“Another Route to Particularity”: Islanders in Copenhagen
Report from… Copenhagen
The Islanders at Galerie Mikael Andersen
January 9 to February 21, 2015
Bredgade 63, 1260 Copenhagen, Denmark
The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, the renowned institution 25 miles north of Copenhagen, has recently mounted a string of ambitious shows of figurative painters with an often psychologically pointed, symbolist bent: Philip Guston (the late work) and Emil Nolde were on view there this past summer, and a retrospective of the German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker continues there through April 6th.
A related expressive spirit infuses Galerie Mikael Andersen’s “The Islanders,” where four English painters of different generations explore the continued possibilities of figurative painting done from imagination and invention. Rose Wylie (b. 1934), 2014 winner of the John Moores Painting Prize, is the unlikely elder statesman of the group, which also includes Billy Childish (b. 1959), Ryan Mosley (b. 1980), and Tom Anholt (b. 1987).
These artists share an interest in intuitive image making, ostensibly rejecting preconceived plans or directly observed models — with the exception of Childish, whose The Great Banks After Wilkinson is a fairly direct copy after a 1936 work by English painter Norman Wilkinson. The show’s title seems to refer not only to the artists’ shared birthplace, but also to the exoticized subject matter of Peter Doig, an art school peer of Childish and likely influence on Mosley and Anholt. The best works here veer away from such calculated idiosyncrasy, offering a more immediate sense of weight and humor.
The whimsically enigmatic quality in Rose Wylie’s work seems to emerge from her asking very literal questions, rather than grasping deliberately for the odd. As she wrote in Frieze Magazine in 2014, “Another route to particularity is to make a written description of a person (or tree), and then to illustrate that list in the painting.” Her fragmented use of text, at first suggesting elusive phrases such as “With Go Imps,” pivots upon closer study to reveal more mundane descriptive purposes, as in the monumentally frumpy, “With Gold Lump.” (In another version of this show’s Gold Lump (single), Wylie attached an image of the Queen of Sheba, resulting in Queen of Sheba with Gold Lump.)
In a large work on paper, Wylie makes a written reference to a straightforward piece of advice from Ingres: “Never in drawing a face omit the ear.” Obligingly, a large yellow ear appears above on a very simplified profile. The humorous implication is that Wylie’s selection of detail has a matter-of-fact logic to it, even while she seems at times like a rogue camera, accidentally zooming in on an odd prop or the back of a head. Her use of scale to humorous effect recalls for me the cartoons collected in Roger Price’s 1953 Droodles, in which not-quite-readable, minimal images are explained by caption, and often revealed as extreme closeups or distance shots; for example, a vertical line and two triangles is described as a man with bow tie stuck between elevator doors. I could imagine Ack-Ack paired with a caption involving eggs or soccer, but it eludes easy reading even after its title has been deciphered as an off-translation of the German “acht-acht,” a common name for an anti-aircraft gun used in World War II. Wylie’s images resist tidy punch lines, reveling instead in the strangeness of figuration itself, and the possibility that something ambiguous or even illegible can, by explanation, become an authoritative representation.
While Wylie’s work also occasionally brings late Guston clearly to mind, as in The Man from London (film notes) (Thanks to Bella Tarr), her work feels forcefully individual. Her simple color choices take on an emblematic punch at a large scale, as she covers expanses of canvas without equivocation.
Satisfyingly direct paint handling takes on a different inflection in Tom Anholt’s paintings, another highlight of the show. His smaller works’ concentrated physicality and variety of mark-making bring to mind Brooklyn-based painter Katherine Bradford, as figures emerge out of layers of misty underpainting. A crust of paint built up on the panels’ edges provides a matter-of-fact record of working as well as a purposeful decorative element. At its best, as in Irish Family, this peripheral appearance of paint- as-itself has a tangible impact on the painted space within the image.
All four of these painters have been prolific producers, and their energy comes through in the work. While the works representing Mosley and Childish feel more forced in their kitschy oddity, Wylie and Anholt make a strong case for the pleasures and freedoms of working indirectly, beginning with what Wylie calls a “sideways jump” into the paintings.