COCK AND BULL STORY: Jamie J. Tilley’s painting is a multivalent dialogue about politics and the human condition. Courtesy photo.
Innumerable paintings are strewn about the corner of Acme Arts, where Jamie J. Tilley prepares for his upcoming solo show. He begins our conversation by offering a lollipop—organic and pomegranate-flavored. Thereafter, everything spirals into controlled conversational chaos.
Discussions leap from topic to topic, beginning with Jungian analytical psychology and ending with an examination of Salvador Dali’s brushwork. Tilley touches upon all kinds of seemingly unconnected ideas along the way. His paintings illustrate them all, and manifest an artistic process reliant on both careful attention to detail and dictations of his subconscious mind.
Tilley plans to showcase an enormous body of work made during the last two years, which he spent painting full time in eight-hour days, five days a week. It is the first time in his life he could devote time entirely to art, rather than relegating it to a few hours a week after coming home from a regular job. In many ways he feels like it is making up for lost time and his art has only improved as a result. Tilley first began painting nearly 20 years ago at age 28, during what he remembers as a particularly tumultuous era of life. Wracked by misfortune, he turned to painting almost instinctively.
“Amongst all the chaos, I kept feeling an urge to paint,” he remembers. “It was strange because I had never painted in my life. That’s when I started, and that’s where my technique started, too, because I knew I wanted to paint but I didn’t know how to paint, and I didn’t know what to paint. I was working in a factory, so I’d bring home pieces of cardboard. I’d put on some music and start with a light color like yellow, especially with watercolor because you can’t cover up dark colors. I would just start expressing myself to the music I was hearing, brushing along the surface.”
Tilley avoids painting from life; rather than copying what he sees, he lets his subconscious lead him to discern images in brushstrokes. Then his task becomes to define whatever’s in the paint.
“You know the thing where you look at clouds, and it looks like a celebrity, or a dog, or an ice-cream cone?” he asks. “It’s always faces or figures with me. I’d see them in carpet, curtains, in wood grain. So, I started doing that with paint. I’d think, ‘Oh, there’s a face—that kind of looks like an eye, or a cheek bone,’ and I’d bring it out.”
His paint evokes images far removed from innocuous shapes in clouds. Faces dominate his compositions, some of which gaze outward straight forwardly while others are piece-meal monstrosities, with multiple faces merging to display skewed vantages. He scratches, scrapes and splatters paint layer upon layer to give humanoid figures to faces. He often paints over them and rearranges everything in the process. Each figure is finally constrained by heavy contour lines painted with a steady hand, separating them from equally textured backgrounds.
The trick to keeping his orchestra of textures from blurring together came after years of fooling around as a hobbyist. He experimented with contrasting colors and textures without ever taking a painting class, under the impression he was working too far outside the scope of “real art” to take himself seriously. However, everything changed after he saw similarities between himself and professional, working artists firsthand.
“It was just something I did for fun,” he recalls. “It felt like cheating to me. Real artists are doing something different. It wasn’t until I was living in Portland in 2010 that I saw a number of artists kind of doing the same thing. They were painting on canvas and bringing things out of it. Sometimes you need to look at somebody else’s art to get perspective; I realized what they’re doing really is art. Maybe what I’m doing is really art, too? That’s when I started focusing on it.”
Since becoming more comfortable with himself and his work, Tilley often examines subject matter after-the-fact, rather than working toward a specific idea. He likens it to psycho-analysis, and uses a finished piece to reflect upon the inner workings of his subconscious.
“I’ve always felt like a Jungian analyst would probably tell me all kinds of things about myself, if they saw my art,” he laughs. “Mortality is a big thing for me. I’d be thinking of death, or I’d be thinking of impermanence, so bones would come in. There’s a Christian order—Cistercians—and they’re taught to keep death before them at all times, always be aware of your own mortality. As you get older, you start to realize you have less time. I started doing this full-time at age 50, and you start to feel like you’ve got to hurry up and do things.”
Perhaps the most striking example is Tilley’s “Cock and Bull Story.” The painting focuses on an abstracted bull, with a skeletal face leering vacantly beneath two upturned horns. Its bovine body is a lattice of jagged lines, evoking spiderwebs and stained-glass in equal measure. However, a mouth-less head stares transfixed at the viewer with spirals where his eyes should be. The rest of his body is merely a suggestion, occupied by the empty space of the bull’s underside—complete with prominent genitalia. On one side of the painting, scattered hands reach heavenward toward a dove flying out of the bull’s backside. On the other side, a solitary figure raises a hand in reproach, and shields itself from the bull’s privates, which are aimed directly at him. Like many figures in Tilley’s work, this one is slightly translucent with hints of bone peeking through coats of pale, neon flesh. The painting emerged as an emblem of Tilley’s political angst.
“The bull is a political figure,” he clarifies. “We call them ‘leaders,’ but I don’t think they really are. They go on and on to us about peace, but in the end it’s worth nothing more than a fart in the wind. The hands are all the people, clamoring for more bullshit from the bull, and the bull just wants its ego stroked. Maybe this shell-shocked figure is saying, ‘No more, I’ve had enough.’ Meanwhile, the face inside the bull is, as the Quakers believe, that of God or divinity within everyone—even the people you might think of as not being the best people. It seemed like a wounded soul within a demonic-looking bull showing us all how we are still people.”
Reverence for the human condition—with acknowledgment of both good and bad—runs through Tilley’s work. He recognizes commonalities alongside differences. The same way his bestial bull has human elements, every figure contains numerous colors that ultimately become unified by virtue of being brought together. To this end, Tilley hopes to inspire people in the same way he felt inspired by seeing other artists work, without worrying about whether or not the artistic outcome is considered “good.”
“I wanted to inspire people, especially young kids,” Tilley remarks. “If you want to be an artist, start while you’re still living with your parents. . . . If I’d known at 18 I wanted to do this, and I could’ve painted eight hours a day back then, I’d be amazing now,” he laughs. “I want to show progression. I feel like you can see my confidence and technique move through the pieces.”
“Full Time” opens March 23 during the Fourth Friday Art Walk. Most original paintings are for sale, and Tilley will offer posters, prints, and even full-color books during the opening reception as lower-budget options.