Pop Art Tinged With the Timeless
TILSON By Michael Compton and Marco Livingstone. Thames and Hudson. 183 pp., $45Skip to next paragraph
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LOOKING at the recent work of British artist Joe Tilson, it might seem strange to know that he came to prominence in the 1960s, as a member of the Pop Art fraternity.
Pop Art, if it was in any way a movement of inherent homogeneity, was certainly urban. In Britain, it was partly a deliberate snub to what was seen as a soft English tendency toward Neo-Romanticism, harking back to such 19th-century pastoral artists as Samuel Palmer.
Tilson was born in London, and he worked in the city after attending art school there. (He had previously been trained as a carpenter and had served in the Royal Air Force.) When no longer a student, he lectured at St. Martin's School of Art, which was quite a stirring pot for new ideas in the early '60s London art world.
But the content of his art, even if it did seem to use some commercial techniques espoused by many of the Pop artists - the silk-screen, acrylic look, the depersonalized surfaces and smooth edges - did not, in fact, echo the ironic engagement with modern trivia, style, or communication that characterized much of the work of these artists. Nor, looking back now, did it make many specifically urban references. @bodytextdrop =
IN 1970, Tilson and his wife moved to Wiltshire, England, into the countryside. They have lived and worked there, and in a second house in Tuscany, ever since. But he was not, as it turned out, the only so-called Pop artist in Britain to head for the country. Painter Peter Blake also did so.
Both retreats, if that is the right word, seem to have been the result of an instinctual recognition that urban art - along with urban people - had somehow lost touch with vital origins and convictions, and that art should become once again, as it had been in the past, a necessary tool for reforging links with the earth, nature, and ancient beliefs.
In this, Tilson and Blake, in their different ways, were to some extent simply acting in tune with the times. The ecology movement, specifically Friends of the Earth, had their bearing on artists. ``Earth art'' and a variety of tactics for bringing art and landscape together developed out of the late '60s.
But Blake and Tilson hardly became ``landscapists,'' even in a nontraditional sense. Their interest had more to do with myth. In Blake's case, his fascination for the nostalgia of urban folklore extended into similar feelings for rural folklore.
Tilson was much less interested in Wiltshire as such and more in mankind's primitive relationship to the earth, wherever. Tilson is a traveler and a collector of books, using both as stimuli for his art. It was the ``dream time'' of Australian Aborigine belief that first inspired a series of works after his move to the country. In later years, his chief inspiration has been with Greek mythology.
But Tilson's ideas range more widely across times and cultures than these two particular preoccupations would suggest, and have encompassed alchemy and other primitive ideas in his attempt to return to what he calls a ``basic concept.'' This concept is that man ``everywhere in the world, relates to the sun, the moon, to standing up. There's north, south, east and west, the four directions. Why things grow, how they grow, how the seasons change. Night, day. The basic given data of experience and the physiological aspects of procreation and birth are totally unchanged. What I'm dealing with is trying to pick up these very basic facts and propose them again as Art....'' @bodytextdrop =
These words of Tilson's are quoted in a new book about him, ``Tilson'' by Michael Compton and Marco Livingstone. It is the first book to illustrate his work with any kind of comprehensiveness. The authors have both contributed helpful introductory essays. But the body of the book is like an exhibition between covers, presenting paintings and constructions from 1951 to 1992.