William Tillyer: 'Against Nature' and 'The Watering Place', MIMA, Middlesbrough and Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London.

by Jackie Wullschlager 
Financial Times
9 November / 10 November 2013

Tillyer evokes the man-made, industrialised world penetrating the natural one. 

No senior, serious British painter stands so provocatively outside art's mainstream as William Tillyer. Born in Middlesbrough, he has lived mostly in North Yorkshire, so MIMA's 75th birthday celebrates work rooted in the surrounding countryside. Yet the title 'Against Nature' is judicious: Tillyer is a landscape painter for our times because, using materials that often push painting towards sculpture, he evokes the man-made, industrialised world penetrating the natural one.

The theatrical 'Pleasure and Duty/Chambre Noir' encloses sumptuous saffron/orange abstract brushstrokes in a black Zebrano wood construction. In the eight-part 'Skydancer', painted acrylic clouds, dynamic, fluid, burst out of stainless steel mesh supports, in a monumental work crossing romantic vision with constructivist form. Tillyer plays up the allusions - is 'The Luminist meets the Constructivist', acrylic blots on nylon-strapped panels, self-parody? But sensuous response to nature is never undercut by his classicising geometric order. 

'The Flatford Chart II, Nine Puddles of Paint Nine Clouds' is a grid of gesso panels whose liquid blues, turquoises, greys, creams, suggest free-flowing fleeting clouds. Nothing holds still, either, and the tremulous blue-white forms in 'Helmsley Sky Studies' - though wire mesh and perforated panel supports are set to trap the simmering, vibrating natural forms. A sense of air, wind, light, water abstracted into colour and texture is particularly rich in watercolours: 'The Balcony', 'Westwood', 'Northern Arizona', the wonderful dark/bright 'North York Moors Falling Sky', with its impression of moisture seeping through the paper, pouring down to a black strip of land. 

This is the most British romantic sublime tradition in a post-abstract age of painterly doubt. Memories of Constable (especially the cloud studies), Turner, Samuel Palmer recur - underlined in Jacobson's exhibition featuring two major new series - 'The Watering Place', referencing a Rubens' painting that also inspired 'The Hay Wain', and 'Palmer', with works such as 'The Clouds Dropping Their Fatness' evoking cycles of evaporation, condensation, precipitation.

Click here for the article in the Financial Times.