Rose Wylie, Theatre Painting (Black Spots), 2015, diptych, oil on canvas, overall 6' × 10' 6 3/4".

Rose Wylie, Theatre Painting (Black Spots), 2015, diptych, oil on canvas, overall 6' × 10' 6 3/4".

Rose Wylie

VW (VeneKlasen/Werner)

Rose Wylie, Theatre Painting (Black Spots), 2015, diptych, oil on canvas, overall 6' × 10' 6 3/4".

Rose Wylie’s exhibition “Dressed to Kill” opened a fortnight after Halloween and featured among its ten characteristically outsize, often multipanel paintings several whose iconography revolved around seasonal treats—chocolate gravestones, chocolate ghosts, etc. The rooms smelled strongly of fresh oil paint; most of the works were brand-new. One was led to assume, viewing and whiffing them, that Wylie—now eighty-one, though her idiosyncratic, sophisticated yet naive-looking work has only really found favor this last decade—had waited until the last possible moment before deciding what sensory experiences she’d deliriously transmute, then produced a lot of paintings at once, riding nervous energy. She interspersed the ghoulish canvases with others drawing variously on memories of her deep-green Kentish garden, a trip to the theater, and the Brian De Palma slasher flick that gave the show its title, and she prefaced the whole with six drawings enclosed in borders of text, in which the goddess Venus was conflated with a naked figure from, again, Dressed to Kill (1980). All of this came together in the gallery with a seat-of-the-pants unity of cartoon violence, associativity, and stagecraft that felt precarious yet—arguing for the value of the long view, evident in Wylie’s lopsided career arc—assured.

That’s also the tone of Wylie’s paintings in general. Their effect derives from the gulf between apparent inspirations or source materials and the emotional inflections, from the comical to the pained, that Wylie manages to layer onto them. The diptych Theatre Painting (Black Spots) (all works cited, 2015), for example, offers a stage scene or a garbled memory of one: To the left is a tall blonde woman, her blue catsuit spangled with stars and crescent moons. She has breasts like shark fins and an upset, creased-browed face, and she’s looking at three smaller men, half-smiling, ignoring her and holding out boxes blazoned with, respectively, a number, a pattern, and an airplane. Narrative stutters—we’re parachuted in mid-play—but gender tensions reign. The style, meanwhile, is an improbable synthesis of antique illustration, South Park (the men are ringers for Terrance and Phillip), and forceful gestural abstraction. It points to the past as a mutable resource, and says that commonplace things can be silly and serious at the same time, once experience has passed through the scrim of one person’s—one artist’s—subjectivity.

More specifically it feels as if Wylie, who for so long put off being an artist in favor of family life, wants to approach huge, long-considered themes—sexual politics, death, violence—sidelong, so as not to be doctrinaire. Surprised Boy Meets Girl and Boy Meets Girl (Boots) seem directly informed by De Palma’s moviemaking, but they’re warped by Wylie’s own montaging. The former abuts a giant close-up of a captivated man’s head—appearing like a huge mug shot—with a view, maybe through a window, maybe through a picture frame, of a nude woman whose head is a queasy Picassoid distortion: Her eyes are in her yellow hair. Grotesquery undoes voyeurism in a manner we might more usually associate with Cindy Sherman: There’s humor here, but it’s brittle.

Moving in close to Wylie’s canvases, one sees, amid the impasto splats and fervid brushwork, all manner of hasty addenda—edgewise penciled numbers that seem to mark off the scale of the canvas; even, in Bird, Butterfly, Worm, a dirtied Post-it note with observations on how to make the painting itself. Move back and you notice that the Halloween paintings are strafed with horizontal lines, like massive enlargements of downtime notes in a school exercise book. The child-adult that is Wylie’s painterly persona is doodling pictures of chocolate, but the desired treat keeps resolving into a grave, a ghost, even (in Chocolate-Finger Chocolate) a hacked-off, long-nailed digit. This is the work of an artist explicitly collapsing the gap between early and late life, vivacity and sagacity, and asserting that—just as the dumbest cinematic and theatrical entertainments can vouchsafe lessons too—there’s pain even in the sweetest things, and maybe vice versa.

Martin Herbert