LOOK AWRY

If you want to enter into the world of color, leave language outside the door. by Joan Waltemath

My recent visit to the studio of Tilman in Brussels inspired the following thoughts. Since we all have different issues at stake in our work, those that engage us first in looking at another artist’s work are most likely the ones that come closest to our own. This enables a response that takes the form of a dialogue between works on either side of the mind’s eye.

At first glance it seems that Tilman has made a decisive break from his former gestural abstractions. This shift in style leads me to ponder over a classical rule: it’s either form or color. One is always privileged over the other; either form serves color or color form. I’ve yet to find the exception to the rule.

In the decade I have followed his work, Tilman’s choice has always been clear: form and structure are a vehicle for the interaction of colors. From this vantage point the gesture he makes to an apparent hard-edge style amounts to a new way of exploring the nature of color relationships, and in these new works, Transforms & Constellations, he’s got more edge.

Now each color has its own separate panel, and with the panels touching each other, the edge of the color is the edge of the panel. These long straight edges give the colors a lot of breathing room. In fact each of them is now autonomous. That’s how the structure of these works reads. But then wait a moment, that’s not altogether true, for colors also exist in a world all their own. It’s not a world where one thing follows another; everything happens at once. With a language and logic all its own, color is the mother tongue of a privileged few. In this Sensurround™ world we navigate with sensation and emotion submerging and emerging in the collected consciousness of our own sterling spoons. Our point of origin is our autonomy, subject and object are interlaced like a Mobius strip, and the projection is palpable.

As the poetry of these color relationships seeps in, so does the humor. All these soft effeminate colors, like you might find within the comfort of a little girl’s room, work to engage your preconceptions. Decorators’ colors: they beg you to dismiss them as one-dimensional, as frivolous, as merely pretty. All the while simple relationships of two and three colors work to create a space so solid and densely layered that before you know it you’ve been embraced. All the joy and celebration in Tilman’s works seem like a harmless bear hug until some precisely contrasting bright bit steps out and bites you, waking up the moment to the physical presence of color. It’s one of those jokes where you “have to be there”. It’s not on the page or the screen. It’s not in theory or a position. Being is everything in the sensible world these colors create. Dive in and flow: the beauty of your heartbeat is sensual. For the rest we return to the stability of the edge.

It is incumbent on every painter working today to address painting’s current raison d’être. In this new body of work Tilman has opted for expanding the frame. In a recent installation an array of MDF panels laid out in a grid takes on the floor. In another a single panel installed on the floor moves in on the room’s edge to meet a wall panel hanging directly above, giving the room one more corner to contemplate. In a strategy that seems to grow out of painting’s discomfort with the confines of its own frame, Tilman deploys the single panels to activate a larger field creating a space of jump starts and long rides.

His simple deviation from the tradition of eye-level sequencing in another installation allows a seemingly random placement of singular pieces to conquer the wall as its territory. The figure- ground relationship fluctuates here, creating multiple readings inside some of these individual pieces as it works to underscore the intent of a larger whole. In a Mandelbrot symphony this replication of scale shifts would be endless; here too there is no end to sight.

Tilman’s specific overtures towards the architectural elements of the exhibition room determine the room as a framing element for the modules whose inner relationships often mimic the overall installation strategy. One effect is to call to account painting’s original relationship to the wall as determinant of its very form. If the individual panels give up their autonomy as singular objects inside the exhibition space, the line between an autonomous work of art and “installation” becomes blurred. This play with determinacy foregrounds the question of painting’s autonomy by touching on the borders of one of the most vital of contemporary media. In installation art placement has replaced the primacy of the object.

Where the use of modules whose relationship to each other is determined through their installation is constituent, the presence of a sense of place comes to the fore. Recalling the plein air debates of the 19th century landscape painters that centered on working directly on site, in an ironic twist the full spectrum secreted in plein air’s vernacular triumph of the sensual resurfaces in contemporary abstraction indoors. Painters then as painters now know that only the very atmosphere we breathe communicates the real intent of the flesh.

In today’s world actual sightings paired with mediation through a secondary source reveal the core experience of viewing painting still to be an individual endeavor. If the charge of élitism dogs the plein air painters of today, it says more about the possibilities of an individual élan in the age of abject consumption than its peasant forebears could ever have hoped for.

If you’re still awake after this seduction, either you’ve got an unrelenting analytical mind or you’re checking up on a few tricks of the trade.

Joan Waltemath
in: Tilman - Transforms & Constellations
catalogue, 48 pages, 16 color reproductions
ISBN 92-990006-0-3 D 2000-9114-1
published by the artist & CCNOA, Brussels (B) 2000