Britain's 'Hottest New Artist,' Now 82, on Finally Being Taken Seriously

In 2010, Germaine Greer deemed Rose Wylie, whose bold, billboard-sized paintings had caught the feminist writer's eye, Britain's "hottest new artist." Wylie was 76. We caught up with the artist to talk about how her career has changed since.

Mar 11 2016, 9:50pm

"Andrew Murray and Party Clothes," 2015. All images courtesy the artist and Union Gallery

In an art world obsessed with youth, Rose Wylie's career has had an unconventional trajectory. The British painter studied painting in the 1950s, stopped working for 20 years to raise her three children, and was in her mid-70s when Germaine Greer labeled her Britain's hottest new artist.

Unconventional is a word that suits both the woman and the work. Wylie's bold, billboard-sized paintings tend to abolish hierarchy of all kinds. The artist works on raw, unstretched canvas, which allows her to make extensions or chop away at an image as she sees fit. Sometimes she stitches on a swatch of fresh canvas, collaging elements in or out. Everything resists the frame. Words and figures bump into each other, or tumble off an edge.

Wylie's paintings are exhilarating and energetic, even volatile. She's drawn to popular subjects—film stars or soccer players—and paints them with childlike directness. But a great deal of work goes in to making an apparently artless image—Wylie works through dozens of preparatory drawings. She's trying to recapture the spontaneity that too much training tends to smother, drawing to get a line that doesn't look drawn. Rose Wylie is a case in point: You're never too old to stop unlearning.

"Boy Meets Girl from Pompeii," 2015

BROADLY: Germaine Greer called you Britain's hottest new artist in 2010, when you were 76. How did that affect you?
Rose Wylie: Germaine Greer visited my studio after three separate but connected events: a solo show at Union Gallery, London; a second solo show with Thomas Erben, New York; and, importantly, [being] selected as the only UK artist for the National Museum for Women in the Arts "Women to Watch" show in Washington, DC. Her review in the Guardian gave me the push that seems necessary to increase visibility.

The art world was male-dominated for much of your career. Did you feel it was a struggle to be taken seriously as a female artist?
Probably. My husband [the late painter and writer Roy Oxlade] was very charismatic, and was always the dominant artist at the beginning of our marriage. The art context I was in then gave much more status to the male artist—as students, woman painters were not taken seriously.

"Spider Frog & Bird," 2015

Do you think that you and your husband influenced each other's work?
We had a shared aesthetic, but different ways of getting to a solution, and obviously different ideas, as we were different people. My husband preferred not to come into my studio, as it was always in a greater state of disruption and general mess than his, which he found disagreeable—although he liked my finished paintings.

As I see it, a painter should use anything at his or her disposal.

You use a lot of text, often writing the names of your sources or subjects into the painting. Why?
I like painting letters—they have all the options of other stuff you paint, but in a way are easier. They can be used to unify a painting, like Léger's use of outline, and to oppose presuppositions. I paint in names and titles, as doing this settles them in the total framework of the painting and in my visual experience. Also, I like to write backwards or upside down, as that breaks the familiarity of knowing exactly how something goes and allows for "awkward" potential.

"P.C. Small Head with Frame III," 2014

A lot of your images come from films as well—is it purely the visual that grabs you, or are you interested in the content, the story?
It's always the visual that grabs me, not the psychological moment or the complications of plot. The story is there, but it's something the viewer need not know anything about. It's how the painting is that's important, not what it's "about" or "of." Time or identity don't need to come into it.

Is there a difference for you between drawing from observation and drawing from memory?
I find my drawings from memory are often fainter, as I suppose they come from somewhere else, other than those of direct observation. You have less of a grip on them. They are less certain and less literal.

"Baghdad Cafe (Film Notes)," 2015

What changes when you translate a drawing into paint?
A load of stuff... color, intensity. Paint can be thick or runny, succulent, fluid or precise, etc. The necessary carry-on and working-out of painting is endlessly there, clogging up or removing, covering up and painting out. Pen-and-ink drawing needs collage for cover-up, which is what I always do. I often—but not always—try to keep the character of the drawing in the painting, which is not particularly easy to do. But this gives you something to work with, something that is not endlessly subjective or repetitive.

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Do you think that featuring a subject everybody knows—a movie star, a sports hero, etc.—affects a viewer's perception of the work? You often paint prominent figures—the soccer player Andy Murray or the Queen of Sheba, for example.
I often use "known" subjects because the viewer can see a connection in the transformation that will have taken place. If a "likeness" pushes through into a new but related idea, no damage is done to the feelings of the subject, as there would be if the likeness were more waxwork. This never pleases—the "likeness in the unlikeness," as Coleridge called it, is a much better idea. And with known subjects, the painting taps into a shared consciousness rather than the private and closed world of the artist.

"Queen of Sheba with Gold Lump," 2012

Some critics have called your work "cartoonish," but your pictures are not cartoons—they're paintings. What draws you to bringing the visual language of cartoons to painting?
The language of ancient art, children, cartoons, surrealists, and the untaught is very direct. I don't like imposed drawing structures and go for a direct approach in my work. To the careless critic, this can be seen as any of the listed above. But as Jake Chapman recently said in his program on Goya: Beware of the simplistic interpretation, as things are often more complicated than that. As I see it, a painter should use anything at his or her disposal. Cartoons have a good and economic language for shine, sparkle, heat, speed, shadows, etc. Rather than accusations of "cartoon," perhaps "non-academic" would be more helpful.