Pop Art Tinged With the Timeless

TILSON By Michael Compton and Marco Livingstone. Thames and Hudson. 183 pp., $45

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.

What becomes plain is that Tilson's art has developed along surprisingly consistent lines. He has always been intrigued, for example, by the potential symbolism of geometry - the significance, quite outside of measurement, of grids, symmetry, and divisions. As he shows frequently, these formulations of the human psyche relate to essences, to alphabets and numbers.

In the squares or boxes that make up many of Tilson's constructions, letters and numbers appear, as well as pictograms and symbols. Sometimes letters form simple but evocative words, which can be repeated and repeated. Children's games and books (which also seek to teach and entertain without clear differentiation between their two functions) find no difficulty in adopting and presenting such primary concepts, and Tilson's work has many times born a resemblance to such formats.

The game-like aspect of early constructions have not been abandoned in later work. Labyrinths and mazes are frequent themes. Not only do these puzzles suggest mysteries lost in the past, but they also relate to travel (of mind as well as body), to the intricate solving of complexities. And in addition, as Tilson has pointed out in some of the written notes that are reproduced in the book alongside his paintings and constructions, the mazes have to do with the hidden aspects of roots, the parts of plant life that keep them alive when above the soil they might seem dead. In all these ways, labyrinths are not merely fascinating or amusing images for an artist; they signify the nature of art itself - or of Tilson's anyway.

SOME of his very recent work seems to escape the rigid confinements of his earlier geometries. Highly colored, they carry his imagery into a degree of abstraction that is, perhaps, new to him.

Marco Livingstone writes in his essay that ``form, [Tilson] maintains, can itself carry meaning. While some abstract artists have sought to purge their work of such meaning, the abstract painters whom he most admires, such as Mondrian, Rothko and Newman, have judged form and meaning to be inextricably linked.''

Livingstone then quotes Tilson himself as saying: ``I think the investigation of the most deeply formed art, for example with Mondrian and Giacometti, often yields the strongest significance. I love the paradox in that.''

In ``The Homeric Hymn to Hermes, II'' of 1992, color and form are set in bold interplay. The structural dividers here, which consist of a horizontal bar with an arm and a leg angling up and down, do not completely contain the shapes between them as they would have done in Tilson's earlier work. These shapes are now much freer to move outward. In the same way that Frank Stella developed from exactly delineated colors in his earlier work to an almost wild freedom in his later, Tilson seems aware of a need for escape in his work. Symbolically, this is in line with his original move from the strict geometry of urban space to the freer countryside, and the gradual freeing of his art from specific cultural reference to a universality.

By the same token, Tilson's work has moved from the partial appearance of machine finish to something much closer to human touch and feel. He has always, in fact, been the carpenter he was initially trained to be, a builder and maker of art. Even at his most conceptual, the viewer is always conscious of the artist's manual presence. This links Tilson's art with the ancient or timeless practice of art that he feels must be revitalized. Under his colorful building blocks, there has always been this serious intention. And if he has brought into his work as much of the past as he believes it needs, he has nevertheless presented it in a visual language of his own time: His is a kind of archaic pop art.

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