119 Bryant Tillman

Born Detroit, MI, 1959 / Studied College for Creative Studies, Wayne County Community College, Detroit / Lives in Detroit

I am still an Impressionist after thirty-five years,” boasts painter Bryant Tillman. Born years after the death of the French artists linked with this storied model of modern art, Tillman’s rootedness in the style is as much a surprise to him as to his viewers. His original quest was to wend his way through all the isms of the modernist era—from Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism–in order to become a skilled maker. But, as it turned out, he became besotted with Impressionism and continues to practice his scales, as it were, in this mode. “I learn more and more each time I pick up a trusty filbert and attempt to finesse a photo-expressionistic slurry, approximating a blurred Polaroid, shot by a jiggling hand.”

A juxtaposition of Tillman’s 1985 Self Portrait and Selfie of 2014 reveals his shifting of gears, from a comparatively smooth rendering of his smiling visage wearing a Van Gogh-ish straw hat to a probing, loosely executed, contemplative self-assessment. The blue palettes connote differently in each as well, one by reinforcing the sunny disposition of the twenty-something artist, the other the melancholy isolation of the maturing painter. Notable as well in the latter, albeit not typical of the artist’s evolving artistry, is the spare, reductive staging, which is in turn deftly animated by expressive Tillman effects—the brisk blue strokes of the sofa and the “slurry” miasma of the shiny table top.

More typical of Tillman’s eventful surfaces is Alexandrine (2014), a Detroit streetscape he has returned to numerous times since the mid-eighties. Initially, the series was painted plein air in all types of weather, from wet to sunny, shivery to humid, a practice now superseded by the camera for ease of composition and bodily comfort. Here, his dazzling, bravura handling of pigment comes to the fore, sketchily but convincingly laying in autos, grass, and looming trees of this midtown neighborhood. For Tillman, such scenes of daily life are akin to the spirited depictions of “modern life” evoked by the French impressionists.

Variations on the urban theme, of which many examples exist, are devoted to single automobiles, most often parked in neighborhoods or low rise business districts, highlighted by sun, reflections, beams of light, shadows, and glistening rain. “The Impressionists often included subjects that are considered contemporary to that time…steamships and locomotives. So I felt it only natural to include in my work an occasional late model car,” explains Tillman, rather matter of factly. In his Honda Accord of 2014, the silent vehicle, irradiated in beams of light and shadows emanating from the foreground, also advances reflections forward from its own chassis; in the background a jumbled frieze of fences, front yards, and facades bristles with tour de force brushwork. One might also glimpse the blue-black shadow just left of center that reveals the artist-photographer actually shooting the scene he will later paint.

But perhaps Tillman’s grandest subject, countlessly addressed, is the elegant Scott Fountain, a grandiose white marble centerpiece in the city’s Belle Isle Park. For the artist, it might be the equivalent of Monet’s haystacks or Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire. Its tiered, stepped form, multiple basins, and decorative embellishments in marble, bronze, and tile have gleamed in the artist’s eyes for a very long time. The two versions here, identically titled and dated—Scott Fountain, 2018—illustrate two different treatments, the light blue example delicate in its eruptive froth of water, the “black” one (per the artist), a mountainous silhouette, with scant visible detail. Its potent, midnight blue gestalt is perhaps atypically ominous. That it is larger (24 x 30”) than the artist’s generally modest scale (the monochromatic blue version measures 16 x 20”) enlarges and enhances its powerful form.

Also modest in scale are two Untitled domestic scenes, another abiding interest of the painter: a dusky, intimate view of the artist’s aerie (minus the protagonist but with a canvas at the ready) from 2005/06, just 9 x 12” in scale, and a backyard gathering from 2014 measuring 11 x 14.” Here Tillman homes in on the musicians strumming away on a makeshift stage banked by abundant greenery and bathed in al fresco warmth.

Thus, the perennially questing Tillman, thirty-five years on, has found his métier by painting, as he wryly claims, “like a dead Frenchman”—buoyed by the euphoria he experiences in conjuring images via his dancing brush and tactile facture. “Should I not enjoy the rapturous effects of producing a good painting?” he asks. Should we not also?

Dennis Alan Nawrocki, February 2019

Copyright Essay’d 2019