The Painter As Doubting Thomas

By John Yau

For Tillyer, art is an instrument of inquiry, a way of examining the evidence, ranging from the elusive (clouds and light) to the concrete (buildings and enduring forms). Although never associated with Pop art, he has explored cliche subjects, such as the still-life, most often in the form of a vase of flowers,

The Red Cadmium
75.6 x56.5 cm

with the intention of both dissecting and reinvigorating it. Thus, in contrast to the Pop artists, both in England America, he didn't absorb his subject into a style, because he wasn't interested in establishing that kind of social guarantee with the viewer.

With Tillyer's work, we become conscious of ourselves as witnesses; we look at ourselves looking. We see the vase of flowers and we see the juxtaposition and framing of diagonal strokes and daubs. Placement and framing transform the abstract marks into the pictorial without denying their identity. In this regard, Tillyer shares something with figures as disparate as Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Ryman, and Bruce Conner, all of whom understand that their particular mediums are made of ineluctable facts and overlooked assumptions, all of which they are delighted to reveal. And it is the current of delight running through Tillyer's work that we should never overlook or take for granted, because it adds an unexpected wistfulness to his work.

The pressure of this wistfulness is most clearly felt in Tillyer's determination to simultaneously disclose and commemorate the rapport between the medium and the subject, and the mark (or image) and the support. His refusal to surrender anything to the prevailing orthodoxies regarding the relationship between means and ends is what distinguishes his work from those who have banished subject matter from their work, as well as from those who privilege subject matter over all else. In his most recently completed series of paintings--The Cadiz Caprices (2006-2008)--the focus of the rapport is between means (orchestrated swirls of paint) and support (stainless steel wire mesh and wooden support), as well as between the actions of the artist and those of figures found in Andalusian culture, such as the flamenco dancer and matador. The results are at once coolly analytical and deeply romantic, with neither holding the upper hand, suggesting that the core of the artist's project is not only wistfulness, but also irresolvable conflict. He is the doubter who still believes, and the believer who still doubts.

The focus of The Cadiz Caprices is Tillyer's experience of living for three months in 2006 in the old part of Cadiz, an Andalusian port city located at the end of a peninsula in southwestern Spain. Abstraction, gesture, and color became the denotative means by which the artist dealt with the landscape and his study of Andalusian culture, while the landscape and cultural signifiers (flamenco) became a way of testing abstraction's connotative capabilities. Dominated by a spectrum of blues ranging from midnight to turquoise, and yellows ranging from pale to umber, Tillyer's palette also includes hothouse reds, pinks, chartreuses, emeralds, and black and white. The artist's sensitivity to the colors of a place, as well as to its conditions of light and shadow should by now be well know, as they are elusive states that he has attuned himself to through his practice of watercolors. Pictorially, his evocation of Cadiz, and indeed the various cultures and sensibilities that collided, overlapped, and transformed each other and themselves in Andalusia, contains only a small handful of images, which are really geometric shapes (the side of a white house with a small black window, a fan, a Moorish keyhole, a fountain, polka dots) imbedded in the culture. Otherwise, the paintings are made up of abstract swirls and paint pours, and are resolutely abstract.

Tillyer started The Cadiz Caprices after he returned to Yorkshire, where he has lived and worked for many years. While he was in Cadiz, he worked primarily on watercolors, which were not done as studies for the paintings, though they certainly informed them. In all of The Cadiz Caprices, Tillyer bolted a stainless steel wire mesh (architectural cladding) to a wooden support that is a vertical rectangle. Thus, each painting consists of two surfaces, the two-dimensional support and the gridded mesh.

The support is painted either blue or umber, with the color shifting tonally from dark to light or vice versa. Thus, the blue often shifts from deep blue to turquoise; while the umber goes from the palest yellow to something close to brown. These shifts evoke the passage of light and shadow, while the blue suggests sky and sea, and the umber evokes Spain's vernacular architecture. And yet there is nothing overtly pictorial about these panels; they are also monochromatic panels inflected by subtle tonal shifts. In this sense, it is we who turn the paint into something, and make it into a signifier.

The Cadiz Caprices

In some of the paintings, Tillyer painted the mesh the same (or nearly the same) color as the ground, effectively making it disappear. In others, he painted the mesh (or a vertical column of it) a distinct color, such as black. Consequently, different kinds of interactions take place between the mesh and the ground, and this is further influenced by the application of acrylic paint. For on the mesh, which is initially placed on the floor, Tillyer makes splashes of viscous acrylic, which often consists of two colors. The interaction of the two colors within the swirl adds a dynamic element; it's as if the swirl is undergoing change. The paint forms a shape, often an open knot-like swirl or, as in Espana, a large cascade spanning nearly the entire height of the mesh. In Espana, the black and violet cascade against the turquoise ground seems to obliquely refer to the seacoast, and the sprays of waves hitting the rocks, while the green and yellow fan-like shape that overlaps part of the splashed paint also visually echoes it, making an unlikely rhyme. (Are these his caprices?) Made of viscous acrylic, the swirls, cascades, and fan-like shapes cling to the wire mesh, as well as well as spread across the spaces between the mesh, like a thin crust of lava. It is literally paint being itself and becoming something else, which is open-ended and invites the viewer's participation, not as a decoder, but as an active viewer. Each swirl and cascade is a distinctly colored, ragged-edged shape and a thing unto itself floating above (in front of) the blue or umber ground; it feels caught between the mesh, on which it is literally caught, and the air which surrounds it.