Friday, October 03, 2008

High Art/Low Art: R.L. Tillman

R.L. Tillman is going to give you a wooden nickel. Really. He's made up a bunch of wood coins, each with a cartoony likeness of himself, one side declaring, "In Fraud We Trust," the other giving his website address. The nickel, which he hands out for self-promotion like a business card, is so much like the body of his work as to be emblematic. It's a funny idea, a bit silly, certainly stagey, it incorporates bad design—a label R.L. himself applies to his work—and plays a kind of off-hand pop-culture riff, all the while carrying a vaguely serious, vaguely political or critical, undertone. The coin is also handily metaphoric for an artist who likes to talk on two sides of the artistic conversation, populist and glitzy in much of his own work, subtle and sober in the art he curates.

In 2007, R.L. was asked to design a Radical Shack for Artscape, a booth that would stand in the food court as a kind of antithesis or antidote to the $5 lemonades and ubiquitous gyro sandwiches. R.L. came up with Cotton Salty, a booth that made cotton candy in Garlic, Old Bay, and Original Salty flavors. "Humor's an element in most of what I do," R.L. says. "People respond to humor, even people who might not otherwise be receptive to an art experience." For Cotton Salty, he designed a whole range of humorous paraphernalia, banners, logos, buttons, hats, and t-shirts, all of which featured Cotton Salty himself, an eye-patched and mustachioed cotton candy head on a stick. The whole thing was done in bright pink and black; at times, R.L. resorted to carny-type banter to attract his customers.

R.L. insists that much of his art is bad design—clumsy and lacking in proportion. When I point out that he has developed a strong and visually arresting signature style, and ask if that isn't the hallmark of good design, he shakes his head. "Talk to any real, professional designer about what I do and he or she will tell you what's up." Of course, there's pride in this self-denial. He keeps in his studio examples of bad design that inspire him, roughly drawn comics from the 40s and 50s, a beer can featuring, inexplicably, a cartoon goat bounding over a cutesy, flowery meadow.

This love of poor design is part of R.L.'s populist bent. "I want to reach past the people who go to galleries or otherwise actively seek out art experiences," he says, "to those who might just be walking around and could be surprised to encounter art." His idea to develop a whole line of promotional materials for a fictional hamburger stand, The Skull, and install it in the student union at University of Maryland, fits right in. R.L. wants to catch people off guard, charm them, make them laugh or scratch their heads, in the hope that they'll think a little more about their environment, more closely notice their habitual landscape.

What's interesting about this is that it's such a high-art concept, but it's packaged in such a pop-art wrapper. R.L. uses cartoons and fast food, bad design, over the top and show-offy installations in the hope to startle people into deeper thinking, whether about politics, social ideas, or even questions about art. "Sure," he says, "aesthetics are actually really important in my work. I have a pretty strong formal training, so I care a lot about how the work looks."

Which brings us to the other side of the R.L. coin, his work as a curator, and specifically his Minstallation Gallery, a box of 225 square inches situated under the steps at the Creative Alliance. Since February of 2008, R.L. has invited five artists or groups of artists to install themselves in the tiny space, including art by Eric Dyer, James Reeder, Post Typography, Laura Amussen, and most recently, 2008 Sondheim Prize winner Geoff Grace.

As R.L. says, he's careful about whom he invites to show at the Minstallation. "I want people who will do well with the limitations of the tiny space, but I want to ask artists for whom the limitations will be a challenge. Someone who already works in miniatures, say, might not be a good choice—it could be too easy." As such, he's asked Amussen, a sculptor who often works on a large scale, and Grace, whose installation at the BMA this summer took up two walls. What's more, the work the artists contribute is typically quite delicate, subtle, with a high degree of "concept" behind it. Amussen, whose installation Lady Chapel featured tiny gothic windows through which fragments of old paintings of women were seen, sought, as she says, to "[displace] these women, literally cutting them from their roles as mothers, lovers, friends, and wives. Now their gazes and bodies are redirected towards one another in a semi-erotic fashion."

Clearly, this curatorship is the other side of the nickel for R.L., seemingly miles from Cotton Salty or his new venture, the superheroes Captain Maryland and Boy Baltimore. And yet, one has to wonder at the origins for such an idea, this tiny art space. Is there not some showmanship, pop-art flashiness, hidden beneath its subtlety, the desire to create The World's Smallest Gallery? Certainly the art and thought going into it is serious—it's high art—but this is not curating in the usual sense, a white-walled gallery in which the curator remains mostly behind the scenes. The Minstallation—as excellently executed as it is—draws attention to its creator. It's plainly an R.L. Tillman production: quirky, surprising, "gimmicky" in the best sense.

What's also surprising is this: "What I really enjoy," says R.L., "is thinking about people seeing twhen I'm not there. Imagining someone’s reaction to this thing they stumble on. I don’t have to see that reaction, or get credit for it, to derive a sense of personal satisfaction from my work." Art for R.L., as playful, funny, and interactive as it is, is most enjoyed in his imagination, in the incubator of ideas. Or maybe it's not surprising at all, not for an artist always onto something new, the stacks of notebooks in his studio overflowing with ideas. High or low, the artist is in his art.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy the thought of people being caught off gaurd. esspecially in this era of us being hypnotized by overstimulation, medication and lack of self thought.
Theron Melchior

8:36 AM  
Blogger Maryanne Stahl said...

very cool dude.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Joy Logan said...


4:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Minstallation Gallery reminds me of the John Erickson Museum of Art that was recently shown at the Contemporary Museum. I would love to see how the Minstallation Gallery, or an offshoot gallery, could become mobile and mingle with the public as many of Tillman's works often do.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Graham Coreil-Allen said...

Bad design, I love it. such Stealthily reaching both street and art audiences through such clever appropriation of visual kitsch is an encouraging gesture.

7:44 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home