William Tillyer: Painting's Corpus, an Anatomy Lesson

By Saul Ostrow


In choreographing his cast of opposing concepts - Tillyer draws on both traditional and unconventional skills as well as his innate ability to construct visual narratives that offer the viewer a way to sort through the resulting melange of visual effects, and historical references. To order the diverse elements of abstract painting; gestural process (expressionism), monochrome (reductivist) and the readymade (the industrial aesthetic) so they may interact without loosing their identity. This investigation into painting's alternative means, begins in the late, when Tillyer started to make relief paintings. These were neo-plastic in character, consisting of panels with raised linear geometric patterns painted in a flat monochromatic color. Following on these works Tillyer abandons relief and sets out to explore the grid as image in traditional format. In these works from the early 70s he wrestles with issues concerning pictorial composition and painterly process.

By the end of 70s, Tillyer returns to his initial intuition concerning the materiality of image and form. These he takes up again in the Mesh Works. In these pieces of painted image of grids and brush marks are collaged onto and behind an open metal grid, or are presented on a shelf made of wire mesh as if they were the elements of a still life. These were followed in the 80s, by expressionist paintings, which Tillyer would cut away sections of revealing the underlying stretcher bars. Tillyer then turns to investigating mark making, painterly process, and the physical and optical space by combining elements of gestural, and geometric abstract painting. Again, in the late 90s, Tillyer returns to the issue of support and surface that had pre-occupied him in the 70s, taking them to their logical extreme in the Fluxon series. In these works, which come closest to being sculpture, Tillyer exaggerates the relation between support and painterly process by fluidly applying paint to massive assemblages of three-dimensional boxes and furniture-like forms. These assemblages were held together with packing bands.

Unsurprisingly, after the Fluxon series, Tillyer returns to the issue of painting as a two-dimensional image - yet with the Letter Box Paintings begun in 200? In these works he uses a wire mesh characterized by horizontals crossed by verticals consisting of three wires ganged together as his primary support. Rather than collaging discreet painted fragments onto the mesh, Tillyer now pours out layers of color filling the grid of the mesh. Onto the resulting multi-colored field Tillyer paints rudimentary cubes, consisting of 3 hard edged diamond shaped planes. These cubes are replete with cast shadows and shading, and appear as if they were emerging from or dissolving into the color-field or as if they were letters being put into the slit in a mailbox. On occasion the cubes are either replaced with, or accompanied by an arching fan shape described by concentric bands of color. The resulting is then mounted so that it floats before a conventionally stretched canvas. It is hard not to think of this combination of elements to be anything other than a compact history of abstract painting from analytic cubism to color-field painting.

The Letter Box series, led directly to the Cadiz Caprices, which employ gestural pours of paint rather than fields of color and geometric forms. Consequently, the raw and the cooked -materiality and process take the form of gestural pours of paint and the stainless steel mesh used to capture and support them. Flung or poured these gestural marks neither mimics the brush mark or the calligraphy with its promise of the autographic. They are instead congealed moments - their striations and streaks traces of the process of their making. They stand in diametric opposition to the painterly gestures of AbEx indicating that another type of criteria is at play. Consequently, though they may be perceived of as agitated, they are not emotive marking presence but not attitude.

The mesh within the Cadiz Caprices forms a matrix that the paint exists both on and between its supports. This relation between image and form is visually reiterated - by the fact that the mesh with its trapped forms is mounted in front of a conventionally stretched rectangular canvas painted. This canvass with its graduated monochromatic field is used to simultaneously frame the mesh grid, while grounding the gestural pours. By allowing the forms to exceeds the limits of its wire mesh support they are made to appear as if they are suspended in mid -air. In turn these figures seemingly float forming a secondary imagery of cast shadows cast. In this manner Tillyer re-opens the issue of making issue of painting's object hood by asserting paint's object-ness by means beyond that of process. Ironically, in paintings such as Isidoro, the paint object itself is used as a surface upon which Tillyer imposes a pattern of dots.