Peter Wylie has had some success painting examples of Brutalist architecture over the last 10-15 years. As is well known, Brutalism doesn’t have a good press, being associated with run-down high rise flats, vandalism, muggings, broken down urine infected lifts, graffiti, draughty walk ways etc. A utopian idea, all the rage in the post war years for replacing C19th slums and bomb damaged estates.
This witnessed the redevelopment of the back to back industrial workers housing (L.S Lowry imagery) in Sheffield in the late 50’s and it’s replacement by 13 storey high rises and the now celebrated Park Hill Estate above the station. These early examples of social housing, inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unités d’Habitation flats in Marseilles and Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings in America were to set the tone for much Council building throughout the industrial cities of Britain.
The idea, admirable on paper, never really caught on for two reasons. Unlike Continental Europe and much of urban America (think Manhattan) the British have never been apartment dwellers - they like their house (castle) and bit of grass. The early Roman developer Crassus was building high rises in Rome at the height of its fame and if one thinks of Paris, it is full of 10-12 storey, mansard roofed, apartment blocks. Poor maintenance, no concierge system (mandatory on the Continent), too thin dividing walls, difficulties with rent payments, inappropriate allocations, etc, put enormous strain on local resources.
All this aside, Wylie does see an austere beauty in these structures. In many ways they are the equivalent of the Georgian terraces built for workers and emerging middle classes in the late C18 and C19th centuries. neo-classical, stressing the vertical and at least, in intention, human. The difference today being the verticality of the buildings, the Georgians built flat, we build up!
Now of course many of the more distinguished buildings are being preserved and the flats sold off to private owners, the rest are being re-clad, destroying the original look’ or being blown-up to make way for the latest version. Floor to ceiling glass, brick instead of concrete.
But Wylie responds to the drama of Brutalism, perhaps in the way that Victorian painters responded to the drama of the Alps or the Grand Tour.
Living in a city, tower blocks have a cliff-face dynamic that can’t be avoided by anyone with any sense of visual awareness. Due to their notoriety already referred to, some might say he taking advantage of other people’s misery to which I would imagine he’d respond that artists are simply witnesses, no comment is implied, the paintings are deliberately neutral in that respect, was Hogarth being judgemental making his engravings of Gin Lane? Like the American photorealists of the 70’s, he works from photographs he has taken, thereby, determining the design’ of the painting from the start. Any painter will know though, that along the way much can happen that might well develop the work into something very different.
The only reservation or perhaps question I have is that in many instances he has worked from famous, perhaps notorious, well known buildings, the danger being that the reason for painting might be misinterpreted. Too much, Art about Art. He himself pointed out the same might be said about paintings of famous or beautiful people. Does it matter? Not really, providing the painting is profound enough. There are many good and bad paintings of famous subjects, what matters is the execution. The standard of observation and painting and by that I don’t necessarily mean detailed skilfulness, an urgent expressionism might often be the most accurate way to expressing a true response. In fact it is probably more difficult to paint a convincing picture of a celebrated subject than an anonymous one which is (virgin?) for the painter and viewer. For me his paintings are touching statements about a difficult subject and he succeeds in finding beauty where others might think it doesn’t exist. Surely the first duty of any artist.