At 10:00 in the morning of July 2, 2018, during a seven-hour layover in London, I went with the artist William Tillyer to see his new painting “The Golden Striker” (2018), which was installed for a day at his longtime gallery, Bernard Jacobson, on Duke Street, less than a stone’s throw away from the Royal Academy of Arts. The temporary installation was mounted because the painting was being filmed for a feature-length documentary on Tillyer, whom I consider to be one of most adventuresome painters of his generation.
Born in the industrial city of Middlesbrough in North Yorkshire in 1938, Tillyer is part of the generation that includes Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005), David Hockney (b.1937), and Margot Perryman (b.1938). As a student at Middlesbrough College of Art and later as a post-diplomate at the Slade School of Fine Arts, he began to immerse himself in the long, rich history of English landscape painting. In an email (dated July 10, 2018), he offered this succinct description of the two schools of thought governing his education: “There was [the] ‘dot and carry’ Euston Rd. School,” while the other involved using “lots of thick earth colours. I didn’t follow either.”
Tillyer’s early independence has been a hallmark of his entire career: he is one of the few English artists I can think of who is not associated with a group or a stylistic tendency. His work has never been included in an exhibition of English Pop or allied with what RB Kitaj called “The Human Clay,” and rightfully so. Often, isolation from the mainstream suggests that the artist is eccentric or perhaps hermetically personal, but this not the case with Tillyer, either. His subject is the English landscape of Yorkshire, where he was born and has lived and worked for much of his life. The challenge for Tillyer boils down to this: how does one make a landscape painting that recognizes the main currents of 20th-century art — the readymade and abstraction or, more recently the digital realm — without devolving into parody, pastiche, or irony? Is it possible to make a painting about painting and still be fresh?
One of the forces driving Tillyer’s work is his belief that the possibilities of light cannot be exhausted in landscape painting. His lifelong pursuit of the invisible forces animating the landscape has led him to establish intense dialogs with two very different masters of light, J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, along with a variety of English landscape artists, including Samuel Palmer and the central figures of the Norwich School, John Crome and John Sell Cotman. His knowledge of the artists working in the Yorkshire landscape, as well as the motifs, and locales they returned to, is unrivaled. I have happily listened to him talk about the myriad challenges presented by ordinary subjects, such as flowers in a vase or a stone footbridge traversing a river in the countryside.
A man of impeccable thoroughness, his interest in landscape extends all the way back to its origins: Albrecht Altdorfer, Adam Elsheimer, Joachim Patinir, and Pieter Breughel the Elder. Beyond their contributions to landscape, what seems to attract Tillyer to these particular painters is their intensely observed focus on opposites, such as trees clinging to rocks and golden sunlight bursting through the dark, tangled branches of a cool, clammy forest. The dynamics of change lie at the core of Tillyer’s paintings. His interest has never lay in the picturesque, which is perhaps why he is not better known.
The supports of the five-part painting featured at Bernard Jacobson are sheets of flexible acrylic mesh with quarter-inch square openings; paint can be applied to the front or pressed through the back, a process that the artist has self-deprecatingly compared to pushing cheese through a grater. As you look simultaneously at and through the surface, there is a sense that what you are seeing is about to dissolve or change. There is a tension between solidity and disintegration, between the boldly colored passages of impasto and the noticeably perforated field.
The open, porous surface infuses your experience with a low visual hum, which is accentuated by the presentation: the five sheets of acrylic mesh are attached to brackets extending out from the wall so that each hangs freely, like a tapestry. When I asked Tillyer about the painting’s title, he told me that it came from the jazz composition, “The Golden Striker” (1958), by the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Tillyer began applying paint to porous supports in the late 1970s. With this combination of what are essentially construction materials and paint, he brought together the readymade and a traditional medium – long considered divergent, incompatible tendencies in modern art – while reminding viewers that the depiction of an untainted, unoccupied landscape was a fiction: mankind has made inroads everywhere. Unless the landscape has been manicured, and therefore artificial, nothing is truly pristine. The use of porous supports also upended notions of beauty that have been integral to landscape painting for centuries, and which artists of an earlier generation, such as Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, challenged through the expressionistic use of thick, mud-colored paint.
Over the years, Tillyer’s support has varied from widely spaced, stiff architectural cladding to flexible mesh with small perforations. He has used a brush and pressed gobs of paint through the tiny holes, as well as splashing and pouring it. Ephemeral light and paint’s durable materiality are neither separated nor set against each other.
