Rose Wylie is why we need artists. The British painter’s late-career show here at the Serpentine (she’s 83 now, and has only found real recognition in the past few decades) is full of film stars, sportsmen, ducks and dancers. Everyday life, pop culture, war, it’s all squidged in here. Do we really need more pop paintings filled with clever conceptual references to disposable culture in our lives? If Wylie is making them, then yes please. Because she condenses life down, figures out its essentials, then summarises, reframes and forces you to see new things in old crap.
When she paints footballers in her cartoonish, naïve, rough, bold style, she’s picking out things you barely notice: the twitchiness of Ronaldinho, the shapelessness of Wayne Rooney, the relative vastness of Jens Lehmann. Her film references act as a visual diary of the culture she consumes, but everything gets mashed up – scenes are repeated, actors’ names get muddled. One massive work casts black Second World War bombers over the Serpentine itself, memories from Wylie’s own childhood. It’s oppressive and nasty, undercut by great big ducks painted beneath.
She sees the silliness in pop, the sadness in an empty park bench, the elegance of a tennis match and the brutality of war because they’re all part of, you know, living.
Wylie doesn’t want you to talk about her age, but it matters. These paintings feel free, unconstrained. The kids are gone, society’s expectations have been cast aside, any ideas of success or some highfalutin art career have been abandoned, all that’s left is to make whatever she wants. Go big, go silly, do anything. It doesn’t matter, it’s her life, her art. That why there are film and sport references, ducks, words, dancing – it’s Wylie’s life, captured feverishly, aggressively, without a single care given for what anyone thinks. How liberating is that?
That’s why one of the best works here is just a giant mouth eating an enormous chocolate biscuit. Wiley knows what the good shit in life is, and she’ll make art about it if she wants to. It’s a whole show of 'why the hell not': freedom and aesthetics, all bundled together.