Tilman. Australian Post Formalism, and a Journey into regional art-historicism by Dr Billy Gruner

Sydney Australia lies far south of the tropic of Capricorn, and traveling to the antipodes (meaning upside down world) can be quite an experience for visiting artists, with most usually having little if any avenue into the somewhat mysterious ways of the local art scene. Typically, it is the central towns where most art is made and sold for instance, and these places of communion are fairly recent western European settlements that exist at odds within the wider Asia-Pacific setting. As a consequence, the Antipodes contain an extraordinary mix of cultures, and being generally quite expensive places to live in they invariably provide any and every form of luxury and amenity - yet just as typically they can be bitterly unkind for others without.

Importantly, the capitals are built on top of the ancestral homes of a variety of aborigine tribes belonging to the Koori nation. In fact, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Darwin, and Brisbane, might be described as interventions forming a kind of artificial or post colonial cultural encirclement of what remains an ancient continent, just as they play host to as many familiar western conventions immediately recognizable to a visitor upon such distant shores. In this sense, the vast land mass of the great Southern continent, with its Spartan array of electrified cities subsisting mysteriously in parallel with much older ways, face forces both natural and psychological staying as tangible to the senses as they did for those who made first settlement in the late 1700s. Increasingly, they are places of art-critical effort where local, national, and international artists curators, critics, must attempt to contemporaneously redefine the unique blend of cultural, geographical, and architectural concerns governing regional national identity. But mostly, the highly cherished yet utterly negotiable convention of the isolate mystagogism of, the Antipodean.

It was while traveling in the Netherlands, far from my home on a small river named after the English Captain Cook feeding Botany Bay, that I met the German born artist Tilman from Brussels. This was at an informal meeting in an Amsterdam bar where Kyle Jenkins, Jan Van der Ploeg, and Olivier Mosset, were also present. It was suggested at that time that Tilman who operates CCNOA with Petra Bungert in Brussels, that he should make a journey to Australia to show his work - as some of the other European based artists had done recently. Importantly, Tilman and the Australian Jenkins first met in Los Angeles in 2003. Later working together on the ‘Minimal Pop’ group show that toured to New York, then Paris and Brussels in 2005. A short while after this brief meeting Tilman was formally invited to show in Australia as a guest of a local artists association known as, S.N.O. (Sydney Non Objective Group).

The first installation featured a collaboration between Tilman and his Object/Light Work’s and Jenkins Wall Work Project. This was held in the S.N.O. Showroom, a small factory space near Sydney’s airport on 1st September 2005. A second presentation was held at NOT Gallery in Southern Queensland, on the 8th September. That ‘group show’ entailed only three small monochromatic works by Tilman, Jenkins, and myself. A third and final show was a solo of Tilman’s wall and floor pieces, and held at MOP Projects on the 14th. This in conjunction with a group of artists from QLD that Tilman had met and who showed in an auxiliary space in Sydney of MOP Projects. This is another artist run space in Sydney’s inner city precinct that had originally been established by Kyle Jenkins, the New Zealand writer, Ben Curnow, and myself. Interestingly, all these interrelated works, made by a variety of artists, were produced for the three specific events upon Tilman’s arrival. Then installed at the various venues. No small feat considering the very limited amount time made available.

As mentioned, the writer Ben Curnow earlier defined an aspect of the ‘post formalist’ genre when he discussed how a whole body of new work such as Tilman produced had been readily achieved. That is, within his first and especial foray into the embroiled art-cultural politic of Australian art historicism. Importantly, it is really necessary to understand that Australia is an art-critical location where ‘new figuration’ remains the dominant discourse of its’ cognoscenti. Curnow, in referring directly to the kinds of formal artists S.N.O. prefers to work with instead, noted, “ …it is straightforwardly because of a real necessity that the world has become a studio for these artists”. As an artist first, and as a reluctant organisor or curator of artists similarly engaging in highly formalised processes second, I could not agree more with Curnow’s assessment of how fluid the genre of non objective art making has become in recent decades. Further, this aspect speaks of a heightened level of interaction within related practices in the Australasian context, but also it refers to a trans-cultural process of reexamination of mostly concrete, constructive, and radical painting concerns stemming from out of an ever-widening array of international locations.

In speaking for myself, Tilman’s art is absorbing for many reasons but it is significant to note that he is an example of a growing number of visiting art makers who, above all else, are deeply engaged in the specifics of a practice. Just as his approach is emblematic of a certain necessity today, he is an international art maker who produces work anywhere without loss of connection to place, tastes or, traditions, et al. The work Tilman produced in Australia for example (see fig no.1), exudes a casualness that belies a capability and craftsmanship that is highly responsive to the specifics of a situation, whilst it is also true that his expression remains demonstrative of a rigor that itself stems from an informing developmental methodology. This may be defined as a responsive process - to as many traditions, issues, or, concerns of interest to the artist. Overall, an inclusive course of action appears in place of banal revision of abstraction and the like within a critical methodology that is nonetheless seeking out an engagement with popular culture. That is, as much as it is representative on a conceptual level of specific artistic response. One that confirms his considered deliberation of personal expression within that system.