Another distinguishing feature of “The Golden Striker” is that it isn’t a picture of something, at least in the conventional sense. And yet, I would not call it an abstract landscape either. Rather, by using a radically different formal vocabulary in each panel, he refuses to reduce the subject to a single style. The painting contains different ways of presenting the landscape, from digital image to dispersed clouds of paint to optical veils to impasto.
The subject of “The Golden Striker” is a golden field, specifically the one seen in John Constable’s “The Cornfield” (1826), which Constable referred to as “The Drinking Boy,” after the prostrate child apparently drinking from a stream in the foreground. Constable’s vertical painting depicts a path that starts in the middle of the bottom edge and moves up painting’s surface, passing between copses of trees until it arrives at a field ripe with golden-colored grain. (Here, it should be noted that in England all grain is called “corn.”)
Our eye is gently pulled into the painting’s middle ground by the path. To the left, we see the boy, wearing a red vest and lying on the ground, as he gazes into or drinks from the stream running before him. A flock of sheep walks up the path toward the golden field, watched over by a dog.
Tillyer uses Constable’s painting as a starting point; it offers him a readymade subject, which he can examine and reassemble. On one level, “The Golden Striker” is the artist’s considered analysis of landscape painting in the 21st century. On another level, it is a celebration of light hitting a yellow field at a specific moment, with clouds passing overhead and a breeze moving across the field. At once ordinary and highly charged, this moment of stillness and metamorphosis is what Tillyer evokes in an abstract painting. His ability to construct this complex state without becoming picturesque is what makes “The Golden Striker” remarkable.
Tillyer’s multi-part painting expands Constable’s single vertical into five abutting rectangles, which can be associated with a panoramic view. However, rather than relying on illusionism, as if Cubism never happened, Tillyer invites viewers to see through the painting. In further contrast to Constable’s scrupulous spatial construction, he reverses the spatial position of the cornfield: it becomes a rectangle of thick golden paint protruding from the mesh’s surface— something tactile that is reaching toward us.
In dialog with Constable’s use of trees as framing devices, Tillyer poses his two outer acrylic mesh sheets in contrast to the inner three sheets. The image on Tillyer’s far left panel consists of rectangles in a variety of sizes and colors derived from a digital rendering of the left section of Constable’s painting. All the rectangles but one are on the same plane. The palette is predominately blues and greens, with some umber and red. The one exception to the spatial unity is the reddish-orange square partially superimposed on two similarly sized squares, one brownish-orange and the other green, forcing them to retreat behind it. According to the artist, the color is Gauguin Orange. The boy’s vest in “The Cornfield,” or perhaps the red poppies in a Constable study in a Birmingham museum, likely inspired Tillyer’s rectangle, but beyond these associations, I think what he was really after was the creation of a layered space.
Starting on the far left edge and running along the bottom of each of the five sections, a band of deep violet further implies that this is a landscape we are looking at, not an abstract painting where everything sits on a flat surface. His sensitivity to tonality is evident in the deep violet, which can briefly appear to be black before settling into itself. Tillyer orders especially ground pigments from the paint maker Wallace Seymour: Tillyer Turquoise T1, Tillyer Turquoise T2, Esk Green, and Tees Blue are some of the ones he uses.
In the far left panel of “The Golden Striker,” the palette shifts from blues, deep violets, and grays along the left edge to luminous greens on the right. The changes in color seem to register the passage of light and shadow in and across a changing landscape, whose central section is largely gold. Meanwhile, overlapping the two section on the right, a large circle spills a cascade of mossy green from a dark turquoise hole in its center while the surrounding form shifts tonally from turquoise to gold.
How do we read the vertical washes color that seem to have melded to the perforated surface? What about the layered golden rectangles in different viscosities — from evanescent to gloppy — that take up the middle section of the painting? So much is going on with the paint, color, and opticality in “The Golden Striker” that it feels nearly impossible to take it all in.
Why isn’t Tillyer better known in England and the larger art world? Is it because he has been too experimental in a country where entertainment is more prized than daring? Is it because he doesn’t try to be agreeable or enjoyable, or play the bad boy or grumpy elder? Is it because he isn’t a showman capable of delivering some interesting pitter-patter at the drop of cap? Whatever the reason, I think Tillyer’s work deserves far more recognition. It is the work that should count, not the artist’s mastery of social media.