Review of William Tillyer: Against Nature at mima and The Tyranny of The Picture Plane and other pressure tools at Platform-A Gallery, Middlesbrough

The road to Middlesbrough is a long one unless you live in the vicinity, but it is the existence of a miracle of architecture, namely mima (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art) designed by Erick van Egeraat Associated Architects, that truly makes the long trip worthwhile. As I arrive at mima to see William Tillyer: Against Nature, the highly anticipated retrospective, I look up and see the clouds dispersed in the shape of a tree; the trunk, the branches and the leaves all in cloud form. Clouds –appearing in Tillyer’s work time and time over again in different mediums (one of Tillyer’s most notable works regarding clouds is possibly the Flatford Chart II Nine Puddles of Paint Nine Clouds, 2010 as well as his Helmsley Sky Studies, 2010) – seem to salute the opening of this retrospective exhibition celebrating the 75th birthday of the Middlesbrough-born international artist, William Tillyer. Inside mima, all the formal gallery spaces of the museum have been organised to display the pioneering artist’s works: watercolours, installations, mixed media, oils, acrylics, ceramics, and glassworks adorn almost every square metre of the vast display spaces sensitively curated by James Beighton.

A visual poem dedicated to William Tillyer, the exhibition brings together the tangible and intangible aspects of his work carrying the earth, the seas, the skies, and thousands of living beings to his chosen mediums through thoroughly-filtered, refined, and intricate thought processes. There are a wide range of inspirations and influences that result in sudden intervals of questioning the subject matter and taking different perspectives upon each look at the work. The earliest work representing Tillyer’s artistic vision included in the rich display is Beach and Sea, Seaton Carew (1956) painted at the fresh age of 18 while he was a student at Middlesbrough College of Art. John Constable’s influence can easily be seen in this early Tillyer but what is surprising is that even though throughout the past five decades Tillyer’s art pushed the bounds of abstraction and the naivety reflected in works such as Pear and Cloud (1958) diminished. His unique perspective and the essence of his work still continue to resonate that same Tillyer touch that is so easily identifiable. The change in Tillyer’s art constitutes a more natural progression of his life and experiences; in his roots he is still deriving his inspiration from interconnectivity between land and man. As he transcribes the language and feeling of one work to several different mediums the changes are only superficial; the underlying emotions are unchanged. An example of this is A Furnished Landscape- High Force (1974), a screenprint of modest dimensions (36×27 inches). Commissioned by mima and inspired by Teesside’s High Force waterfall, this work from 1974 was adapted into a gargantuan digitally printed manipulated watercolour that hangs against a deep forest green wall.

Tillyer also continued drawing connections between art history and his creations in later works. Taking inspiration from artists such as John Constable, Samuel Palmer and John Sell Cotman, Tillyer carried landscape painting into a completely new realm. Examples of this include The Bridge Paintings (1982-83). Stretched medium-sized canvases were cut carefully, revealing the canvas frame in certain places. In the negative spaces, Tillyer depicted nature in stark tones of green to symbolise the bareness and wildness of earth without human intervention. Moving onto the 1990s, a work of five canvases constructed as a panel on two levels, four in the background and one in the fore, Return to Byzantium (1996) is one of the many masterpieces Tillyer has produced to date. Bearing an almost mosaic-like quality the abstract work is reminiscent of the blue waters of Byzantium which was later to become Constantinople and then Istanbul. In a world history of change and progress, one of the most prominent features of this predominantly blue work is that it reveals the many layers of the culture in these lands. As Russian-dolls fit snuggly into one another, these five canvases reveal the artist’s perception of all that is Byzantine.

Painted on eight rectangular stainless steel mesh panels, Skydancer (2008) is a momentous work of great force displayed with the blown glass works titled Sunderland Sky (2013), produced in collaboration with glass blowers at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland in shades of blue and green; two of Tillyer’s recurring colours. If Skydancer is a work of the picture plane, their metamorphosed version into glass can only be imagined as the Sunderland Sky. Focused on representing a specific idea through many different mediums, these two works complement each other in a uniquely Tillyer way. Another work that grabs the attention is Nice I (2011) reminiscent of the fire whirls that occur when intense heat and turbulent wind conditions combine to form whirling eddies of air. Captivated by the imagery of this powerful work, I found myself unable to turn away.

Middlesbrough is also hosting another exhibition displaying Tillyer’s most recent sculptural installations titled The Tyranny of the Picture Plane and other pressure tools at the Platform-A Gallery (situated on Platform A of the Middlesbrough train station) and will be open until 5 December. Within the context of this small yet effective exhibition Tillyer approaches the hegemony of the picture plane upon painting. With blue, purple and turquoise constructional grids depicting the earth, the sky and the seas, and masses of acrylic paint squeezed in through the holes expressing the essence of the influence of man upon nature, Tillyer attains a level of abstraction versus reality unmatched by any artist of his generation. Tillyer is a master at wedding order and chaos, beauty and its dissolution, the transformation of nature in the hands of men into venomous existence through colour, form and multi-dimensionality.

Hande Eagle

William Tillyer: Against Nature, 4 October until 9 February, mima, Centre Square, Middlesbrough, TS1 2AZ.


1. William Tillyer, Skydancer 2008. Image courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery
2. William Tillyer, Return to Byzantium, 1996. Courtesy of mim.
3. William Tillyer, The Tyranny of The Picture Plane and Other Pressure Tools 1, 2013. Courtesy Platform-A Gallery