Imants Tillers: Large Canvas - Art Collector

Issue 37, July - September 2006

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Dreams and works on a grand scale, according to art critic John McDonald.

When Imants Tillers and his family moved to Cooma nine years ago, it was both a tactical retreat from the hectic Sydney art scene and a change of focus that would gradually find expression in Tillers’s work. The flight out of Mosman wasn’t an act of misanthropy, but a civilized withdrawal to a small-to-medium-sized town. Many well-known artists had already made such relocations – John Olsen to a series of rural locations, Tim Storrier to Bathurst.

Blairgowrie, where Tillers lives, is an elegant colonial homestead built in the 1860s, with an extensive garden. This was one of the attractions of the property because Tillers’s wife, Jenny Slatyer, is an accomplished gardener. It was less predictable that Tillers himself – an artist with an international profile, a postmodernist with a taste for games, paradoxes and art theory – would respond so readily to this environment. Contemporary artists tend to be urban creatures that draw vital sustenance from the metropolis. This is where the museums and commercial galleries are found, where personal contacts are forged and maintained.

For an avant-gardist like Tillers, to go bush was to risk falling off the map of Australian art. Yet his reputation has not only survived but flourished. Several years ago Tillers was appointed a Trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), where he has played his part in the usual Archibald Prize controversies.

As this article goes to press Deborah Hart of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) is putting the finishing touches to a comprehensive survey exhibition of his work, to be held from 14 July – 16 October this year.

Tillers is also one of only six Australian artists included in the 2006 Sydney Biennale, and has completed a large new work for the occasion. At the age of 55 no mid-career crisis looms on the horizon.

On the contrary, middle-age seems to suit Tillers very well. I first met him more than 20 years ago, and he still displays the same mixture of personal shyness and underlying intellectual pride. To put it another way, while he seems nervous with people, Tillers is at home in the world of ideas, and almost cocksure in his tastes and opinions.

There is also a streak of mischievous humour that runs through his work, although what one critic perceives as wit may be the cue for another’s laborious theorising. Either way, Tillers’s personality is reflected in his paintings, which are complex and multi-layered. They are filled with erudite references, but nurture a latent Romanticism that keeps finding its way to the surface through the maze of allusions.

Tillers made his name with his appropriation works of the 1980s, in which images by other artists were copied and recombined into new paintings. A typical work was made up of a series of small canvasboards put together like tiles. These canvasboards, which are usually the province of Sunday painters, became a Tillers trademark. He has numbered every one since he began using them in 1982. At the time of writing he is rapidly approaching the 80,000 mark.

The practical advantage of the canvasboards is that each composition may be taken apart and stacked, or put into a box for easy transportation. Twenty years on, Tillers is still addicted to the boards, but his imagery has undergone a few significant changes.

“In the early eighties,” Tillers says, “I was interested in quotation and appropriation as processes of empowerment. It had quite a lot to do with the idea of Australian artists being seen as provincial and derivative. I wanted to use that aspect of Australian art and turn it into something original … I still use the processes of quotation and appropriation, but in a much more fragmented way. Nowadays I don’t want the end result to resemble anything except my own work.”

Tillers has abandoned the oil sticks that he used in the 1980s, and works almost exclusively with acrylics. This is because he has taken the central room of the house as a studio and has no opportunity to make a mess, but it also denotes a change of temperament. In his early works Tillers claims he was still learning to paint, and this led him to destroy many pieces. For instance, Pataphysical Man (1984), in the collection of the AGNSW, was painted over three or four superceded works.

Nowadays, Tillers is much more settled in his ways. He sits at a small table looking onto the garden, painting one canvasboard at a time. It is a slow, meditative process that allows the artist to think through each piece as it evolves. He also has time to think up new ideas for paintings, which he records on A4 sheets of paper. This idea stockpile already stands at more than 2,000 sheets.

An important part of his creative process is the choice of words to be laid over the painting using home-made stencils. A single work may contain quotations from several different sources, each adding some increment of meaning to the final result. He says these words are not meant to be decoded, but “to generate allusions and sensations in the viewer.” In this, he takes his lead from the Symbolist poet, Mallarmé, whose famous line: “A throw of the dice will never abolish chance,” is repeated like a mantra throughout the series of 100 medium-sized paintings that Tillers calls Nature speaks (1998-2006).

