Friday, 11 March 2016

Modern Painters: Rose Wylie & Michael Simpson

Rose Wylie, Girl in Lights (artist copyright)
On Saturday I gave a lecture to the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, an organisation founded in the 1930s and still going strong today. Its main activities include buying artworks for public collections in Wales and putting on lectures by contemporary artists and art historians of one kind and another. The members I met over lunch included an artist whose zest for life belied her 92 years; she gave me hope for the future!

Since I was more or less in Cardiff I thought I would pop over to the Chapter Arts Centre to have a look at Rose Wylie's paintings. I say 'pop', but in fact the journey took almost as long as the trip from Bristol, thanks to my foolish decision to trust the Sat Nav on my phone. At one point the machine took me past the same pub, bookies and nail bar THREE TIMES without even a hint of an apology. Never again.

Rose Wylie, Black Strap (Red Fly) & (Syracuse Lineup), 2014 (artist copyright)
The only Wylie painting I'd seen before this is 'Silent Light (Film Notes)', which I first saw hanging in the Jerwood Gallery a couple of years ago. I loved it immediately, but without knowing quite why, and I hoped that my detour to Chapter would help me understand the attraction.

Founded in the early 1970s in a Victorian school building, Chapter is a wonderful place, multi-faceted and welcoming; I like the fact that the art gallery is right next to the bustling cafe/bar, so that you can wander in on a whim and see what's going on, in this case 'Tilt the Horizontal into a Slant', an exhibition of Rose Wylie's large, exuberant canvases. Once again my first reaction was one of pleasure, and once again I couldn't immediately tell what it was I liked about the work.

Rose Wylie, Sack Barrow: Factory Pin-up, 2014 (artist copyright)
The style is what they used to call Neo-Expressionist, which doesn't tell you much. It reminds me of early David Hockney pictures, although Wylie herself acknowledges Philip Guston as an important influence. She trained in the dark days of the 1950s, when teachers derided would-be figurative painters - Paula Rego was studying around the same time, and was encouraged by her future husband Victor Willing to keep a Secret Sketchbook for her drawings. Guston, meanwhile, had dug his way out of the mire of Abstract Expressionism and Wylie found inspiration in his example.

Rose Wylie, Girl in Lights (detail)
In interviews Wylie comes across as straightforward, pleasantly opinionated and free of artworld nonsense. Her paintings are clever and witty. My uncertainty about them, I now realise, is related to the fact that many allude to films, and often I don't know or haven't seen the movie - walking around the Chapter show I felt at first that there was a joke I didn't get. Then I stopped trying to read the work and instead looked at the lines, the shapes and the chunks of thick paint that look as delicious as cake icing. People miss the point when they describe her work as cartoonish or child-like; these are carefully considered paintings that reflect the experience and hard work of a lifetime. But the spirit behind them is defiantly youthful.

Michael Simpson, Bench Painting 78, 2009 (artist copyright)
On the face of it the paintings of Michael Simpson, currently on show at Spike Island in Bristol, are quite different: minimal, geometric, austere. However both artists work on a large scale, both seem to take great pleasure in the business of painting, and both have a sense of humour. Like Wylie, Simpson explores external references in his work, but whereas she is inspired by contemporary film and everyday life, he delves into the work of 16th century philosopher Giordano Bruno or medieval church architecture.

Michael Simpson, Unnamed (Confessional), 2015 & Minbar (Pulpit), 2015 (artist copyright)
I was particularly struck by a series which explores the phenomenon of the leper squint, not a terrible affliction of the already-afflicted, but a hole in the church wall through which lepers and other undesirables could take part not just in services, but in the everyday social life of a community from which they were otherwise excluded. The four paintings of long ladders are both monumental and poetic; when you understand what the little black square at the top represents, they become much more...

Michael Simpson, Leper Squint 16, 4-part painting, 2014 (artist copyright)

Michael Simpson, Leper Squint 16 (detail)

Rose Wylie is at Chapter until 29 May.
Michael Simpson is at Spike Island until 27 March.

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