Tony Hill Exhibit Spans Five Decades of Artistic Diversity
Career retrospective brings highlights from the multi-talented artist's immense body of work together for the first time at Banbridge's F.E. McWilliam Gallery
The F.E. McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge is hosting yet another significant modern art exhibition and I am privileged to gain a sneak preview in the company of the artist himself. Tony Hill begins his tour with an anecdote to clear up any confusion about his real identity. 'I don’t have a strong digital imprint, so if you Google Tony Hill you are just as likely to hit upon the Scottish actor or the filmmaker who lives in Bodmin in Cornwall and whom I actually met in Newry, County Down,' he says. 'He was screening his work in the town and I went along; it turned out I was the only one there apart from him so we had a good old chat.'
This affable, energetic artist and experienced teacher with a distinct north country accent was born within sight of the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa in 1949 but grew up in Huddersfield in Yorkshire. He studied at the Manchester College of Art and Design where the foundation course was, he says, just brilliant. 'We worked through all of the art movements of the first half of the 20th century and had to produce a 30 piece portfolio in order to be accepted to the next level.'
He moved on to Maidstone College of Art where he studied under the renowned landscape painter Keith Grant and then spent two years at the State Academy in Dusseldorf in the class of Joseph Beuys, whom he defines as 'an enormous political presence'. In 1975 Hill received his Higher Diploma in Fine Art from the Slade School at London University and in the same year was appointed Lecturer in Fine Art at the School of Art and Design at the Ulster Polytechnic in Belfast. Here he set up the first Masters degree course in Northern Ireland and continued as a lecturer at the Ulster University School of Art until his retirement in 2012. Former students who established the Flax Art studios in nearby Corporation Street invited him to join them there and this remains his current work space.
This exhibition has the title Selected Works 2017 – 1972, for according to Hill, a chronological configuring of the dates would have seemed more like an obituary. He has chosen pieces which are representative of his work over the almost five decades since he became an art student in 1968.
For the occasion, four prominent art critics and commentators have contributed essays about Hill’s work. Jamshid Fenderesky, who has been exhibiting his sculptures, installations, drawings, objects, films and photographs in his Belfast gallery since 1984 describes how he met with resistance the first time he showed Hill’s work. The display in question consisted of hand size bronze pieces placed in a plywood container on the floor: ‘On a quiet afternoon a painter came to the gallery to see the show,' Hill explains; 'after a few minutes he came to me and said, "If you want to succeed in running a gallery you should be showing works that people can appreciate; this kind of nonsense will keep people away." I thanked him for his advice but there and then I knew I was onto something very important.'
This same work, bathed in light from the garden window takes pride of place in the Banbridge gallery. Hill lifts one of the small bronze pieces to show me how the original wax caste replicated the squeeze of his hand. In doing so he well illustrates the point made by the essayist, Morgan O’Hara, who writes: 'Hill’s work is a tactile and emotional response to the things which surround the man.' She also notes, 'He sees a stick of wood, a piece of cardboard, paper. He touches it, barely. He moves it ever so slightly and it becomes itself more completely. The stick of wood, cardboard, paper now has presence. It exists differently in the world and takes its place. It is now linear, present, quiet, and calm. It has identity. Tony Hill’s is the art of intense attention and care and beautifully casual restraint.'
Commenting on the work that hangs at the entrance to the gallery, a very large yellow wall hanging with a bottom border of diagonal blue roping, Hill refers to the influence of American artists whom he discovered through a landmark exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Art of the Real USA 1948 – 68 showed contemporary work by 33 artists including Kenneth Noland, Donald Judd, Frank Stella and Barnett Newman, who were making abstract art that was, according to the press release, maximal in colour and minimal in form and which marked an unprecedented interaction between painting and sculpture.
Slavka Sverakova refers to Hill as a 'dedicated modernist whose sophistication does not lie in placing colours next to each other, rather in allowing each to breathe in its own little field of being.' My eye is drawn to the horizontal lines of bright, tweedy, Donegal colours in a piece that beckons from the other side of the gallery. Hill explains its genesis. 'I get given lots of wood off cuts and this is a piece of cherry wood. I got out my big box of pastels and tried to work instinctively, drawing these lines of colour. You take a few risks and it kind of works.'
