A secret hideout is an inconspicuous place where a hero or villain and his cohorts retreat, usually underwater, in a cave or some other uninviting environment. For our purposes, it’s a former Detroit Department of Human Services building, recently purchased by St. Paul’s Cathedral, where Bryant Tillman not so secretly lives and works as an artist and temporary caretaker for the church. Currently the Secret Hideout is playing triple duty, having taken on the role of temporary exhibition space for Tillman’s paintings, pastels and drawings.
Having been a student of the late painting powerhouse Bradley Jones, Tillman’s work bears some of the marks of post-Cass Corridor Detroit art, but his interests in the impressionists also affiliates him with the Blue Rider artists Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Unlike the grittier post-industrial work that sprang from the Cass Corridor in the late ’60s and ’70s, Tillman’s paintings are more formal and deliberate. He also relies heavily on strong diagonal compositions common among Bauhaus-era painters, with a palate that’s more Arshile Gorky than Michael Luchs.
Tillman finds inspiration in jazz, and, several years ago, the icon John Coltrane had a particularly profound effect on him. He remembers the first moment, back in 1997, when he put in the cassette of Coltrane’s 1964 classic ALove Supreme, and began to paint. "The musicality of Supreme is almost encrusted in the dancing parallel rows of scripted energy, until it almost hums with an earthen tone that suspends the impasto furrows forward from the background of the painting." So how does Tillman feel when listening to the music? Like a good musician, he flows: "Enraptured, or transported; Pentecostal seizures. It wasn’t my intention to promote or glorify him through anything I did with a paintbrush, but certainly he did something for me."
Coltrane’s music is still important to him, but lately it’s more of a starting point. For instance, The Coltranes of St. Paul, painted over the past few months, transcends literal references. The most recent paintings on display at the Secret Hideout move freely between expressive mark-making and linear abstraction. In this way, Tillman is able to contrast loose diagonal brushstrokes with tighter illusionist forms packed in one composition. At 68 inches square, "17 William" is an impressive and menacing painting. Expressive earthen-toned marks climb from the lower left to the upper right of the canvas. Simultaneously emerging from and immersed in those marks are several blue and white wing-shaped forms that push back toward the lower left.
Though the imagery often references landscape, these newer paintings feel more foreign than familiar. Unlike many other gestural painters, Tillman’s works are mysterious without the use of non-local color. If Tillman feels like referencing grass, his pallet consists of greens, yellows and blues. He also exhibits a consistent understanding of how to successfully render forms without jeopardizing the integrity of the more spontaneous sections of the canvas. This marriage of often divergent techniques demonstrates in Tillman a much more sophisticated understanding of the nature of painting than one might at first assume. In a city where painterly abstraction and pseudo expressionism could be generously described as an unfortunately ubiquitous Motown trend, or practically an infestation, Tillman’s newest paintings display a unique sensitivity.
Tillman recently survived a terrible fire that ruined a lot of his art and left him homeless until early this year. He’s thankful to finally have the Secret Hideout as a transitional space, but the environment makes it difficult to focus on the art. His work is really more suited for exhibition in spaces like Birmingham’s Robert Kidd Gallery, where his paintings are isolated and the viewer can attend to the canvas. At the Secret Hideout, the viewer is bombarded by the surroundings, rather than the artist’s talent. Though at times this can be intentional and interesting, in this instance, it’s distracting. Until the time comes that Tillman’s work is pulled from the margins, we should be grateful that all we have to do is find our way to the Secret Hideout, where the artist and his saint’s secrets reside.
The Secret Hideout opens to the public 6-9 p.m. on Fridays at 2424 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit.Nolan Simon is an artist and writer. Send comments to [email protected]