High Art/Low Art: R.L. Tillman
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,
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
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
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.