Mexican Floosie 2002
Loves and marriage 1997
Rose Wylie: Wardrobe Changes
Text by Katie Kitamura
Rose Wylie: Wardrobe Changes
In her series ‘Film Notes’, Rose Wylie uses the splintered image to restore cinema to its original role as a factory of dreams. In large-scale paintings that owe a debt both to film and collage, Wylie arranges elements of an imperfectly recollected image. Against this she adds lines of text, a reminder that the logic of dreams is set in language. These words are, in turn, variously fragmented, occluded by images, and broken off.
Not only the vagaries of memory, but also the strain of recollection, are captured in paintings that have meaning beyond the narrative of a single film or cultural reference. Wylie’s paintings pay homage to a personal pantheon of film directors: Werner Herzog, Quentin Tarantino, Bela Tarr, Carlos Reygadas, Pedro Almodovar, Francois Ozon, Claudia Llosa. Wylie takes from their authored images and authors her own, combining the language of film, film posters, but then emerging with something far more essentially idiosyncratic.
Wylie transfers the technologically sophisticated techniques of film onto the flat surface of the canvas. The zoom is used in Dr. Lacra’s Cherry Frock: A Repeat 2006, which features a single image of two girls repeated twice, the second image moving closer to the smiling girls. In Sitting on a Bench With Border (Film Notes) 2007– 8, Wylie repeats the profile of a woman (Penelope Cruz in Almodovar’s Volver), with minute changes indicating shifts in movement and perspective.
The effect is nothing like what we typically see on the cinema screen, and introduces the idea of a volatile, unstable perspective into the space of the canvas. If the ‘cinematic’ has become the key aesthetic of the 20th century, then what has also followed is a uniformity in what we take to be cinematic, particularly in the realm of art production – a certain kind of wide format image, a saturated palette of colors, artificial lighting, and freeze frame drama.
Wylie’s notion of the cinematic rejects that standard. Instead, she relies on fragility, on the image that threatens to give way. Integral to her paintings is the process of remembering, of trying to recuperate the memory, failing and then trying again. For this reason, her work is concerned with multiplicities. Her drawings sometimes feature cutouts of a single detail – a face, more often than not – that has been reworked and pasted over. Similarly, her paintings feature sections that have been whited out and painted over again, where the painting has, in Wylie’s words, ‘gone wrong.’
In certain paintings, this ‘going wrong’ appears almost like a ghostly emanation, as in Face and Skull 2011. There is, throughout Wylie’s paintings, the sense of figures coming into being through haunting and multiplicity. Not unlike the notion of takes, in Wylie’s paintings the singular is traded in for the residue of the multiple. Which is to say, Wylie utilizes the language of cinema in order to depict the ways identity struggles into being.
For this reason, cinematic staging is central to Wylie’s paintings and drawings. Theatricality often draws Wylie to an image, often because of its temporary nature. In the film scene that inspired Wylie’s Pink Tablecloth (film notes) 2011, the temporary nature of the theatrical backdrop for a secret meeting in the desert is more important than the narrative content of the meeting itself. Wylie’s flattened figures derived their consistency (or lack thereof) from the backdrops in which they are placed.
Curtains and stage sets are plentiful throughout Wylie’s work; so too are costumes and clothing, the distinction between the two constantly blurring. In Inglourious Basterds (film notes) 2010, the better part of the three figures are inscribed in their uniforms, their faces degrading into the indeterminate, blank, and in one case entirely absent. Meanwhile, one panel of Black Berlin Bear’s Head 2008, features the front of a man’s head, wearing a looming bear costume, inspired by Mark Wallinger’s Sleeper.
In Black Berlin Bear’s Head second panel, there’s a slight, female figure, girded inside a skirt, from which extend two skinny legs. In Wylie’s paintings, men are often entirely concealed by their uniforms, whether they are SS uniforms or bear costumes. Their identities are ratified, wholly consistent. But the women occupy a much more tenuous position. They are often reclining, limbs akimbo, faces exposed. They come into being through their clothes, but in a manner opposite to the totalities of the male uniform.
Probably the painting that most immediately communicates this is ER and ET 2011, an image of a reclining, long limbed Elizabeth Taylor in a bathing costume. Her signature violet eyes and black hair are in evidence, but her body looks awkward, her face stricken. She reclines in a sea of eyes and ears, a reference to the ER of the title; the eyes and ears are taken from the Rainbow Portrait (1600 – 2) of Elizabeth I, a heavily symbolic portrait in which the eyes and ears on the queen’s cloak symbolize the spies in the court.
Those eyes and ears lie scattered in the blank background, a body in multiple parts. That is repeated in Sitting on a Bench with Border (Film Notes) 2007, with its border of multiple, decapitated heads. The idea of the female body coming undone is contrasted to the male figure disappearing into the costume. That construction of the difference between male and female identity is acute; in short, look to the costume and the skirt.
My Son, My Son, What Have You Done (film notes) 2011, pays homage to a recent Werner Herzog feature of almost the same title, concerned with madness and matricide. The painting depicts a forking path, garage doors, and flamingo birds, all of which feature prominently in the film. The brick paths are neatly labeled (‘path to house’, ‘path to garage doors’) and among other pieces of text, there is a reference to the flamingos, which the film’s central character, Brad, refers to as his ‘eagles in drag’.
The painting has labels and arrows, which here act as indications for mapping. And indeed, in some of her most intensely layered paintings of trauma, Wylie produces a literal representation of cognitive mapping. In Rosemount (coloured) 1999, Wylie produces a memory map tracing the fallout of the World War II bombings that marked her childhood. Carefully labeling both the geographical landmarks and the favored vegetables and plants in her mother’s garden, Wylie places a thickly painted, blacked out form at the center of the painting: a representation of wartime blackouts. At the bottom of the painting there is the partial outline of a face, observing the flying bomb, complete with sightlines – a representation of Wylie as a child, making sense of the world as it disintegrates in front of her, or equally Wylie as an adult, mapping the terrain of memory.
This active sense of mapping, of searching through the rubble of memories, of piecing together an identity, gendered or otherwise, is what gives Wylie’s paintings their graphic power. Instead of reaching to cinema in search of verisimilitude, Wylie looks to the form for escape from certainty, and into multiplicity. In this way she accesses narratives that are difficult to unfold, non linear, often traumatic. It’s this mapping that is at the heart of her canvases, and finding a way through the weight of the past.
Many of the film directors Wylie is most interested in are concerned above all with creating three dimensional, cinematic space on film. Wylie’s paintings are defiantly flat, but are nonetheless concerned with the act of carving out complex and often times sprawling spaces; the unique, and distinctly painterly, vocabulary she develops to do so are the signatures of her work, even more than the influence of the cinema screen.