The Mulgrave Tensile Wire Works

By John Yau

Time has proven William Tillyer to be the most adventuresome painter of his generation. This is no small achievement. In a country known for its masters of landscape and light, and artists such as J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, and Samuel Palmer, Tillyer has extended that glorious tradition into new territory.

Tillyer has attained this by working on different supports, which enabled him to apply paint by various, unconventional means, as well as by bringing together abstraction and figuration in unlikely ways. Rather than accepting and restating the seductive, picturesque current running through landscape painting, he has devoted himself to expanding its limits. This has meant that he has always followed his own trajectory, as well as recognized what Turner recognized in Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) and Georges Seurat, grasped in Bathers at Asnières (1884): technology has not only marked nature but it has become inseparable from it.

In the late 1970s, when many observers still believed painting was dead or, at the very least, exhausted and used-up, Tillyer began applying paint to open, porous surfaces. Over the years, the supports he has worked have varied from widely spaced, stiff architectural cladding to flexible mesh with small perforations. He has splashed and poured paint onto the support, as well as used a brush or pressed gobs of it through the tiny holes. By making the industrial fabricated mesh–or what the artist calls “hardware”–indivisible from the paint, he reminds us that we must take care of our environment rather than regard it solely as something to plunder. If this makes Tillyer sound preachy in his work, he isn’t.

The pleasure that Tillyer gets from painting–something we see in the work of Turner and Constable–is evident in the way be brings everything together: the wires used to hold the overlapping rectangular sheets of wire and steel mesh; the way each sheet has been painted; the changing materiality and tonality of the paint. He is both meticulous and improvisational. His sense of color and tone is unrivaled. We know that we are looking at a partly painted, metal object, a landscape painting, and a geometric abstraction. No other contemporary artist can make an essentially unclassifiable work, which brings together these incommensurable possibilities.

At the same time, in contrast to his historic predecessors, Tillyer never forgets that what he is making is a painting, a painted thing rather than a window offering us a view of a pristine world. We see the wall on which the open frames of Small Green Field with Landscape and The Cornfield (both 2020), with their carefully suspended sheets of painted mesh, are mounted. We become conscious of their bulk and precision, their endurance and fragility.

Landscape painting can transport the viewer to another world, to another time and place. Tillyer refuses to continue this familiar trope for reasons that strike me as both aesthetic and ethical. In their use of metal mesh, wire, and paint, the artist reminds us that we too are made of changeable material, and that we too are vulnerable.