Imants Tillers and watercolour

It’s Art Month in Sydney, and because I now live with an art student (yes, I’ve ditched the anxious Consultant and now cohabit with a cheerful Arty Type), we thought we’d better squeeze an art excursion into our busy schedule before the month was over. So yesterday we set out to hear Imants Tillers in conversation with Edmund Capon at the Roslyn Oxley Gallery.

We arrived nearly an hour early, so went for a stroll up the hill looking for diversion. We found it in spades, in the form of an exhibition at the Wagner Gallery of watercolours from the Australian, English and Scottish Watercolour Institutes. We were just in time for a talk and demonstration by Rob Candy, who it turns out leads tours to China for watercolourists (just $4925 for 16 days all included). Sadly we had to leave as he was beginning to pencil in his composition, but we were there long enough to get a delightful glimpse of the international siblinghood of watercolour devotees.

Back at the bottom of the hill, Tillers and Capon’s conversation had already started when we arrived. It was an animated forty minutes or so, ranging over Tillers’ reading (Heidegger, Thomas Bernhard, etc), artists he admired (De Chirico, and many Australian artists none of whom I’d heard of except Emily Kame Kngwarreye), and the work on display. Each of his works comprises a number of small abutting canvases – he doesn’t sign them, but every small canvas has a number on the back, now up to something like 80 000 I think he said. Tillers spoke very interestingly about his use words in his images – quoting Ezra Pound, Tomas Bernhardt, Virgil (though he didn’t mention him, he’s the source of ‘lacrimae rerum / tears of things’, prominent on the canvas next to me). One of the large works is about to be donated to the Art Gallery of NSW, to Capon’s manifest delight: it had been commissioned by a grazier who thought it might help in the protest movement against a wind farm proposed a particularly beautiful part of New South Wales – gifting it to the AGNSW was part of the plan. (Capon: ‘Wind farms are such ugly things.’ Tillers: ‘I think there’s definitely a place for them, but some landscapes should be declared part of the national heritage.’) They discussed the difference that Tillers’ move to Cooma had made to his art – he had discovered that outside the cities Australia has a huge vast landscape. (Capon said that the work had very little sense of place in it, which may be true of Tillers’ earlier work, but I would have thought was dead wrong about these images.) They talked about Appropriation, which apparently was big and shocking in the 80s, though now everyone does it. They wondered why it is so hard for Australian art to take up space in the international arena: Tillers made a bit of a splash in the US in the 80s, he said; Capon lamented that only Indigenous Australians got much of a look-in, not that he begrudged it them. (Tillers: But you have to hand it to Aboriginal artists. Aborigines are 1.5 percent of the population and they have produced this glorious work out of all proportion.)

After the talking we got to look at the work, which is wonderful. Penny said in the car on the way home, apparently a propos of nothing, ‘You don’t hear the word sublime much any more, do you?’ It probably does apply here. The big paintings that most moved me were Blossoming 17 (which quotes Virgil and Pound to great effect)and The Beech Forest. And there are a couple of smaller works that perform breathtaking appropriations from Emily Kame Kngwarreye. The images on the web don’t begin to give an idea of the complex layering, the interplay of text and image, text as image etc, but here’s one of the Emilys.

The text reads:
Around the border in blue: A THROW OF THE DICE / WILL NEVER  / ABOLISH / CHANCE
Bottom right in small yellow letters: FOR YEARS NOW
Scattered over the painting, in large, mostly yellow block letters: I CLOSE MY EYES / THE  PATH OF LUCK  / UTOPIA / ANMATYERRE / ALAWARRE / DELMORE DOWNS / ARRERNTE /ALICE SPRINGS / ENTRY / AS IF

If you get a chance to see this exhibition, whether you live with an art student or not, I recommend you take it. It closes on 1 April.

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