This exhibition is a retrospective covering four decades of work byJoe Tilson, one of the leading figures associated with the British Pop Art movement. It includes 18 works dating from 1963 to 2003. During this period, having drawn on his experience as a carpenter and joiner in the ‘40s, Tilson produced wooden reliefs and constructions, often brightly coloured, as well as his multiples, prints and paintings. From the mid-60s, Tilson’s ‘Geometry?’ and ‘Ziggurat’ (or Zikkurat) works revealed his preoccupation with language, puzzle-making, visual play and symbols.
In 1969–70, Tilson produced his Pages series, in response to the cultural, social and political shifts taking place during the ’60s. Tilson and his wife, the artist Joslyn Morton, were actively involved in the anti-authoritarian politics of the moment and Pages, reflected his knowledge of the counterculture. Nearly all the Pages are made on partitioned wooden frames, which mimic the format of broadsheet publications. Tilson drew his titles from contemporary anti-establishment and underground publications, such as Black Dwarf, Muhammad Speaks and IT (International Times) and placed inside the compartments soft, bulging canvas sacs, screen-printed with images and text.
In ‘Muhammad Speaks’ (1969), a shopping catalogue gun advertisement is set alongside images of gold medallist sprinter Tommie Smith during his historic Civil Rights protest at the 1968 Olympic Games and civil rights activist Malcolm X, assassinated in 1965; ‘Ecology, Air, Earth, Fire, Water’ (1969–70) acknowledges ideologies and philosophies including those of Freud, Levi-Strauss, Burroughs, Buckminster Fuller, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara. The combinations of apparently disparate elements may seem obscure, but they were integral to the profound statement Tilson was making about contemporary society.
In 1972, Tilson left London for Wiltshire. His move to the countryside marked a departure from his politically charged works of the ’60s. He began to use a wider variety of media including stone, straw and rope. In works such as ‘Eye Mantra’ (1971–72) and ‘Tree Alphabet’ (1973), ‘...the now familiar use of repetition and grid arrangements of standard geometric shapes here take on a far more tranquil character, sometime trancelike and hypnotic, and a feeling for nature and the cycles of existence that recognises the oneness and interdependency of things.’
Since the early ’70s Tilson has also regularly spent extended periods in Italy. Most recently his Conjunctions series (‘Conjunction Apollo, Zigolo’, 1997, and ‘Conjunction Sangiovese, Varro’, 2003) reveal his love of Italian culture, history and language in his use of colour, pattern, imagery and text.