William Tillyer at Bernard Jacobson Gallery – An Abstract Zeitgeist?

17th January 2018

If one runs a cursory Google Images search on English artist William Tillyer, the page loads awash with sweeping, abstract rainbow palettes in predominantly watercolour materials. And so, what should the non-expert, the merely curious viewer, expect from the first of no less than FIVE exhibitions that Bernard Jacobson Gallery will present on Tillyer throughout 2018?
Well, the first monumental, geometric, abstract work that greets visitors upon entering the gallery (Is it a sculpture? Is it an installation? Is it trussed up personalised packaging?) seems like a more complex wake up call from what, perhaps, one could have expected at an exhibition on technical traditionalism in watercolour.

William Tillyer (b.1938), Relentless 7, 2016, Acrylic on Aluminium, H100 x W100 cm / H39.4 x W39.4 in. Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London.

Turning 80 this year, Tillyer, who studied at Middlesbrough College of Art and later the Slade School of Fine Art, has amassed a naturally large body of work throughout his lifetime. His latest show Radical Vision is a selection – and celebration – of just over twenty works, which are surprisingly diverse and yet, to the focussed eye, share a continuity of vision and present a startlingly coherent evolution between 1956 right up until 2016.

William Tillyer (b.1938), Peninsula, 1981, Oil on string and canvas, 96.85 x 72.83 inches / 246 x 185 cm. Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London.

Earlier works, such as Fifteen Drawer Pulls (1967) are utterly devoid of any hint of Google Images’s kaleidoscopic offering. One detects both an affinity with the everyday and simultaneously its elevation to the sublime. The rather pregnant and provocative triangle to the centre of the daring and suggestive triptych Falling Pinnacle (1961) could well represent a minimally abstract sacred feminine – should one decide to make the connection.

William Tillyer (b.1938), Falling Pinnacle , 1961, Oil on panel with pencil on gesso ground 62 x 81 cm. (24 x 32 ins) Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London.

Radical Vision also exhibits several monumental polychromatic acrylics, that, when one looks closely, have been oozed through a grid – a symbol that, for Tillyer, is somewhat a signature. The grid is a deep-rooted concept in classical artistic training. It represents perspective and even a ‘divine proportion.’ Tillyer lays this bare, and as a technical device, pulls it wide open for all to see though his abstracted perspective in his giant polychromes. These polychromes are paired with works comprising industrial wire racks each overlaid and inlaid with thickly painted coloured panels; opening up a process of working in an artwork of its own right. The blending of media is what creates coherence within Tillyer’s oeuvre. Where we see a grid in the everyday drawer pulls, we also see it squashed against thick paint, or shadowed against the bare wall behind a metal lattice.

William Tillyer (b.1938), Meander, 1966, Timber mouldings, black japaning on panel 40 x 40 inches / 101.6 x 101.6 cm. Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London.

Despite influences from Tillyer's native Yorkshire being present everywhere in works such as Beach and Sea, Seaton Carew (1956) and the bridge in Relentless 7 (2016), his works can easily accessed emotionally by the viewer.

William Tillyer (b.1938), Eight Clouds, 1966, Glass case, felt and mirror glass with Flanborough pebbles 36 x 22 x 17 inches / 91.4 x 55.9 x 43.2 cm. Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London.

The notions of continuity and innovation, and connections and intersections run boldly through Radical Vision – perhaps only describable when likened to a Zeitgeist. The works are easy to like, but perhaps slightly more difficult to understand. You’d be forgiven if you’re waking up to 2018 feeling socially empowered towards a greater need for diversity in the art world, and are (hopefully) exploring the art scene outside of Mayfair galleries. There are younger, less successful artists exhibiting who present work just as profound and just as enjoyable as Tillyer’s. But just go and see it. It’s good. It’s beautiful. It’s thought provoking, and it presents a certain honesty and sincerity both calming, inspiring and challenging.
Words by Holland Drury
William Tillyer; Radical Vision, Works 1956-2017 at Bernard Jacobson Gallery until 3rd February 2018

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