The landscape has been the great revelation of Tillers’s life in Cooma. Like Michael Taylor or Rosalie Gascoigne before him, he has been seduced by the dry, treeless slopes and plains of the Monaro, and has tried to reproduce its pale, silver-and-gold tonality in his recent work. “When you’re driving in and out of Cooma you’re traversing an uninhabited landscape for a lot of the time, and this makes you much more aware of landscape,” he says. “I’d like to engage with the landscape tradition, but in a unique way. I don’t want to be out there painting views, even if it might be fun.”

In a catalogue note for Land Beyond Goodbye, his 2005 exhibition at Sherman Galleries in Sydney, Tillers was more specific about his landscape ambitions. He wrote: “I look forward to finding a small niche in this evolving tradition for myself that is post-conceptual, postcolonial, postmodern and post-Aboriginal.”

But being post-everything is not easy, and it has taken Tillers years to find a way of integrating the landscape into his familiar themes of identity and diaspora. Born in Sydney to Latvian émigré parents, Tillers has always found himself torn between his native land, and the Baltic culture of his ancestors. This led to a preoccupation with the displacement of peoples and cultures from the old world to the new, and the transformations this engenders. The Chinese, the Jews and the Irish, are the world’s great diasporists, but in the years following the Second World War, Australia greeted boatloads of migrants from Greece, Italy, the Balkans and the Baltic states – including Tillers’s parents, who met at a Displaced Person’s camp in Germany.

Many of these New Australians went to work on the Snowy Mountains Scheme, so it is an irony that Tillers finds himself living on the doorstep of that great multicultural project. Cooma is the eastern gateway to the Snowy Mountains, and a place with four distinct seasons, including a bitterly cold winter.

Tillers appreciates the way Cooma’s climate echoes that of Europe, while remaining a part of the Australian bush. His garden at Blairgowrie is full of Displaced Plants, including Jacobean Lillies, daffodils and crocuses, which are finding their way into the paintings – not directly, but via the nature mysticism of the German Romantic painter, Philipp Otto Runge.

To look at Tillers’s work of the past decade included in the NGA survey, is to see him building an imaginary bridge between German Romantic art and contemporary Aboriginal painting. Within the span of that bridge there is room for his Latvian heritage, for the landscape of the Monaro, and an encyclopedic range of historical, artistic and literary references.

In one picture from the Nature speaks series Caspar David Friedrich’s famous wanderer looks down from a mountain top, while a stenciled inscription reads: “The Snowy River must flow again.” In another, we gaze from the air at the looming bulk of Uluru.

Tillers is one of the few Australian artists who dreams and works on a grand scale. In the early 1990s he completed four gigantic paintings as part of the Diaspora series, bringing together themes and ideas relating to the worldwide dispersion of peoples.

In 2006 he has completed two large paintings on the dispossession of Aboriginal people, and the problematic concept of Terra Nullius. Terra Incognita will be shown for the first time in the NGA survey, while Terra Negata will make its debut in the Sydney Biennale.

These works draw on David Horton’s Map of Aboriginal Australia, which divides the continent into 460 zones based on language and tribal groups. Two other key references are Jasper Johns’s painting of the United States, Map (1961), and Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Big Yam Dreaming (1995), from the National Gallery of Victoria. For Tillers the aim is to chart elective affinities: a linking of the local and the international, the history of art and that of indigenous Australia. Horton’s map represents a secret history that carves up the island into small nations that existed before European settlement. It allows Tillers the opportunity to present the familiar shape of his country in a manner that is both new and immeasurably old.

In an article for the NGA magazine, Artonview, Tillers describes these two new works as “a lament for the tragedies of all the lost tribes, languages and cultures of Australia but also, simultaneously, a kind of honour roll for the spectacular resurgence of their culture.” This is a passionate and political statement from an artist who once took his lead from the terminal sang-froid of Marcel Duchamp. It is apparent that the cool post-modernist of the 1980s has given way to a mature artist whose engagement with history has taken on a growing sense of urgency.

Imants Tillers one world / many visions is at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra from 14 July – 16 October 2006. His work is also included in the 2006 Sydney Biennale at the Museum of Contemporary Art until 27 August 2006.

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