In a work inspired by Seamus Heaney’s 'Blackberry-Picking', a poem which brilliantly evokes the colour, texture and taste of the summer fruit, Hill overlays printed text with hieroglyphic shapes and patches of pure colour placed two by two and side by side – cadmium yellow, fire engine read, cobalt blue, orange, rich chocolate brown.
Hill was the first person in Belfast to print photographs from transparencies using Cibachrome, a technique seen here in a framed set of hands cupped in heart shapes. Nearby is 'The Lover’s Kiss', an inkjet photograph of clasped hands in a Venetian seascape. There’s a clever conceit here and I would never have guessed that one of the hands is that of a woman and the other that of a man. Hill pays tribute to Iris Colour photography in Belfast who print up his photographs and never fail to get the colour absolutely right.
The artist often collaborated with his wife, the painter Lynn Davies-Jones (1956 – 2004). It was she who held the camera while he lay like a washed up corpse on seashore rocks in the photographic series Shoreline - Battlefield. The couple experienced life in Belfast during the Troubles and according to Hill 'these images could evoke the newly discovered dead body that you heard about every morning on the news.'
And what of those doors standing right there in the middle of the gallery? Hill told the writer Antje von Graevenitz about their origin and their part in his 1987 installation. In December of that year he was commissioned to make an artwork for display in Downpatrick and chose Market Street as the location for 'Without Walls, a Sculpture with Words'. He bought 30 domestic doors from a building contractor in Stream Street and laid them flat on the pavement with a slab of Silurian Shale Blue Stone on each, reminiscent perhaps of graves and headstones.
At the time, in many households, there was a perpetual fear of the unknown knock on the door. While Hill was preparing the installation, an IRA bomb killed 11 people on November 11 in Enniskillen and many others were injured in the falling masonry and rubble. Safe in his own home he watched his nine month old son scan the walls, the ceiling and the doors of the living room and came up with the idea of broadcasting simple words like window, ceiling, light, wall, door, floor, chair, through a loudspeaker above the display. Most local people did not see this as art and the Down Recorder carried the headline ‘Art or Eyesore’ but the work became a talking point and a drive-by event in the late evenings. In a tragic postscript, the Stream Street contractor was shot dead by a Loyalist UFF gang.
In 1991, when the Fenderesky Gallery invited three artists to present work on the theme of vulnerability, Hill prepared a new installation called 'Crown Castle' using those same doors, the marks of the heavy stones still upon them. Coated in lime wash and patterned in pink watercolour, some of the doors stood in a semi-circle and were guarded by others arranged in a right angled wall. Taken from storage this work is here restored, knobs and all.
As we consider a dark drawing made with black, red and blue crayon pastels, just one of a moody series of Night Drawings, Hill offers a telling glimpse into the way he likes to work. 'Sometimes after I had been teaching all day a lot of drawings emerged in the early hours of the morning from the quiet silence of a personal private place.' This particular piece belongs in the collection of the artist Neil Shawcross.
Cut Out Square
Cardboard cut outs, some coloured with bright pigment are assembled as collages in a series that was deemed quite avant garde at the time of their making in the mid 1980s. In a work entitled 'Renaissance Stepladder', which dates from 2013, one such cardboard square painted antique yellow and overlaid with a tapestry-like design is placed above and to one side of a pair of folded step ladders which are suspended some two inches from the floor.
One corner of the gallery is dedicated to small wooden structures fashioned from wood off cuts coated in gesso and painted in tempera: yellow cross with blue and yellow wire. A blue and brown piece named 'The Bridge' and a vertical bright blue 'Water'.
Hill has clearly agonized about what to include and what to leave out of this show, which brings together for the first time pieces that reflect his entire artistic experience and output. Surveying the final selection he concludes the exhibition has an aesthetic look that possibly denies the more raw aspects of his work. For my part I find those intricate and intimate black and white layer drawings especially touching and, in a flight of fancy, I might be tempted to take that Stairway to the Stars.
Tony Hill's Selected Works 2017 – 1972 exhibition is on display at the F.E. McWilliam Gallery, Banbridge until Sunday, June 4. The gallery is open from 10am-5pm between Mondays and Saturdays, and from 1pm-5pm on Sundays during June. For more information visit www.femcwilliam.com.