Since his first solo exhibition in 1973 Imants Tillers has been an influential proponent of conceptual painting. His investigations in the 1970s into seriality, visual displacement, found imagery, the original and the reproduction were precursors to his appropriation paintings of the 1980s and 90s. Since 1981 his canvas board system paintings have been individually numbered and constitute an ongoing body of work known as ‘The book of power’.
‘Pataphysical man’ was one of the key works in the exhibition ‘An Australian accent’, shown at PS1 in New York in 1984, in which Tillers exhibited alongside Mike Parr and Ken Unsworth. This exhibition attracted critical acclaim with ‘Pataphysical man’ being singled out as embodying contemporary appropriation strategies. In this painting the large figure is derived from Giorgio de Chirico’s ‘The archaeologists’ of 1926–27. De Chirico’s habit of recycling his own imagery and his style of classicism which stood outside more prevalent art developments fascinated Tillers. Other image sources within ‘Pataphysical man’ include Latvian children’s books and the handprints found in Aboriginal rock art.
‘Monaro’ 1998 (AGNSW collection) is the first major painting that Tillers completed after moving from Sydney to Cooma in the Monaro district of New South Wales in 1997. While it contains the range of appropriated imagery that characterises Tillers’ work, it was a response to a specific place in the light of his recent ‘Diaspora’ series, which explored themes of identity. The all-over field of soft grey tonalities, with subtle brown and pink tones, embodies a sense of the region’s eroded, treeless hills. Over this are painted the heads of cherubs, derived from an early 19th-century drawing by the German proto-romanticist Philipp Otto Runge, which surround an image of a mountain with its peak dissected by a painting stretcher, derived from the artist Sigmar Polke. The ‘T’ panels and numbers are cited from New Zealand artist Colin McCahon. To the right of the transparent canvas with the mountain is an image of St Peters, a church in Riga, the capital of Latvia, which was rebuilt after being destroyed in World War II. Tillers found the original image in Cooma, a coincidental connection between his new home and his parents’ origins as Latvian immigrants who came to Australia at the end of World War II.
The text within the painting also has a number of sources, including German artist Joseph Beuys (the words on the right edge) and the different spellings of the town of Nimmitabel, which is near Cooma (left edge). While deciphering the references is always rewarding in Tillers’ work, it is more important to experience the work as a whole. As Tillers has written: ‘issues of locality and identity have become uppermost in my mind and have made their presence felt in my recent work, not as literal representations of landscape, of the grass, hills, sky, clouds or rocks around me, but as evocations, through text and other layered visual elements’.1
1. Imants Tillers, ‘When locality prevails’, ‘Heat’, no 8, Giramondo, Sydney 2004, p 114
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006
synthetic polymer paint, charcoal and pencil on 168 canvas boards
304.0 x 532.0 cm overall installed :
Each part; 25.2 x 38 cm; each panel
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Ewan Murray-Will Bequest Fund 1985
Not on display
© Imants Tillers
Shown in 3 exhibitions
An Australian Accent:
- P.S.1, New York 15 Apr 1984–10 Jun 1984
- The Corcoran Gallery of Art, United States of America 20 Jun 1984–26 Aug 1984
- Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth 22 Sep 1984–11 Nov 1984
- Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 01 Dec 1984–31 Jan 1985
Five years on: a selection of acquisitions 1981-1986, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 26 Sep 1986–23 Nov 1986
Imants Tillers 'Journey to Nowhere', Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga, 06 Jul 2018–30 Sep 2018
Referenced in 18 publications
Robert Atkins, Newsday, 'on art/Australians arrive at P.S.1', 11 May 1984.
Anthony Bond, 40 years: Kaldor Public Art Projects, 'An Australian Odyssey: connecting to international contemporary art', pg.25-29, Sydney, 2009, 26, 150, 152 (colour illus.).
Anthony Bond, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Contemporary', pg. 94-108, Sydney, 1988, 103, 104-105 (colour illus.).
Anthony Bond and Victoria Lynn, AGNSW Collections, 'Contemporary Practice - Here, There, Everywhere ...', pg. 229-285, Sydney, 1994, 283 (colour illus.).
Benjamin Forgey, The Washington Post, 'The edge of night: dark introspection from Australia', 22 Jul 1984.
Bruce James, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Australian Collection: Painting and Sculpture', pg. 102-181, Sydney, 1999, 174 (colour illus.).
Kay Larson, New York Magazine, 'Seeing Australian', pg.88-89, 07 May 1984, 88-89, 88 (illus.).
Kim Levin, Village voice, 'P.S.1's Report Card', New York, May 1984.
Thomas McEvilley, Artforum, 'New York... An Australian Accent, PS1', Oct 1984.
John Russell, The New York Times, '3 Vigorous artists from down under', 20 Apr 1984, C1, C21.
John Russell, The New York Times, 'Art: the irony of Chirico', 27 Apr 1984.
Alexandra Szczepaniak, Look, 'Judging Archie', Melbourne, May 2001, 38 (colour illus.).
Imants Tillers, Art & Text (No.15), 'In perpetual mourning', pg.22-23, Spring 1984, 22-23, 23 (illus.).
Wayne Tunnicliffe, Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 'Cultural memory, critical distance', pg.154-203, Sydney, 2006, 196, 198-199 (colour illus.). illustration on pg.199 is a detail
Art investigator, 'Ideas and Themes' - Appropriation: Images Transformed', pg. 252-53, Port Melbourne, 1998, 252 (colour illus.).
Imants Tillers, Adelaide, 1986, 26-27 (colour illus.). cat.no. 4
Five years on: a selection of acquisitions 1981-1986, Sydney, 1986. cat.no. 133
An Australian Accent, 'Imants Tillers', p47-59, Sydney, 1984, 54-55 (colour illus.). cat. no. 21