‘Girl Meets Girl’ presents four artists who have arrived over the years at distinctive languages which they employ with a freshness and panache which reads as spontaneity. They don’t worry about boundaries: between life and fiction, between sexes and sexualities, between conscious and subconscious, between first person and mediated. The world is all grist to their technical confidence and freedom of wills.
Rose Wylie, at 84, is the oldest of the four, and her paintings are placed in dialogue with each of the other three artists in turn. She’s an inspiration to them, as to many – not just for the conviction she brings to her work, but also for how she persisted for decades with little recognition. Here, Wylie shows works she made from memory in the spirit of ‘Girl Now meets Girl Then’. The title of the series is ‘Clothes I Wore’, although she says the girl shown is not her. What comes across is a double delight. First, in the feeling – in memory – of wearing those clothes: a ‘modest corset’, which she says was ‘seductive rather than restraining’; a black evening dress ‘which clicked for me with Mexico or Spain’; and a primrose yellow swimming outfit. Second, in the pleasure you can sense as she turns notational biro and colour pencil drawings into paintings of winning brio, with a relish for handling the paint in what she terms the contrasts of ‘thick/thin’, ‘flat/worked’ and ‘slosh/tight’. You can admire the chutzpah of undisguisedly adding bits of canvas if she wants more room, or leaving collaged bits in place where she’s been trying out what looks right. You can enjoy the colours just as Rose herself so obviously does, for ‘all the colours of clothes in the paintings are what they were’. You might also speculate on the story in these works, but they’re not about that. They’re about the feelings and the painting: the painting of feelings and the feeling of painting.
What of ‘Girl Now meets Girl Then’ meets gender-queer/non-binary boi? Caroline Wells Chandler, who identifies himself in those terms, admires Rose for ‘making art that explores pre-cultural programming with a strong drawing hand that can only come from the artist’ and suggests that ‘ultimately Rose’s paintings are about freedom’. There’s plenty of freedom in his own work, which he describes as tackling themes of ‘community, belonging, the spiritual, and in-betweenness’. Chandler queers art history as he turns the straight, masculine tradition of painting into ambiguously-gendered figures made with the ‘women’s craft’ of crochet. Neon-bright figures cavort across the walls with a lack of concern for whether they are male or female, what race they are, or even whether they are human. A yellow frontal zip shape might be penile or vaginal, for instance; skin and hair can be any colour; and cartoons, robots and computer game graphics are all in play. And the process of crochet, literally involves the twisting and crossing of lines - appropriate for the glee with which Chandler sets about scrambling the expectations of the heteronormative gaze. It may be, as he says, that ‘to be happily, proudly, and freely queer is a radical triumph’ – which is to say we haven’t yet reached a new normal – but the sense is that we’ve got far enough to celebrate.
Chandler cites Katherine Bradford as one of his inspirations: indeed, he has titled a work after her distinctive red-rimmed glasses, and adopted her best-known motif of swimmers. Bradford’s elusively anonymous figures in ‘Girl Meets Girl’, however, are engaged in more off-kilter sporting activities: what looks like assisted acrobatics, night-boat racing and a multi-cup award ceremony for the faceless. All use a recent palette of moody pinks and blues, in which the shadowless light and floating lack of perspective are more enchanted than real. Bradford is 77, but like Wylie retains a positively girlish freshness in her application of paint, which seems pretty relaxed about whether the intent of a particular mark is figurative or abstract. And though one can read psychological possibilities into her characters and their curious interactions, my sense is that – again like Wylie – the paint, rather than its narrative, is what matters most to her. Bradford favours acrylic. The fluorescent colours and watery textures suit her dreamy washes, the undercurrents of which – in her words – ‘serve as a metaphor for whatever we’re floating on, and jumping into, and traveling through’. Freud read water as the sub-conscious, and that air of mysterious inner journeying remains when Bradford’s characters reach dry land or high air.
Katherine Bernhardt’s pictographic paintings operate at the sloppy end of spontaneity, and it’s no surprise that visiting Wylie’s studio - ‘stimulating, colorful, messy, and fun’ - has increased her regard for how Rose’s works ‘appear simple but then perceptions change, and we realize they are sophisticated masterpieces’. Bernhardt employs acrylic and spray paint to depict everyday items and wildlife with sufficient vim to make them more riffs on signification than analyses of what is signified. Pizza, batteries, birds, emoji, cigarettes and shoes all come off with much the same generic energy – excuses for painting electric colours and humming shapes, rather than subjects as such. Using a language she arrived at via the influences of fashion and Moroccan rugs, Bernhardt embraces the world’s stream of images, and her frequent locations of Brooklyn and Puerto Rico, with enough often-tropical warmth to make them her own. Here she shows a toucan, a butterfly and either a pair of owls or Darth Vader – the artful imprecision of her outlines and semi-accidental pooling of paint makes it hard to be sure what’s what. Either way, the paintings cohere around the liberating potential of flight - given Vader’s ability to levitate, something he has the self-confidence not to employ too frequently.
I don’t suppose Bernhardt, Bradford, Chandler and Wylie can fly, but that’s the sort of self-assured insouciance they bring to their art. No wonder girl is happy to meet girl.