William Tillyer: The Cadiz Caprices at Jacobson Howard Gallery
December 2, 2008 to January 17, 2009
33 East 68th Street
between Madison and Park avenues
New York City, 212 570 2362
There are few abstract painters at work today who manage to push both metaphor and literalism so hard, simultaneously, as William Tillyer. Something of a loner in the British scene – post-Palin, one avoids the term “maverick” but that might once have applied – he lives in Yorkshire and steers clear of most groupings or affiliations, beyond an association of 30 years with his dealer, Bernard Jacobson. A restless and audacious experimenter, he often pushes the physical boundaries between painting and sculpture with eccentric and highly activated supports, such as the meticulous carpentry of the wooden relief structures of his recession series of the early 1990s.
In a series of paintings begun during a 2006 residency in Cadiz, Spain and completed this year he has taken to painting on stainless steel mesh, a support that makes strikingly manifest the implicit woven grid of regular canvas. These meshes also heightened awareness that a painting is a crafted construction. The mesh protrudes from a wood panel that is itself painted in a graduated spectrum of solid color. The steel is untreated, retaining its metallic silver. The paint finds and binds itself to the metal weave, sometimes in sufficient a thickness as to constitute a solid, though still striated form, other times clinging only to the metal so that the negative space between the rods pokes through. Looking at such forms is an experience for the eye a bit like a child running his hand over railings, a sensation oddly at once legato and staccato – continuous and broken.
That in turn characterizes the whole relationship of paint to image in these odd pictures. His modus operandi might seem, from a technical description of it, an obnoxious gimmick and yet he evades that charge thanks to the brazen, fresh, thoughtful works he makes, and the way they force a rethink of painting’s semiotic, which in turn validates their structural audacity.
The paintings flush hot and cold in both emotional and chromatic temperature. Viva (2008) for instance is composed of half a dozen gestural arabesques, some arbitrary seeming ejaculations, others almost calligraphic ideograms. There are a stack of three pale blue marks, one large black loop with blue fringes and white polka dots along its trunk, and two red shapes. The way some black or very dark blue marbles the pale blue forms recalls the cartoon edges of Lichtenstein’s satires of Ab Ex brushstrokes, adding a note of sardonic cool to the otherwise passionate expressivity of Tillyer’s marks. Because of the nature of his work, all his gestures seem highly calculated, even the chance ones.
Espana (2007-08) [reproduced in the catalogue but not on show] combines two forms, a segment of a hard-edged green disk set within a band of yellow that completes its circle in shadowy form, and an exuberant splurge of purple and black, a kind of anchor cum fleur de lys shape that hurls splatterings of crimson in its wake. This form, appropriately for its title, recalls late Miró, while the hot jazzily brash colors are Hans Hoffman via his English acolyte, John Hoyland.
Most of the Cadiz Caprices shown in New York, as the series is titled, stick with abstract forms, whether geometric or freely gestural, but some deploy a trompe l’oeil illusionism of recognizable forms, such as Andalucian Split (2007-08) that has a house structure – more Monopoly board or dolls house than an actual habitat – tumbling through a haze of pinks, orange and blue; a vaguely vegetal, tree-like form inhabits a darker portion to the right. The dualism of this painting, light and dark, nature and nurture, organic and geometric, taps a recurring dichotomy of romanticism and classicism that frequently surfaces in Tillyer’s career.
The romantic side of that split sensibility has often manifested itself in the form of watercolors, the medium in which he is possibly best known thanks to the special enthusiasm these works aroused in two prominent (no longer with us) British critics, Norbert Lynton and Peter Fuller. A group of small watercolors, the “Cocktail Work” series, rounds off the show along with an intriguing print, The Scent of a Woman (2008) which, typically for this glutton for punishment when it comes to layeredness, is printed in two layers, the top one an elaborate and fragile fabric weave.