Statements & Essays

Peter Tilley, 2011

The current body of work shifts between still life tableau and compositions based around the figure. It could be seen as a dialogue with the self while reflecting on issues of the times and the nature of society. A physical manifestation of the personal and the universal through the use of an unassuming figure grouped with everyday objects. There is a recurring meditation on life’s opposing forces of hope/despair, real/wishful, life/death and permanence/decay etc. The form and context of these works will to a large extent be intuitively understood, being derived from concepts commonly encountered. However, at the same time the work can be rich in contradiction and complexity, implying an experience of the real world.

Peter Tilley, 2011


‘Black Harvest’ by Andy Devine and Peter Tilley.

This pairing of Andy Devine and Peter Tilley for the exhibition ‘Black Harvest’ came about as a result of the conceptual similarities in our separate mediums, the complementary nature of the two bodies of work and a mutual respect for each other’s art making practice. The exhibition comprises both individual artworks in our chosen mediums as well as a series of collaborative artworks.

The collaborative 3D collages and free standing sculptural pieces, assembled from paintings, printing plates and objects either found or made, embrace the idea that the works remain open to a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations. Duality of meaning is an aspect that we have consistently pursued and consciously incorporated in our work. There is an apparent simplicity to the objects and images yet they are richly symbolic and capable of multiple or contradictory interpretations. This is an area of primary importance to us both. The symbolism can be read as a metaphor for humankind’s disregard for the natural world. There is also an undercurrent of the lived experience both artists have weathered before settling in Newcastle.

There are multiple references to Newcastle and the Hunter Valley, with images of the local landscape, industrial and otherwise, narratives of personal history and political concerns.  The practice of both artists carries oblique references to sustainability and environmental degradation.  This amounts to a contemporary dichotomy reflecting on the region’s history, nostalgic memory and a possible future.

The industrial suburbia of Newcastle and Kooragang Island is at once obnoxious and strangely appealing, a rich source for subject matter and comment.

Andy Devine was born in 1967 in Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire, England. He moved to London in 1988 to take up a position at the London College of Furniture. After completing his studies he travelled for several years until he migrated to Australia in 1999.

Devine’s practice is focused on an expression of the inherent want to reconcile his geographic displacement with a need for a sense of belonging. This displaced reawakening is constructed through gestural imagery of industrial landscapes. He senses a strong romanticism in these landscapes and is driven to self-reflect, conveying nostalgia and often melancholy.

Peter Tilley born Melbourne, Vic. 1946, received a Certificate of Art and Ceramics from the Newcastle School of Art and Design, NSW, was also privately trained as a sculptor and awarded Master of Philosophy (Fine Art) University of Newcastle . Since establishing his career, Peter has been the recipient of many Sculpture and Ceramic prizes as well as receiving various high profile commissions. Peter’s exhibiting history is extensive, with over 75 group shows and 30 solo exhibitions to his name.

Tilley states, “Together with traditional carved and cast pieces, my own work often includes arrangements of found objects resulting in mixed media assemblages. They continue the theme of utilising my own experience as a raw material, and the basis for the narrative in what I refer to as ‘still life tableaux’.  A recurring theme and methodology that has been part of my sculpture making practice for more than 35 years.  When producing these works I try to achieve a visual simplicity that is incisive and intuitively accepted, yet capable of complex layers of meaning.”

Andy Devine, Peter Tilley. April 2014


Peter Tilley and the Garden of Death

Helen Hopcroft, Art Monthly, October 2012
Download the article as a PDF.


Reflective Dialogues

An exhibition of work by:
Chris Capper, Andy Devine, Chris Langlois, Peter Tilley.
University Gallery, the University of Newcastle. 9 May – 16 June 2012

Catalogue Essay extract

Peter Tilley’s three panels are more clearly self reflective than the other works in this exhibition as their contrivance forces us to contemplate the meanings and implications of the abstract nouns of emotional states that we use automatically and casually. Limiting himself to panels of cut out letters symbolising, perhaps the Pure and Ideal, in white, the darker Risk, in graphite and the Reality, in rusted tones, Tilley has reflected on the natural human states that drive us, and their possible consequences. He has reworked Robert Indiana’s Pop LOVE graphic, and imbued it with a personal story. Reducing the complexities of experiences to semiotics or blocks of four letter words is a poignant method of focusing on the fundamental emotional issues which affect us all. As they are specific and personal all. Responses will be universal.

Tilley’s free standing works monumentalise the sentiments of two concepts from the panels and visualise the risks involved in their attainment. PAIR adds a presence and solemnity to the letter arrangement by placing it on an altar / shrine to the bond of friendship or coupling. As the ambiguous form references a shrine or headstone, it causes the viewer to ponder the power and stability of an ideal, something that can be attained only through literal physical effort. The opposing figures of bond face each other across an uneven form which is revealed as a handshake only from a distance, symbolising the unsteady and possibly hazardous nature of friendship.

