National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Imants Tillers: one world many visions is the first major survey of Imants Tillers’ paintings in Australia that includes his most recent and significant large-scale works. The show provides the unique opportunity to consider a substantial body of work tracing high points of Tillers’ artistic career from 1984 to the present, including series of paintings that will be shown together for the first time. Cumulatively these works convey the range, scope, audacity and technical accomplishment of the artist’s enterprise that has emerged in his remarkable canvasboard system. Due to their scale, many of the works can only be shown in public institutions and it will be a revelation to be able to see a group of them covering more than two decades of the artist’s output.
I came to know Tillers’ work well in the 1970s and during the 1980s when he forged a reputation as one of Australia’s most thought-provoking and engaging contemporary artists. During this decade, Tillers established an international reputation, having his work shown in group exhibitions, including at PS1 in New York and Documenta in Kassel. By the mid 1980s, at thirty-five years of age, Tillers had established a clear sense of direction in his painting, and in 1986 he was selected to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale. The international recognition of Tillers’ work continued with survey shows at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, in 1988 and at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterrey City, Mexico, in 2000. Considering the extent of his contribution, it is timely that the National Gallery of Australia should recognise Tillers’ art in his country of birth, where he has worked over several decades with great dedication.
In some ways Tillers has been identified as a quintessential postmodern artist in his use of appropriation and quotation. What is so fascinating about his approach, however, is that the best of it has a distinctly personal dimension, as this exhibition and publication reveal. From the 1970s onwards he made a virtue out of the distance of Australia from the so-called centres of Europe and America, bringing together imagery from well-known and relatively unknown artists. Along with Tillers’ particular interest in post–Second World War German art, his works reveal an equal passion for artists from the so-called peripheries, including the great New Zealand painter Colin McCahon, who has been an ongoing source of inspiration.
Imants Tillers: one world many visions emphasises the artist’s idiosyncratic approach, his ongoing spirit of inquiry and his responsiveness to the painting process. One of the great strengths of this exhibition is to be able to demonstrate for the first time that Tillers’ art has become better over the years as his work has become stronger – conceptually more profound and more sophisticated in its technical, layered, painterly application. Highlights of the show include the paintings from the Diaspora series, some of the largest works painted in this country or indeed anywhere. These works suggest concerns of loss, fragmentation and survival, and have a deeply personal relevance for Tillers, whose parents migrated from Latvia. Along with other works – like the major work painted especially for the show, Terra incognita 2005 – they reveal his increasing commitment to place.
In the exhibition and publication we can trace the evolution of Tillers’ approach from the 1980s, through the 1990s and into the new millennium to discover the relationships and changes across works in response to issues of identity, place, displacement and chance encounters. The idea of surprising correspondences across time and place, which is so strong in Tillers’ work, finds a parallel in Lorenz’s poetic idea of the Butterfly Effect, where a butterfly fluttering its wings in one place can create changes in weather patterns on the other side of the globe. It is an apt metaphor for a body of work that reveals a vast and intricate web of connections across time and place.
We could not have staged the exhibition if it were not for the lenders and I would like to acknowledge their generosity in parting with their treasured works. We would like to warmly thank all lenders, including Seddon Bennington, Chief Executive, and Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, Director, Art and Collection Services, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington; Chris Saines, Director, Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki, who also assisted with the loan of work from the Chartwell Collection, now located at the Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki; Edmund Capon, Director, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Elizabeth Ann MacGregor, Director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; Jon Stanhope MLA, Chief Minister, The ACT Legislative Assembly, Canberra; Nancy Sever, Director, Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra; The Minter Ellison Collection, Sydney; Michael Eather, Fire-Works Gallery, Brisbane; Peter Haynes, Director, Canberra Museum and Art Gallery; The Paul Eliadis Collection of Contemporary Art, Brisbane; and Alan Sisley, Director, Orange Regional Gallery. Our most sincere thanks also go to Frederico Cezar de Araujo, Brazilian Ambassador; Señor José Barañano and Anna Barañano; Professor Roger Benjamin and Ms Kate Sands; Sir James and Lady Cruthers; Dr Brigita Ozolins; Dr Gene and Brian Sherman; Emile and Caroline Sherman; Imants Tillers and Jennifer Slatyer; Saskia Tillers; Peter Laurence Thomas; and those private lenders who have chosen to remain anonymous. Our thanks also go to the artist’s gallery representatives: Sherman Galleries, Sydney; Chapman Galleries, Canberra; Arc One Gallery, Melbourne; Australian Art Resources, Melbourne; Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide; and Jan Manton Art, Brisbane.
I would like to thank the curator of the exhibition, Deborah Hart, Senior Curator, Australian Paintings and Sculpture, who has worked with unflinching dedication on the exhibition and publication, taking prior scholarship into account and bringing a fresh, personal approach to Tillers’ art. My special thanks also go to the other writers for this publication who have made distinctive and meaningful contributions. They include Professor Howard Morphy, Director, Centre for Cross-cultural Research, Australian National University, who has an in-depth knowledge of Tillers’ work and of Indigenous artists and art practice; Jennifer Slatyer, an archivist and art historian who, as the artist’s partner, has brought firsthand insights into the biographical aspects of the text and the context of the times; and Charles Merewether, Curator and Artistic Director of Zones of contact, the 2006 Sydney Biennale, who has maintained an interest in Tillers’ art since the 1970s and has curated a survey exhibition of his work in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2000.
Exhibitions of this kind require the commitment of many people and I would like to acknowledge and commend the considerable efforts of all the staff at the National Gallery of Australia who worked on the exhibition and publication.
The exhibition has been generously sponsored by the newly formed National Gallery of Australia Council Exhibitions Fund, a bold initiative of this Gallery Council to bolster support of the exhibition program.
Finally our thanks go to the artist, Imants Tillers himself, who has been helpful, considerate and unstintingly enthusiastic about the exhibition and who has given the curator and staff at the Gallery so much of his time. We hope that this show and the accompanying catalogue will inspire our many national and international visitors, including new audiences who may be encountering the work of this accomplished artist for the first time.
Ron Radford AM
TOP LEFT to RIGHT: Imants TILLERS 'Diaspora' 1992 oilstick, gouache, synthetic polymer paint Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa | 'Izkliede' 1994 gouache, synthetic polymer paint From the Gene and Brian Sherman Collection | 'Farewell to reason' 1996 oil and oil stick, synthetic polymer paint on prepared canvas boards Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
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