowing ‘artlessness’ of their drawing and composition.

Stationary Figure (1973), Philip Guston, Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Musa Guston, 1992
Pin Up and Porn Queen Jigsaw (2005), Rose Wylie, Oil on canvas, 346 x 346 cm, Tate

MG: ‘I got sick and tired of all that purity!’ Guston declared. Is that true of Rose’s work too? Does our feeling of exhilaration in its presence have something to do with the exuberance of its inelegance, its lack of artiness?

Wylie and Guston are of two different generations, he was born in 1913 and she in 1934. So, their motives were probably different. His own development took him from pictorial narratives in his early years into a period of refined formal abstraction that garnered him recognition among the heavy hitting abstractionists of his day. Eventually Guston got fed up with the sterility and, it must be said, smug certitudes of late Modernist reductionism. But his rejection of “all that purity” was also a borne of a need to reconnect with an authentic urge to tell stories in his painting.

I don’t know Wylie’s early work, but she finished her training in 1981 at the Royal College of Art. By then Guston had died and the art world was in full post-modern flight. Among painters, figuration had come to be widely accepted and many even saw formal abstract painting as anachronistic if not essentially elitist. But painting itself was viewed in many quarters as moribund. I think Rose Wylie felt that, to create living paintings, a radical departure was needed and Guston, among others, pointed the way. There is no doubt that the exhilaration her work brings to the viewer is dependent, as you say, on its exuberant inelegance. Same is true of Guston, although their paintings are quite unalike in their psychological impact.

MG: Her work is so loose-limbed, isn’t it? Yet at the same time there’s a great delicacy of line. It seems to risk not cohering at all… tell me how you see it. 

DH: I agree with that, Wylie is a high wire artist. You can feel the danger in her drawing and composition. Loose limbed exactly. Very hard for a trained painter to do.

MG: Rose seems to wash away the barricade that has traditionally existed between seriousness and unseriousness…. is she a feminist?

DH: Because her work is often humorous, recent institutional recognition does suggest a broadening of categorical acceptance. Most of the time, seriousness is equated with darkness or hyper theoreticality. Wylie’s success depends on two things: her work is fun to look at, so it reaches anyone who isn’t hung up on technical rectitude and it’s highly intelligent. About painting Wylie is deadly serious.

MG: Is she a bohemian, out on her own, or does her work offer some kind of directive for the future, some hint of what painting might be?

DH: She and her husband, the painter Roy Oxlade, were so mutually supportive and sophisticated that it’s really off the mark to think of her as an outsider, even though she clearly values the art of the unschooled. They were both influential teachers and well acquainted with other, more prominent painters in London. In his writing Oxlade articulated many of the ideas that both he and Wylie obviously shared about drawing and painting. One of the things he talks about is the need in painting to balance thinking, feeling, intention, and impulse and her work clearly exemplifies that. Is that a hint of what painting might be? What a nice thought!

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