Michael Hedger 2012

Resonance and Paradox

Arranging and rearranging sticks, seeds or bones must have been one of the first acts of the imagination performed by our hominid ancestors; the very origin of art making. Art has of course always been the interplay between creative thought and the available materials. But in our dislocated century, artists in many fields have found primary inspiration in the physical properties of their raw materials. Media have set up their own messages. And in the visual arts, the real world, barely meditated, is the terrain of artists as diverse as Andy Goldsworthy, Damien Hirst and Joseph Beuys. In the same spirit, it is vital to Peter Tilley that the bones in his new works are the bones of not only real but untamed birds, ass he augments the power of the actual objects with its fastidiously crafted setting.

Shallow boxes contain grids of tiny bones, as regular and yet diverse as taxonomically ordered displays of butterflies. The bones were collected over weeks, even months in the vast dunes within sight of Peter Tilley’s studio, bleached by the sun or unearthed in the shifting sands behind a long wild beach. Brought together, they recreate the flocks of sooty shearwaters flying back each year to the east coast of Australia after their astounding figure-of-eight migration around the Pacific Ocean. For millions rather than thousands of years, birds exhausted by lack of food and adverse weather have died before reaching their traditional breeding grounds in Bass Strait and beyond.

Unlike the giant moas of New Zealand, where vast bone deposits are evidence of their systematic slaughter, the shearwater migrations have not suffered from human intervention; survivors so far in our increasingly polluted ecosystems.

The flocks of bones float above their shadows. The illusion of flight is deliberate. In some cases the surface of the grid undulates with ripples of energy. Spirals are metaphors for expanding forces.

But not all the bones come from birds. Other animals have died in the sandhills. Sawn-off fragments of shoulders and hips are assembled as miniature landscapes. Profiles of distant peaks and ranges Display the same undetailed outlines as the drawings of unknown coastlines in the log books of our maritime explorers; ambiguous in scale, rich in promise, as teasing to the imagination as a giant iceberg or the mountains of the moon.

As background material, lead sheeting lends the works a changing but neutral patina and a further layer of associations. Peter Tilley is aware of its disturbing cultural significance in the tainted water supply of ancient Rome and as the material used through the ages for enclosing the dead. It was also the base material of the alchemists, ultimately resisting their attempts to transform it into gold.

Death cults haunt much of Peter Tilley’s art from the past ten years. As in Pharaonic Egypt, the trappings of death contain the secrets of eternal life. Is ti the mummified but battered corpse of Tutankhamun that lives on in the imagination, or the glorious golden mask? Or do we need them both?

Jill Stowell


Strangley Beautiful

There is much about Peter Tilley that the artist keeps hidden. He is a calm and gentle man, never aloof, but always reserved. Tilley addresses the world around him through his sculpture; he creates oblique narratives through the combination of aesthetic forms. The objects he selects bring to each tableau their own histories so that the completed work has several levels of meanings. As with most of Tilley’s work, the fundamental principle is that the microcosm is woven and layered with the macrocosm.

This exhibition showcases Tilley’s strength in the construction of three-dimensional still-lifes. In renovating a tradition that spans centuries, Tilley shows an understanding of the aesthetics of form and surface which is equal to any. He engages directly with making forms work together and manipulates seemingly incongruous objects into effective combinations. Like solving a cryptic crossword puzzle, Tilley’s unusual placement of objects with seemingly no connection brings an odd kind of aesthetic resolution which is mysteriously satisfying. According to Tilley, “it keeps you on the edge a little bit”.

Tilley’s tableaux are layered in a way which invites multiple interpretations. While each object, and each combination of objects, has multiple histories that are personal and particular to Tilley they also carry broader social and contextual meanings. At a primary level, Tilley’s work interprets the environment around him: the interface between the natural world of wetlands and tidal creeks and the industrial suburbia around Newcastle. Kooragang Island, an industrial complex built on a matrix of ever-changing wetlands on the lower reaches of the Hunter River, provides aesthetic inspiration. In a romantic sense, Kooragang Island pits man against nature, but Tilley subsumes this dialectic into an aesthetic format. “Kooragang Island is a wonderful mix of shapes and colours and textures”, says Tilley. “Visually it is really very exciting: a positive and negative mix of images.”

Tilley brings the macrocosm of the industrial wetlands into his own world through the symbol of the silver boat. “The silver boats are sort of precious. They refer to suburbia on the edge of an industrial complex.” The work, “Go Further, Fare Worse”, sets one of these boats against the backdrop of a blast furnace crucible and an industrial stack with its toxic spume. The industrial suburbia of Kooragang Island and Throsby Creek, where the artist has his studio, is at once obnoxious and strangely appealing.

The silver boats are also layered with autobiography. Building on his previous exhibition, Tilley includes magnificently crafted vessels that are beautifully cast adrift with neither propulsion nor steerage. Tilley understands that there is the promise of a better life, but he has omitted the means to arrive there. Instead, he must rely on passing currents. In the work “The Foolish Act”, the silver boat engages achingly with a lily set in a vase. And while there is a window set between the two, a barrier which describes a relationship of gentle melancholia, we are inexorably drawn into a future filled with hope and promise.

