As the climax to a season-long exhibition of British artist William Tillyer’s works at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery and to celebrate the 80th birthday of the artist, the exhibition Golden Striker – Esk Paintings introduces the new nine-metre long and nearly three metres high painting, The Golden Striker, above, stretching across the back wall of the gallery.
It’s a complex and sophisticated work created on five hanging panels of plastic mesh into which the paint is woven. Tillyer has long challenged the traditions of painting and invites the viewer to interact with it. The painting contains large areas of gold, sometimes pixellated with circles, squares and rectangles in a kind of landscape meets conceptualism. Accompanying it are a still life and 10 other works from his Esk series.
Tillyer’s work is included in many of the world’s most prestigious museums and there are 15 in the Tate collection, yet he has remained something of an outsider, eschewing the limelight. This year also marks 50 years since Bernard Jacobson began dealing in the artist’s work. He has just released a book he has written entitled William Tillyer: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. He describes Tillyer as “perhaps Britain’s greatest painter since Constable”. Co-incidentally, as Tillyer tells me in the following interview, it was a Constable painting, The Cornfield, that was an inspiration for Golden Striker.
The Constable painting was definitely the motivation for the painting, it’s a painting I’ve always known, particularly the study for the painting. The actual main painting is in the National Gallery but the study which is quite golden itself is in Birmingham and my painting has taken a turn over the last ten years where I tend to work backwards. I stand behind the canvas and generally push the paint through from the back, hence the gap between the painting and the wall. In the studio obviously it’s much deeper, so I can walk behind the canvas and physically push the paint through the mesh.
Why do you do this?
That pushing of the paint through a very rigid geometric mesh for me is kind of an analogy for life today – we being the paint and life being the mesh, as it were.
So the mesh determines the structure of the painting?
The mesh dictates the paint completely. So you have the mesh dictating the form of the heavy paint particularly, the impasto paint. Really you as the painter becomes the circus master as it were. It also embodies different ways of painting, panel one to panel two, they’re very different. One is very expressionistic. The trees in the Constable on the left are highly digitised so I use that pattern that we all see if we care to digitise images on our computers. Generally the movement is the left coming in to the centre and the right coming in to the centre and essentially the central panel is mostly gold. There’s a small element not only of Constable in there but perhaps of a Gustav Klimt painting who loved gold for a while in the body of his work. He also used pattern figuration.
When you push the paint through the mesh, you don’t know exactly how it’s going to turn out, are you referring to the idea that we don’t know how life is going to go?
Exactly. With such a technique, you have to take what you get, as it were. Sometimes there’s no way of correcting it, so it’s a kind of one-way street in terms of laying down paint. Whereas the technique on the first panel is not. I could change that a hundred times.
So you could have done panel 1 on a canvas then?
No, the important thing about this painting is that you can see through it. You’re involving yourself with the eye travelling through to the wall and certainly that happens in my studio where I have it hung out further and I’m right behind it…it’s important that the wall is involved and you are the other element as the viewer and your eye can pass through it as well to the wall. I think with a painting the viewer is part of that process – it’s the other element that is sometimes forgotten. In a way the whole thing doesn’t exist unless somebody is looking at it.
You have mentioned this eternal struggle between illusion and reality in your work.
Yes, these are two primary elements for me. The physical element is very important to me as well as the traditional thing of illusion for a painter where you pretend that green is a leaf, that kind of illusion. But the other element is of reality and the kind of concocted illusion we’re all aware of in painting on a flat surface. Very early on as a student, I was very keen to turn my painting away from a traditional canvas than simply laying an image on it. I fought for a long time to find a surface which was interactive as it were, to involve the viewer much more and I’ve made paintings that are much more physical than this one. Whereas a traditional canvas and stretchers are inert in a way, just something to put the painting on to. The eye doesn’t travel through it, you’re not involved physically.
Did you experiment a lot before you came up with the mesh?
The first time I really found an open mesh to work on was in 1978 which was metal, a builder’s mesh with very large apertures. I had to collage onto it first. I’ve only been finding different kind of meshes I could work on in the last 10 – 15 years. My whole attitude and process of painting is an exploratory thing really. It’s almost philosophical in a sense where you’re following thoughts and ideas and, hopefully, not in the end coming out with a product. So many artists now, once you’ve got a successful painting it becomes a product and you repeat it. There are artists around who are very successful at pushing out this product.
As you say, on the left side of the painting you have a close-up kind of pixelised image based on the trees in a Constable, then you have this spherical-like object which creates a sense of movement, especially towards the centre, what was the idea behind that?
Essentially I’m a landscape painter but I also like the opposite of that. I like architecture and interiors and so on, so there’s an architectural element here. I use cloud forms and I’ve reduced a cloud to a circular movement which in fact is the way clouds do work. So it’s rolling in from the right hand side, bringing in the golden light and then we’ve got a moody cloud-like form coming in from the left. They meet in the centre at the cornfield which comes forth with the harvest so to speak.
How do you see this painting interacting with your other paintings here. Do you see it as a dialogue?
Absolutely, yes. The same interests, the same problems pertain to all my paintings but I find different ways to express it. I’m using a bridge form instead of a cornfield. I choose the bridge in the landscape because it’s a piece of very hard geometry, a hard piece of architecture which contrasts violently with the organic growth of the landscape and it’s that contrast which can be violent. I don’t know if you’ve ever walked through a dark wood and then suddenly come upon a bridge and the arc of it, depending on the light coming through or not, is like a razor blade cutting through.
Is it again, this contrast between the traditional illusion of painting and reality?
Those interests I’ve had almost from being a student, trying to express those opposites. There’s a great deal of figuration here. There’s an architectural element, a physical element and a traditional element in that I’m looking back to a painting like the Constable but there are also images that are personally my own as well. I mean the second panel tends to be my handwriting I hope.
The Golden Striker – Esk Paintings are showing at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 28 Duke St, St James’s, London SW1Y 6AG until 24 November 2018. All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.