'Diaspora' 1992 oilstick, gouache, synthetic polymer paint Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa | 
'Izkliede' 1994  gouache, synthetic polymer paint From the Gene and Brian Sherman Collection | 
'Farewell to reason' 1996  oil and oil stick, synthetic polymer paint on prepared canvas boards Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

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The more we look at his paintings, the more pervasive Tillers’s own presence becomes, not only through his very particular method of painting but also through constant references to the artist’s role and his shifting identity.
Nicholas Baume1

By the time Imants Tillers was selected to represent Australia at the 42nd Venice Biennale in 1986, his work had received considerable national and international recognition. Betty Churcher, then chair of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, wrote in the Biennale catalogue:

[Tillers] represented Australia at the 13th Sao Paulo Bienal in 1975 and participated in the Kassel Documenta of 1982. He was recently represented in the successful exhibition, An Australian Accent, held in P.S.1, New York and since then has regularly exhibited with the Bess Cutler Gallery in New York.

She noted that Tillers had collaborated closely with Kerry Crowley at the Yuill/Crowley Gallery in Sydney (his gallery representative at the time) to develop the Venice exhibition, in collaboration with Daniel Thomas, then Director of the initiating gallery, the Art Gallery of South Australia. Churcher concluded: ‘The major accolade … must go to the artist, Imants Tillers – we congratulate him for representing Australia so assuredly.’2

In 1986 the Australian pavilion had not yet been built in Venice and Tillers’ works were shown in the old Arsenale building. The works, which looked quite remarkable in this setting, included six major canvasboard paintings: Heart of the wood 1985,
I am the door 1985, Mount Analogue 1985, Psychic (for Yves Klein) 1986, The Kondratiev wave 1986, and Thehyperborean and the speluncar 1986. After the relatively tentative beginnings of the early canvasboard works, the paintings shown in Venice revealed a marked confidence. They demonstrated the realisation of a vision that Tillers had been developing over the past few years towards an art in which provincialism, fragmentation and distance could be seen as highly productive material for an artist. He recognised that the tendency towards mimicry could be used to advantage, particularly when the source was itself the subject of transformation through the dotscreen matrix of reproductions disseminated around the world. In the Venetian context the works – reinvested with the aura of originals – that shone from the old walls within the cavernous space of the Arsenale were confronting for some viewers, and were also deeply intriguing in their painterliness, scale and sense of daring. Provincial or not provincial, the centres and the peripheries appeared as one.

In the context of this study the focus is on those works that reveal transformations in relation to a deepening personal philosophical approach that would reverberate in his later work, and that provides the springboard for the discussion of related works. Although Tillers’ interest in cross-cultural issues would come to the fore in his Diaspora series in the following decade, these earlier works reveal that his preoccupation with the shifting nature of our personal and collective identities and displacements was apparent in the mid 1980s, as it had been from the beginning of the canvasboard system.

1 Nicholas Baume, ‘Where truth is no stranger to fiction: Imants Tillers, Kangaroo blank 1988’, in Creating Australia, two hundred years of art: 1788–1988, exhibition catalogue, Adelaide: International Cultural Corporation of Australia Ltd and Art Gallery Board of South Australia, 1988, p.227.

2 Betty Churcher, in Imants Tillers: Venice Biennale 1986 Australia, exhibition catalogue, Adelaide: Art Gallery Board of South Australia and the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, Sydney, 1986, p.54.

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