Over the last twelve months, Tilley has buried himself in his work and in the possibilities of a sweet life. And while asserting a certain optimism in his future, Tilley allows himself to reflect nostalgically on his past. In this exhibition, the artist incorporates many objects which echo with great personal resonance including a self-portrait torso, modelled on Michealangelo’s “Dying Slave”. Faceless clocks, plumbobs, eggs and various vessels from the past have all been modified and included in this body of work. Tilley delights in revisiting these objects which describe his artistic and personal history. They are, according to the artist, “elements of great joy”.

In this exhibition, Tilley has presented objects and ideas from his past to describe his optimism for the future. He has taken the experiences of joy in his life, and their manifest objects, and rearranged them into tableaux of hope for the future. He sets this microcosm of his own world within the macrocosm of industrial suburbia. This is a compelling exhibition which is strangely beautiful.

Paul Magin August 2004


Adrift in a Small Vessel

Peter Tilley explains that ‘Adrift in a Small Vessel’ is a cathartic response to recent events in his life. On the surface, it refers to the tribulations and constant delays associated with relocating and building on the waterfront at Newcastle’s Throsby Creek, the endemic neighbourly disputes and the two-year creative hiatus brought about by the lack of a studio space due to this ongoing process. Tilley’s vulnerability to life’s vicissitudes manifests itself in the deliberately open-ended title of the exhibition and in the flotilla of meticulously hand crafted vessels or ‘lifeboats’ as Tilley insists, with his tongue planted quite firmly in his cheek.

The boats are pared down to their basic forms. It is however their shape that primarily attracts Tilley and their archetypal symbolism sustains his interest. However, the obvious lack of any useful apparatus imperative for their function as ‘lifeboats’ such as masts, sails and in some instances rudders and oars, precludes any hope or chance of rescue or immediate salvation. The boat assemblage ‘Maritime’ contains both oars but has been stripped of its primary function (so too has the faceless clock) and is left stranded high and dry. Tilley’s wry humour permeates this piece as he is all too aware that his personal experiences are universal: “At times,” Tilley declares, “we all know what it feels like to be rowing and rowing and not physically getting anywhere!” This overwhelming sense of pathos is expressed in ‘Break in the clouds’, with an obvious and poignant hint of irony in the proverbial expression “every cloud has a silver lining.”

In addition to adding visual and aesthetic interest, Tilley’s choice of materials is important on a symbolic level. The use of lead alludes to previous works, replete with subtle funerary references. This aspect is restated through the lead bases that anchor a few of the vessels and the patina randomly formed by the oxidation process has fluvial connotations; it resembles the wake of water left by the boats passing. The lead-lined hulls refer to the custom of lining caskets to bury the dead. The found objects in ‘Adrift in a small vessel’ and ‘Salvage of bones’ reinforce the cyclical theme of life, death and resurrection recurrent in Tilley’s oeuvre: delicate porcelain roses discarded from graveyards were once votives to loved-ones, gilded bones suspend the decay of a once living bird and the mummified figure seems to refer to self-preservation and the Egyptian salvation deity Osiris. The death-laden assemblages defy maudlin sensibilities due to Tilley’s clarity of expression and deft craftsmanship. Tilley also presents a clever double-edged meditation on life’s opposing forces: life/death, permanence/decay, movement/stasis, internal/external and hope/despair; all bound by the confines of time.

Tilley admits that his need for a literal escape from the trivialities of quotidian life has become urgent. The crafted body-vessels allude to spiritual ascension, a kind of transcendence associated with Egyptian funerary rites (theosophically of interest to the artist) and the symbolic cleansing of the soul to enter the afterlife. Life’s journey is not without its perils, yet for Tilley, fecundity prevails. A spiritual “guardian” figure inhabits the carved-out hull of ‘Keep afloat’, offering providence and protection, affirming that life will indeed go on. Tilley identifies himself with the only self-propelled boat in the exhibition, ‘On the lee side’. The boat nestles into the lee side of a conical shell that symbolises the cornucopia (horn of plenty) and the expanding forces of the spiral. It is a positive image and suggests that Tilley has ultimately found shelter and repose on a deeper and more spiritual level. He has faith in his ability to be creative and positive under extraneous circumstances. The vessels can thus be interpreted as symbolic references to life giving forces, self-sufficiency and fecundity, with the gentle intimation and acknowledgement of death and decay as an inevitable part of life’s process.

Tilley insists that his work s operate on varying levels, resembling archaeological strata with layers upon layers of meaning. It is imperative that the viewer brings to the works their own remembrance of life experiences. By focussing on archetypal forms such as the vessel and the boat, Tilley is able to make his personal experiences universally accessible.

Rebecca Gresham, August 2003