Lives and works in Cooma, New South Wales
Imants Tillers since the late 70’s has critiqued not only the art of the late 20th century Australian art but also international centres of the Western world. No discussion on postmodernism or appropriation can take place in Australia without reference to this significant artist.
Imants Tillers is the child of Latvian refugees who arrived in Australia in 1949, exiled from their homeland by war and political turmoil, part of the great post-war European diaspora. It is this experience of being displaced to a new land, isolated from cultural and personal histories, which has become a central component of Tillers’ work.
While he was born in Australia, in 1950, his first language was Latvian and therefore the questions he asks in his work are informed by the diasporic experience and longing—about place, relationships to the past and the self, of locality and identity. Together, the more than 100,000 canvasboards in Tillers’ paintings form a long poem with many verses. They are informed, as Tillers said of Colin McCahon, by “a constant tension between the search for meaning, the desire for transcendence and a pervasive, immovable scepticism.”
His landscapes are made up of fragments of borrowed images and of language—marks, words, phrases and names used to create the country, to give it form and place oneself within it. Using simple means—hundreds of small canvasboards combined into huge gridded paintings—they exist as part of a long, continuing series, or like a poem in many, fragmented verses.
Tillers’ works map a space of influence, combining, quoting and knitting together words, images and ideas, ghosts and other associations, with source material contributing fragments to his continuing, multi-part epic. The connections he draws together are at once his own and connections to a wider dialogue.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF DOUBT
PROJECT NOTES -
The doubting and the doubting nothing.
Torn between skepticism and blind faith, I continue to pursue my concept of Metafisica Australe.
This exhibition is the next installment of a new body of work which attempts to find common ground between contemporary Western Desert painting and the metaphysical paintings of the 20th century Italian master, Giorgio de Chirico. It continues the premise of the exhibition 'Dreamings: Aboriginal art meets De Chirico' curated by Ian McLean and Erica Izett at the Carlo Bilotti Museum in Rome in 2014, in which seven of my works (from 1986 to 2014) formed a kind of bridge between the 20 works by Giorgio de Chirico which are on permanent display in the museum and the exhibition of Western Desert paintings from the Sordello Missana Collection from Antibes, France.
- Imants Tillers
One of Australia’s most internationally successful contemporary artists, Imants Tillers has exhibited widely since the late 1960s, and has represented Australia at important international exhibitions, such as the Sao Paulo Bienal in 1975, Documenta 7 in 1982, and the 42nd Venice Biennale in 1986, and won the Grand Prize at the Osaka Painting Triennial in Japan in 1993. In 2006 was the subject of a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. He was included in the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy in London (2013).
Major solo surveys of Tillers’ work include Imants Tillers: works 1978 – 1988 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1988); Imants Tillers: 19301, at the National Art Gallery, Wellington (1989); Diaspora, National Art Museum, Riga, Latvia (1993); Diaspora in Context at the Pori Art Museum, Pori in Finland (1995); Towards Infinity: Works by Imants Tillers, Museum of Contemporary Art (MARCO) in Monterrey, Mexico (1999); Imants Tillers: one world many visions, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2006); The Long Poem, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth (2009) and Dreamings: Aboriginal Australia art meets de Chirico, Carlo Bilotti Museum, Rome (2014).
THE PHILOSOPHERS WALK
ARTIST STATEMENT -
Since 1980, Tillers has composed his large grid paintings using small individual canvas boards and has sequentially numbered each one therefore connecting the individual parts to make the greater whole.
His imagery, both historic and contemporary, engages the notion that provincial culture derives its influences from imports of dominant cultures and concepts of displacement, both geological and spiritual. Taking inspiration from the late Albert Namatjira who, through his watercolours of Central Australia, found a way to repair some of the psychic and spiritual damage – what Kevin Gilbert has called ‘a rape of the soul’ – long endured by Aboriginal Australia.
In the 1970’s the Aboriginal activist and writer, Kevin Gilbert wrote:
It is my thesis that Aboriginal Australia underwent a rape of the soul so profound that the blight continues in the minds of most blacks today. It is this psychological blight, more than anything else, that causes the conditions that we see on reserves and missions. And it is repeated down the generations.
The artist Albert Namatjira (1902 – 1959), I feel, found a way to repair some of this psychic and spiritual damage. His body of work – an art of healing – is the antecedent to the Papunya Tula art movement which arose like a phoenix from the despair of the desert displacement camps at Papunya in the early 1970’s, paving the way for the spectacular and unexpected blossoming of contemporary Aboriginal art which now occupies the mainstream of Australian art.
ALL HAIL NAMATJIRA!
– Imants Tillers, 31 January 2014
Kevin Gilbert quoted in Robyn Davidson, “Tracks” (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), (first published 1980), p46.
ARTIST NOTES -
This exhibition is a kind of homage to the work of one of Australia’s great artists, Fred Williams. In the 1970’s as a young artist I thought that Fred Williams had painted the definitive, quintessential Australian landscape. At that time, neither I nor any of my artistic peers wanted to engage with the Australian landscape tradition – we found it conservative and stifling and besides, conceptual art offered a compelling alternative. However, since the 1980’s, Aboriginal artists have spectacularly reclaimed and reinterpreted this landscape tradition, inadvertently bestowing a new relevance on Williams’ work. In his distinctive abstractions of the Australian bush, which he typically organises into a somewhat chaotic pattern of hieroglyphs, we recognise some kind of arcane language (an “ur-text”) and we see that nature, indeed, “speaks” but not in a language we can comprehend.
In recent years I have been experimenting with Williams’ imagery in my own work – of particular interest to me now is his last, somewhat maligned, Pilbara Series 1979-1981. A number of works in my exhibition, such as Melancholy Landscape VII 2011 and Thou Majestic: D 2011 draw on this series. In particular they reproduce the line of undulating mountains from his Karratha Landscape 1981. In this painting, the uncanny regularity of the contours of the mountain (or is it a hill?) reminded me of the very distinctive ‘journey lines’ in certain Aboriginal paintings and perhaps they suggest a hidden affinity that Williams’ art has with Aboriginal depictions of landscape. It is worth noting that the Pilbara series was an unusual departure for Williams into the ‘outback’ – artistic terrain that he otherwise left to artists such as Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan, and John Olsen to explore and colonise.
In my versions of Williams’ landscape the location is the Western Desert in Central Australia bearing the names of places such as Papunya, Tanami, Haasts Bluff, Kintore, Jupiter Well, and the names of the disappearing tribes of those areas – Warlpiri, Pitjantjatjara, Pintupi, Luritja. I am also somehow reminded of Albert Namatjira and the words of the German poet Novalis who observed that “every individual is the centre of a system of emanation.” Above all, for me, the desert is a metaphor for the self: “I shall become no more than movement or stillness or an idea of being – there is no-one here.” The desert is a tabula rasa – a surface on which the writing has been erased, ready to be written on again.
This exhibition also celebrates the 200th work in my own series Nature Speaks – Nature Speaks: CZ 2011. I began this series in September 1998 almost two years after I moved with my family from Sydney to the rural town of Cooma in south-east New South Wales. Ten years later after selecting this title, for what is arguably now one of my most significant bodies of work, I came across Antonin Artaud’s “50 drawings to murder magic”, published by Seagull Books in 2008. Written in a mental asylum in France, the last lines of what were Artaud’s last utterances are worth recounting:
“so my drawings reproduce
thrown up in this way
where the way passes
used to be called the Great Work
of alchemy now
pulverised because we are
no longer in chemistry
but in nature
and I do believe
is about to speak.”
31 January 1948