ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Multimedia artist Eric Tillinghast began working with the subject of water in the mid-1990s. His current 30-piece “Water/Nymph” solo exhibition at the Richard Levy Gallery addresses a couple of facets of his investigation into the nature of water and our perception of the life-giving liquid.
The exhibition opens with “Puddles,” a floor-mounted sculpture consisting of shallow black cast-iron bowls filled with water in a layered organic arrangement. The stacked bowls are epoxy powder coated in flat black, offering a matt background for the shiny and reflective water.
Since the finish on the bowls is water resistant, the edges of the “puddles” are folded under by surface tension, creating the illusion of solidity, as if the water were a shiny black river-polished pebble that had been placed in each bowl.
The perceptual flip between liquid and solid makes this sculpture an interesting experience.
To make the 29 remaining works Tillinghast collected postcards with water themes from a number of sources and vintages. He then painstakingly masked out almost everything except the water. With subjects ranging from ocean beaches, swimming pools and waterfalls to raging rivers, Tillinghast gave sculptural form to waters shaped by their environments and or containers.
In his “Delphi,” two women wearing bikinis float on their backs in a turquoise pool within an artfully ambiguous setting. Though the title may reference an ancient Greek oracle or the temple of Apollo and amphitheater where the Olympics were born, it most likely connects to a day spa by the same name in Southern California.
There are several other beach scenes, a sailboat, hotel swimming pools and other quotidian images that address some aspects of water and how we relate to it but do not challenge the imagination. For me the more interesting pieces are a series of waterfalls and two sectional pieces of roiling river water.
Because Tillinghast paints out their surroundings, his waterfalls become free-standing water sculptures with monumental temple aspects. In “Horse Creek Falls” the cascading waters form a complex surface and inner structure reminiscent of ancient Hindu stone temples that are so laden with detailed embellishment that their vibrant surfaces seem to be dissolving.
Tillinghast’s “Havasu Falls” forms a vertical pyramid that echoes some ancient Mayan structures.
One of my fellow graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania dropped objects into milk and captured the resulting splash on high speed film. He would then reproduce the images in painted wood as free-standing sculpture. The same student also built vibrating boxes that formed water into geometric shapes.
Though this exhibition only touches the edges of what Tillinghast has produced since 1994 it alludes to possibilities far beyond what we are viewing.
His river vignettes reveal the violent power of water to gouge out whole canyons, power our electrical grid or destroy our homes and farms with floods.
When Tillinghast opened his Santa Fe studio in 1995 we were just entering a two-decade-long drought that remains a threat to our future while other parts of the country have been plagued by floods and violent weather.
And, by the way, Tillinghast’s altered postcards have all the right stuff from an art history buff’s perspective. These small works embody post-modernist deconstruction, found-object art, vernacular photography, minimalism and the tenets of surrealism. So he hit one out of the park.
I just can’t get Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” out of my head: “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”