Does the print-maker who gropes around down in the basement deserve to be the poor, neglected cousin of that esteemed society painter up in the light-filled, ground-floor studio space? In short, are prints always journeys on the road to somewhere more important? Not at all. Think of the great prints made by Goya and Rembrandt, for example. The best of these were in no way inferior to their paintings.
There is, however, something of the experimental about print-making. It has often served as a kind of testing ground. The reason for this is that the outcome cannot always be judged, and – unlike much painting – it is often irreversible, so print-making has the excitement of the unpredictable.
The North Yorkshire painter and print-maker William Tillyer – who is currently enjoying an entire season of retrospectives in Cork Street (next up comes paintings) – has been making prints since the late 1960s, and he continues to push their possibilities to the limit. This show begins with work produced early in the 1970s and ends, well, now. In his early work, Tillyer has all the serious-minded austerity of the young experimentalist who inclines towards the analytical.
The early works are often spare in their use of colour. Lattice-like grids are a means of taming the world. Through these grids the ghostly presences of objects and natural phenomena emerge. These shapes play against the severe regularities of the grid.
One work in particular – quite a small one – seems to summarise the angle of attack. And that is the right metaphor for this retiring man's restless and ever-curious mind. It is right at the bottom of the stairs, in the second room of the show. Small, it hangs alone. You'll probably miss it. If you do, ask. The title is Twenty-Five Clouds, and it is a zinc etching on paper, made in 1968, that year of mock-revolutionary ferment.
Tillyer has always been obsessed by clouds – as was his great predecessor, John Constable, who loved to paint the clouds near his home abutting Hampstead Heath. No two clouds are ever alike. They are inexhaustible as subject matter, and ungovernable as visual phenomena. That is why Tillyer likes them so much.
No sooner has he grasped one than it has slipped away. That itself – the essential undependability of clouds – rather pleases him, you feel. He has done clouds in all his mediums. He has painted them in oils and acrylics. He once made a lovely little construction out of a humdrum metal plate-rack and cardboard which was called Twelve Stacked Clouds. The whole thing looked a little like a rank of tilting popadoms on a kebab stick, one slotted upon another. Their shapes were the unruly shapes of clouds.
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