Many of us will have memories of going to the river to feed the ducks as children. It might seem apt then, that Rose Wylie’s current exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler in the middle of Hyde Park, and a stone’s throw from the Serpentine River, has been titled Quack Quack.
Rose Wylie received her MA from the Royal Academy of Art in 1981 at the age of 47. While I don’t usually think it is necessary to state an artist’s age, it seems like it may be worth noting that now at 83, the contents of Quack Quack, probably has more in common with children’s doodles than ‘grown-up’ paintings – not that it’s a bad thing. Besides the occasional duck floating across the borders of her canvases, the exhibition also displays biscuits seen flying into open mouths, red elephants that stare out at the viewer and men in yellow football shirts that play soccer across paintings that wrap around the corners of the gallery walls. Wylie’s Serpentine retrospective consists of almost 20 years of work, however, the earliest picture on display (Rosemount (Coloured), 1999), was not painted until she was 65, with the paintings appearing like children’s book illustrations across several large-scale canvases. Pink Skater (Will I Win, Will I Win), 2015, illustrates a blonde figure skater who performs across two huge canvases like a ballerina or the sugar-plum fairy, twirling around her cloth stage, surrounded by ruby-red stars. Below her Will I Win is scrawled in large writing. It is not clear where she is or what she is competing for, but regardless of whether she is the victor or not, she certainly exudes the confidence of someone who knows that they will succeed.
While her work may seem trivial, Wylie’s paintings are often deeply influenced by her own memories, both from child and adulthood. Park Dogs and Air Raid, 2017 is a painting of the very gallery that this retrospective is being displayed in. The Second World War broke out in 1939, when Wylie was five years old, and the experience of growing up during a time of conflict and uncertainly has continued to linger several decades later. Amongst a black landscape, huge dogs and ducks that are as big as the Serpentine Sackler gallery building walk across the Serpentine river and Hyde Park. In the white sky above them, heavy black airplanes fly across the canvas in an ominous depiction of wartime London. It is almost as though Wylie has added in the animals to tone down the seriousness of what she has depicted.
The historic theme carries through in a painting of Elizabeth I. Clothed all in white and outlined in thick orange paint to match the colour of hair, Queen with Pansies (Dots), 2016, covers two canvases. The monarch is on the left panel, and the second piece is patched with purple and yellow flowers and the words ‘Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.’ Gheeraerts 1592 painting sits in the National Portrait Gallery, and obviously served as inspiration for Wylie’s work, painted four centuries later. On either side of the queen’s sumptuous white robes, Wylie has painted on her own mutterings ‘…can but does not take revenge…’ and ‘…in giving back she uncreases…’ It is not quite clear what she is trying to say, but it is evident that the artist holds some sort of admiration not only for the historic royal, but also the painter who made her portrait.
There are also a number of paintings deeply influenced by film by display. Two canvases covered by a sand-filled desert illustrate the 2005 film Syriana, which Wylie has handily annotated with the names of the director (Stephen Gaghan) and its principal actors (Matt Damon and George Clooney), just in case we wanted to look up the movie and watch it ourselves. The two stills that Wylie has pasted together illustrate the artist’s interest in arrangements of scenes on film. One canvas is a close-up, while the other is the same scene, which depicts officials sitting around a pink table, panned out far into the distance. Other movies replicated in paint by Wylie include Kill Bill and a portrait of Nicole Kidman.
Rose Wylie’s exhibition comprises paintings that are sure to appeal to everyone. From movie stars to historic figures, well-known characters from all forms of life are presented as colourful cartoon-like caricatures in the middle of London’s most-loved park. There is little reason why anyone would struggle to find at least one element of the show enjoyable. The addition of text helps us understand what she is trying to illustrate, and feeds the audience into saying Quack Quack, by the time they leave.
Rose Wylie: Quack Quack is on display at Serpentine Sackler until 11 February 2018