The Painter As Doubting Thomas

By John Yau

If we recognize that this (The Cadiz Caprices) is only part of William Tillyer's accomplishment, then it is fair to say that he is one of the very few contemporary artists, and certainly the only one working in England, to have innovatively expanded upon allover, non-relational abstraction. He has broken through the impasse many believed that all-over, non relational abstraction reached by making each element of a work--support, surface, readymade grid, layered space, palpable image, tonal monochromatic field, and swirling splash of paint--equal to all the others. In doing so, he defines painting as a self-contained system that requires him to isolate and reveal the different, necessary mechanisms it relies upon. Historically, paint has been regarded as a vehicle capable of transporting the observer to an elsewhere, but, for Tillyer, the point is to make the viewer conscious of what strings are being pulled, as well as what devices are being put into play.

Thus, rather than evoking an elsewhere or presenting an ocular present--both familiar and by now cliche strategies in painting---Tillyer finds ways to explore the gap between paint's intractability and its capacity for evoking spontaneity, and between its denotative and connotative roles. Two analogies occur to me. It's as if the artist is constructing an intricate clock, as well as unabashedly divulging how it works, because it is in that act of exposure that the real power of its existence comes to fruition. Aware that painting is being threatened with extinction, the artist has set out to collect and organize specimens--proof of its continuing, precarious existence--without regard to hierarchy; everything is important and worth saving. Of course, these analogies only afford us a limited insight into Tillyer's project, which is impossible to characterize, because he has no agenda other than discovering what freedom can be gained for the imagination in an age that has declared that painting is dead, and there is nothing left to discover.

The Cadiz Caprices
733x248x10.5 cm

By exposing painting as an artifice, a thing made up of things, Tillyer acknowledges that it has long been regarded as a form of deception, as well as a way of disclosing the nature of reality. We believe in it, even as we doubt it. This dualism lies at the heart of the artist's highly considered investigations. Philosophically speaking, he is a pragmatic materialist who recognizes that no matter what he can turn paint into; it is always still paint. However, instead of being deflated by this realization or focusing on the literal, and iterating that paint is paint, he has transformed it into an immensely liberating force, a cause for celebration.

In addition, rather than eschewing subject matter in favor of materials and methods, as so many other artists have done, he focuses on the different bonds the two can be made to achieve, and examines how each inflects the other. It is the manifestation of this bond across a wide spectrum of mediums and methods, ranging from etching and silkscreen to watercolor and hybrid combinations of paint and sculptural forms, which not only distinguishes Tillyer's project from his contemporaries, but also infuses his work with a variousness that we associate with younger postmodern artists, such as Sigmar Polke. Both, it should be pointed out, are inveterate travelers who have made large bodies of work in response to specific geographies and cultures.

For more than fifty years, Tillyer has rigorously investigated a wide range of mediums, including printmaking, watercolor, and painting, and their union with subject matter (still-life, landscape, architecture, abstraction) and materials (surface and supporting structure) in ways that have stayed fresh and evocative. He has embraced rigid structures (geometry, grids) and spontaneity (collage and gesture), as well as abstraction and the pictorial, and found ways to have them invade each other's territory. Always testing a hypothesis, Tillyer has never become programmatic in his approach, never favored one material, technique, or thought over another, and never focused on developing a style. And while he has treated his subject matter and methods as ready-mades, he has never done so in a way that is cynical or definitive.