A masterpiece does not endeavor to depict the essence or true nature of its subject; rather it is self-contained, portraying simply “the thing in itself” as the human mind perceives it.
That’s what American art collector Gertrude Stein laid out in her famous 1936 lecture “What are masterpieces and why are there so few of them.” British artist Rose Wylie subscribes to the idea.
In Wylie’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, Painting a Noun, which runs until February 22 at David Zwirner gallery in Central, she emphasizes this approach to creating art pieces, by both the name and the exhibits.
She begins with recognizable, everyday images from such wide-ranging cultural files as film, fashion, literature, history, news and sport and transforms them into her own ideas.
A series displayed depicts a Goliath bird-eater she saw in a newspaper. It is a blonde species of spider found in northern South America and considered the world’s largest spider.
The interesting part of the paintings is not just the composition and the child-like brushstrokes — even though Wylie is already 85 years old — but also the meaning behind them. While blonde hair is a stereotypical reference to beauty but dumbness, the blonde spider in real life looks dangerous.
The irony of stereotypes may be an unwitting theme drawn by Wylie.
In the Glamour girl stereotype with shades and lashes, the artist repeatedly depicts, in an exaggerated form, elements that she believes are traditional conceptions of beauty, such as red lips, blue eye shadow, curls and long lashes, and dresses.
Such heavy make-up is thought to be not for own pleasure but more to meet the public on the established cognition of beauty and attractiveness.
In the diptych Naff bride, which was inspired by an advertisement she encountered, Wylie juxtaposes two nearly identical brides stand alone on a balcony with similar decorations.
In these works, Wylie considers how notions of beauty are inflected by popular culture, and also how media contributes to and disseminates cultural standards.
Feminism also seems like another hidden topic. One group of paintings depicts a female tennis player, in which the person first appears nearly abstract in Serena, which depicts the silhouette and her exposed nipple with milk. The figure recurs in full in the paintings Small Serena, get a grip, and Serena (clay court), presenting the inherent conflict between an athlete and a mother.
“She isn’t feminism, or maybe she is, but she never talks about it,” said Rodolphe von Hofmannsthal, senior director of David Zwirner London.
Although the work contains a wealth of information, Wylie obeys her belief in not constructing a narrative or information not available within the bounds of the picture plane. She paints as a kind of visual symbol directly.
“She just let her paintings talk,” said Hofmannsthal.
The exhibition also presents some original drawings from the artist. The draft of the Glamour girl stereotype series was done on the pages of a 2020 diary, and in the paintings, she drew the grid structure of those pages on to the canvas, giving them an improvised feel.
The style can be seen in almost all the work in the exhibition, on uncovered pencil sketches and the wrong background color overlaid on the false strokes.
Hofmannsthal said Wylie did this on purpose as her idea is that the best part of a painting is accidental. That was inspired by standing comedy performances, in which sometimes there was unexpected laughter and applause to liven things up.
Her style recalls the name of the exhibition: while drawing objective facts and leaving the audience with imagination, she also shows the process and traces of painting itself to the audience.
“She paints nouns, and painting is a noun itself,” said Hofmannsthal.
(This article was published at The Standard on February 7, 2020. Link not available. )