This last commentary is an affirmation of what is meant when terminology such as ‘developmental’ is used here to define formal or, reductive artists. This leads into the very substance of what I believe the art Tilman made in Sydney is about. It may also provide a way of finding an accessible entry point into his contemporaneous ideas and how these may in fact be functioning in the philosophical present. They are not obviously reliant on conspicuous portrayals of ironic orderings of language. Where Tilman is concerned, colour is considered almost unitarily as ‘light’, a conceptualism made comprehensible by the artist as a uniquely workable substance. Tilman’s art operates as a ‘precept’ that encapsulates or paraphrases such ideas once made apparent in some form. Simultaneously, the structures of intellection that his work summons or, the ‘experiential luminosity’ one perceives through the artifact, is in a sense a notional concern released into the viewer’s own experiential domain. Simply put, the now unstable notion of form and its perception, in Tilman’s discreet analysis, is a readable type of developmental motif. Curiously, what is expanded and deliberated upon through various media is the literal immateriality of light itself. Tilman’s sardonic humor concerning his supposed ‘catching of light’ may be best described in phenomenological terms, as, felt experience. In brief, a fresh discourse on what painting within the domain of non-literal minimalism may have more recently come to imply, has been offered by Tilman and his sponsors, the Ministry of the Vlaamse Gemeenschaap (Belgium), during his Australian journey.

There is definitely an aesthetic in play here somewhat regardless of prior internationalist connotations. However, what Tilman’s work implies within a ‘regionalised’ therefore, deeply art-historicised environment is that any artist may present us with a system of generic or familial manipulations of perception. This is done for us to enjoy somehow. In Tilmans case, a presentation has been given by a visiting art-maker on a subject matter whose longstanding criticisms have rather clumsily hung over from the modernist paradigm - then spread into the post-modern era and beyond, as kind of local art-critical furphy. Regionally for instance, long before any contemporary ‘reductive work’ is to be critically considered, its very ‘painterliness’ may summon the notion of ‘Painting’ as it had entered its a politicised status of ‘deadness’, as it was first argued decades ago. Moreover, there is a tendency towards recensive theoretical process that arises in places like Australia and New Zealand that exposes a never reconciled fervor - for nationalist impulses. That is, for a deep seated prejudice is a marvel in the contemporary visual arts arena that continues to seeking an evisceration of developments within a greater formalist enterprise – made more obvious whenever topics such as ‘New Figuration’, convergent expression, and the like are offered as the tried and trusted, worse, acceptable antidote to art that refuses to bear any direct association to social realism. What is eschewed in Tilman’s work literally exists within such a renegotiation of what Americans had once claimed was Minimalism for instance, but it is most significantly a point of order for an artist who I understand owes a much more interesting debt to preceding Constructivist, Suprematist and later Concrete art movements for example. If the convention of convergent expression is only a conglomeration of styles today, why is that a language that went beyond the binary of realism/abstraction first emerging in the 1930’s in the work of artists Theo Van Doesburg or Sonya Delauney, and continuously reappeared in 1950s, 1960s, 1980s and beyond in countless ways is often considered pointless - inclusively, a language that provides a knowledge of as many responses to conventions and forms of conservatism therein. The art critical voracity of this last point remains as challenging for the European, the Australian, or anyone from anywhere else at all, whenever an overarching criticality becomes misplaced as surety, knowingness, or worst, is enshrined as art historical fact.

This is a simplified assessment of place and standards. Likewise, what a considered reductive artists such as Tilman offers regional discourse is it self, not undemanding. Resident within Tilman’s reductive motif is an expose of a contemporary concern for materials and processes. His work provides an insight into a specific tradition or knowledge stream that has long existed within popular culture, worldwide. A now more common process of thought that has generally sought an understanding of what is actually possible beyond the conventions of both realism and abstraction. In my opinion, this understanding is considered something more interesting than a reading of a banal formal experience of the supposed minimalists latest objectwork, as some will continue to have newer ‘formalist’ styles outlined. Herein, the topic defers further to the supposed contemporary currency of ironic predisposition within revisionist painting discourses for instance. As mentioned above, a combinational style far more prevalent today within the triumph of regional art-historicism that remains ever subservient to its own semantic tales. Tilmans art, in its turn, offers some antidote to mystagogic convention, cynicism, and a bold resistance to the defrayment of conservativie impulses in the over institutionlised ‘outcome oriented’ market place of contemporary art.

The S.N.O. Group committee thanks Tilman for showing with their associated artists, and gratefully acknowledges the financial support provided by the Ministry of the Vlaamse Gemeenschaap (Belgium).

Dr Billy Gruner, Director S.N.O. Group, Sydney 2005