Galleries - March 2010

From January through to June, in what must be an unprecedented act of confidence and critical gen- erosity, Bernard Jacobson is devoting no less than four con- secutive exhibitions to a single artist, William Tillyer, who this year celebrates forty years of unbroken collaboration with the gallerist- publisher. The brilliant polymath painter, printmaker, watercolourist and construction maker will be showing consecutively prints, a retrospect of paintings and cons- tructions, watercolours, and a new series of previously unseen paint- ings. These latter, devoted to skies, clouds, weathers, and glimpsed landscapes beneath them, have a marvellous clarity and directness. They reflect Tillyer's obsessive and persistent preoccupation with those ever-present, ever-changing phenomenal conjunctions of light, air, atmospheric dust and vapor- ised water above the earth on which we stand, to watch, and wonder at, every day of our lives. Tillyer’s persistent intellectual- ism (always underplayed in his utterance) in no way precludes a deeply passionate response to the elements of land and sky that are his constant subject: he is pre- eminently an artist in whom thought and feeling are one, whose love of what he finds in the visible world is tempered at the deepest levels of response by an awareness of the complexities of perception. This is what is most original (and difficult) about Tillyer’s approach to his perennial subject: ‘nature’ is not simply something seen and appreciated, waiting to be portrayed and cele- brated in naturalistic or abstract terms, although Tillyer’s work, combining both modes, certainly does those things. Rather, ‘land- scape’ is itself a function of the senses and the mind of the experiencing subject, it must be invented each time afresh, and his art must in some way or other provoke awareness of this, implicating the viewer in the act of imagining. Behind this central impulse in Tillyer’s art in all media there is a philosophical coherence and a moral urgency. The world in all its wayward and apparently chaotic energy and violent beauty is brought into comprehensible ex- istence by the repeatedly heroic human act of construction, the making of a language, the naming of parts, the imposition of a con- ceptual order and the thrilling reconciliation of the subjective and the objective vision. It is the task of artists to lead the way to this harmony of the human being on earth with the ineluctable otherness of nature. Artistic vision is the beginning of science. Tillyer has always worked with a consciousness of this artistic- philosophical responsibility. And he seized very early on the grid as a visual device by which to pro- pose and create the idea of order. Tillyer has, in fact, more often favoured the lattice or trellis, a diagonal complication of the orthogonal modernist grid, with disconcertingly homely associ- ations of which he is well aware. (The garden is, of course, a para- digm of what Tillyer has always described as ‘the furnished land- scape’: nature shaped and in- habited by the geometric struc- tures of human habitation and working, from field patterns to house and barn to modern architecture in country settings.) Tillyer’s mesh is, then, a visual version of what William Whewell (who invented the term scientist ) described as the ‘mask of theory over the whole face of nature’, by which he meant that scientific reality, like artistic truth, is the fruit of imaginative and intuitive con- ception. Tillyer’s miraculous water- colours, it must be added, are an essential component of his crea- tive project. No artist has been more aware of the con-ceptual implications of the con- straining geometric frame against the organic flourish and arab-esque, the watery flow and atmospheric light of the painting it contains. The rectangle is not a window but a structure integral to the work. WILLIAM tillyer the language of landscape M el Gooding W illiam Tillyer ‘Meander’, 1966, oil on panel construction, 72 x 90 inches ‘Through painting you can tackle the world.’ William Tillyer