Unfolding across a vast double canvas over three metres wide, Black Stork (2012) is a bold and playful work by Rose Wylie. To the left, the titular bird is limned in strident strokes of black, framed by green topiary; it lifts one leg as if preparing to fly. To the right, as if enacting the lift-off, two schematic avian forms fly beyond a cone-shaped grey mountain. Against the raw, unprimed canvas of the background, blue streaks of sky surround white clouds. The words of the title extend through the scenery in tall black and brown lettering, their graphic shapes merging with Wylie’s figurative mark-making. Blue and black chevrons in the foreground lead from left to right, heightening the paired panels’ comic-strip sense of narrative. Wylie, who first trained as an artist in the 1950s before returning to her practice some three decades later, paints her energetic, eclectic works with a deep knowledge of art history. The cinematic scale of Black Stork is typical of her canvases, which often have the quality of dreamlike storyboards. Often inspired by an initial image that is then transformed or ‘misremembered’ through the filters of memory, emotion and association, the paintings draw on sources from Renaissance portraiture to the movies of Quentin Tarantino. Wylie pictures the feeling of things, rather than the things themselves. As she has put it, ‘You spell like it sounds and paint like it looks. It’s the same thing. It is phonetic’ (R. Wylie, quoted in C. Wallis, Rose Wylie, London 2018, p. 10).
Wylie works on unstretched, unprimed canvas, and her pictures have a fresh and spontaneous life. The compositions, however, are in fact planned and refined before execution, with extensive research, drawing and visual note-taking a key part of her process. Each element is considered as Wylie works like a collagist towards a coherent whole, her diverse imagery held together by a keen visual intelligence. Weaving together deeply personal motifs with recognisable references to the outside world and contemporary culture, the paintings are evocative, elliptical and tantalising; they are not designed to be decoded, but to be enjoyed for their visual impact and wit. ‘A painting’, the artist explains, ‘is not finally what is does, or what it makes, or what it has, or what it means … it is. The painting is the meaning’ (R. Wylie, quoted in Quack Quack, exh. cat. Serpentine Gallery, London 2017, p. 28). Black Stork, flush with the airy freedom of flight and wide open space, is a gleeful expression of Wylie’s vivacious painterly outlook.