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Old Bitch Captivates Bushwick

Tillamook Cheddar, "Untitled (4 drawings)"

I went to Famous Accountants gallery last Saturday night to see Billy Miller’s new show, titled View of Outer Space from an Aquarium. 44 artists were featured in the exhibition; one of the artists was me.

Most artists exchange perfunctory greetings during opening receptions. However, Tillamook Cheddar is not like most artists. (Tillamook goes by “Tillie” for short.) As Tillie and I were introduced in her private trailer, she licked my fingers, sniffed my crotch, and sat in my lap. With a tiny bit of physical acknowledgement — no more than a gentle stroke of her exposed belly, she rolled onto her back and parted her legs, spread eagle.

To say the least, the bitch is friendly.

Baseballs, on display in cabinet of Tillie Mobile Unit

Tillie is not most artists for many reasons. For one, she is successful. She has had more than twenty solo exhibitions in Europe and United States alone. She has earned over $100,000 from sales of her work. The television media has invited Tillie to discuss her work on numerous occasions. She has appeared on Conan O’Brien, CBS News Sunday Morning, and Good Day New York, to name a few. She is a sensation.

Dog sculpture, on display in cabinet of Tillie Mobile Unit

Tillie has money, power, and fame — she even has her own jazz band. Like Buddha, the shit doesn’t faze her. Why? She’s a dog, a female Jack Russell Terrier, to be specific.

Characteristic of her breed, she is intense. At times, she exhibits excessive barking, willfulness and aggression. She will bite your hand off if you interrupt her at work. (I have seen the wounds.)

Tillie channels her high energy level and intelligence to create abstract drawings, which evoke the New York School as much as Minimalism. Although her drawings lack the poetry of Twombly, the fluid grace of Marden or the grandiosity of Pollock, they are not bad. Despite her Spartan mark-making process, the work exudes a primal vitality and ambiance.

Her drawings may resemble seismic waves on a scrap of paper, but they also look like centuries old graffiti found on the walls in Pompeii, Italy, or the obscene scrawls in the men’s room in the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

What did Tillie do last weekend?

Tillie at Famous Accountants

Tillie gave a drawing demonstration from the back of the Tillie Mobile Unit. (Tillie Mobile Unit, a converted 12-foot 1958 Mobile Scout camper trailer, is a pop up gallery, studio and performance space.) Tillie employed a color transfer technique. In preparation, Bowman Hastie — her assistant, assembled a touch-sensitive recording device by affixing pigment-coated vellum to a block of watercolor paper.

Tillie assaulted the prepared “canvas” for a period of ten minutes. Working on the outside surface, she applied pressure with teeth and claws in a bizarre ritual marked by dramatic shifts in tempo and intensity.

The performance left me conflicted. Why?

Tillie barks

As a dog lover, I worried for her health, especially her vocal chords. She barked and barked and barked. To engage the canvas, she seemed to channel something outside herself, a higher power or the Holy Spirit, perhaps. Her frantic herky-jerky movements reminded me of grand mal seizures, delirium tremens or the spasms of violence which brought down NY Hardcore matinees in the 1980s. Is this type of physical exertion too much for a dog her age?

Tillie seemed OK before and after the demonstration.

Tillie and completed drawing

As an artist, I felt I could learn a thing or two about drawing from Tillie. Action is key, not excessive thought or morbid reflection. Since childhood, I have been burdened by self-doubt, which has manifested itself in one dead painting after another. I’ve pushed more canvases into grave than I care to admit.

Jerry Saltz has referred to Tillie as a “sham.” I can see his point. After all, Tillie is a dog and not a person. Clearly, Bowman Hastie is the mastermind behind the project. So what?

Animals have entertained man and other animals for centuries. Is this remark too glib? Perhaps.

Tillie and family

Does Tillie have skill, talent, or intent–the usual markers of artistic merit? I have no idea. What I do know is many of her battered canvases are often quite beautiful. Beauty is enough, isn’t?

Tillie is part of View of Outer Space from an Aquarium show at Famous Accountants (1673 Gates Avenue, Bushwick, Brooklyn/Ridgewood, Queens), which continues until November 6.

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