October 2021 Issue
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Joe Tilson, Eye Mantra, 1971–72, oil on wooden relief, 79 1⁄8 × 79 1⁄8".
Around the time British Pop artist Joe Tilson moved from London to rural Wiltshire in 1972, following time spent in Hannover, Germany, his work underwent a major shift in iconography and style, or so the story goes. Gone were the strategies of mass-media critique that had defined his seminal series “Pages,” 1970, which had been nurtured by the countercultural politics of the 1960s and the print revolution at London’s famed Kelpra Studio. Instead, Tilson embraced a pastoralist lifestyle—tending the land, growing his own food, and joining peers such as Peter Blake in what amounted to a major exodus of artists from London to the English countryside. Tilson’s recent exhibition “Alchera” gave today’s public a chance to view exemplary works from his productive years in Wiltshire inspired by his travels to Germany and Italy, as well as by his reading in poetry, philosophy, and anthropology. Local flora, Greek mythology, and universal symbols such as spirals and ziggurats come to the fore as primary points of reference in his large-scale mixed-media wood reliefs. Some of the box assemblages have titles that include the word alcheringa, referring to the Australian Aboriginal “dreaming” concept—an important touchstone for Tilson’s evolving ideas about the nature of time and memory. Produced (perhaps not coincidentally) in the vicinity of Stonehenge, these works attest to the artist’s heart-centered search for kinship with both the earth and humanity, and to his encyclopedic knowledge of literature and world religion.
Despite art-historical gospel that divides his practice into distinct phases, Tilson hadn’t exactly abandoned the signature mannerisms of his Pop phase, evident in his use of vibrant color, folksy assemblage techniques, and stenciled lettering à la Robert Indiana or Jasper Johns. But these works do embody a compelling fusion of postmodernism and New Age spirituality. Using the primal element of fire, for instance, he branded stenciled text onto his works’ rustic surfaces, spelling out the four elements in his Alcheringa boxes of 1972 or lining the rungs of Fire Ladder, 1971, with ecological terms and poetic allusions to Dante and Rilke. Several works, such as the vividly chromatic Eye Mantra, Sea Mantra, both 1971–72, and Sky Mantra, 1972, follow the nonhierarchical logic of the grid, that quintessential structure underlying twentieth-century art, their matrices containing the monosyllabic words of their respective titles (EYE, SEA, SKY—references to perception and landscape) reiterated ad infinitum. While nodding to Conceptualism or Minimalism, such works depart from those movements’ distancing techniques and are instead made personal through hand carpentry and textured brushstrokes; the use of repetition invites associations with meditative chanting.
The grid, for Tilson, is also a means of visually organizing the kinds of “universal” oppositions and societal frameworks that are central to structural anthropology and, in particular, to the theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Tilson’s fascination with taxonomies of nature and culture alike is evident in mixed-media works such as Chthonic Stele, 1978, a vertical stack of shallow compartments containing samples of seeds, river stones, and geodes, interspersed with textual fragments and pictographic signs. While its scale and form refer to ancient monuments, the work’s labeled compartments are reminiscent of childhood rock collections, not to mention the specimen repositories of natural-history museums. Tree Alphabet, 1973, and Mnemonic Device (Images), 1973, feature diagrams, tables, and color samples, emphasizing the processes by which we come to know the world. In the latter, a circular matrix whose four quadrants connect the natural elements of air, fire, earth, and water to the cardinal directions and a range of associated symbols appears, in its visual structure, to be quite rational but is meant to signal a more intuitive and spiritual kind of truth: Akin to a mandala, it represents the artist’s interest in nonlinear models of circular time.