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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Emma Elizabeth Tillman's hunt for beauty in the banality of everyday life

Photographs taken over the course of ten years make for an arresting show

Iceland, 2010. By Emma Elizabeth Tillman. Courtesy of the artist
Iceland, 2010. By Emma Elizabeth Tillman. Courtesy of the artist

The photographs of Emma Elizabeth Tillman investigate the beauty of the mundane. Across 90 collages of image and text, she has recorded and annotated much of the past decade of her life, creating a deep textual diary of a time in which she criss-crossed the globe, developing as an artist and as a person.

“Disco Ball Soul is a collection of memories. It documents my life until 2016 – the start of my relationship with my husband, landscapes and travel, as well as rooms both home and abroad.

“All the collages from this [show] give me access to a memory, and each one feels particular and special,” says Tillman. (whose other half is the sardonic troubadour Josh Tillman AKA Father John Misty). “A decade, no matter where it begins is a significant amount of time and I wanted to make a book out of this chapter of my life to finalise it and move on.”

George's Apartment, Paris, November 2016 by Emma Elizabeth Tillman
George's Apartment, Paris, November 2016 by Emma Elizabeth Tillman

Her body of work began to take shape in 2007, when she travelled to Arizona to meet her then-boyfriend Rick in a decrepit adobe house rooted in the lonely grandeur of the desert. The couple decamped to a rural cottage in Brittany, France, where again they lived with few creature comforts – no running water or electricity, a fireplace run on scavenged wood to warm themselves, and vegetables stolen from local farms.

Despite the obvious privations, Tillman remembers this time the most fondly.

“The photographs of my time spent living in rural France mean the most to me as an artist, because they mark the start of something. I can see myself learning how to take my feelings and put them into the image,” she says.

While the show also features pictures from further perambulations across Europe, recording trips to Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, Germany, Tuscany and Iceland, the bulk of the photographs and collages are taken across the United States.

Josh on Mulholland Drive, October, 2011 by Emma Elizabeth Tillman
Josh on Mulholland Drive, October, 2011 by Emma Elizabeth Tillman

It is here that you can see Tillman enter into a grand and proud tradition inhabited by homegrown photographers such as William Eagleton, Nan Goldin and Stephen Shore, capturing the colours and smells and feel of people’s personal and private lives in the vast spaces outside the conurbations we are familiar with from popular culture.

“[Goldin and Shore] are masters of this in their medium. The intimacy is true, but the moment they choose to reveal is one heightened and dreamlike. This style brings submerged beauty to the surface for air and creates a mood that captures the imagination of the viewer.”

While a lot of Tillman’s work is personal and intimate, with portraits of herself and her husband, her landscapes see her turn her gaze outward, replacing the inner space of her emotional life with wide open vistas of Big Sur in California, or the distantly viewed skyline of Los Angeles from up in the Hollywood Hills, where she lives.

Los Angeles, May 2016, Emma Elizabeth Tillman
Los Angeles, May 2016, Emma Elizabeth Tillman

“I would have to say the landscapes [are my favourite pieces in the show], for what is hidden in them or just beyond the frame,” Tillman says. “Landscapes hold history, they transcend time by their presence, and their mystery can be captured in the mood of a photograph.”

With its warm, smudged colours, the California represented in her landscapes is like a sun-kissed Bohemia from a half-remembered dream, transporting you instantly to a meadow where the sun is on your back and the smell of nature is in the air.

Tillman poured her heart and soul into this show. She painstakingly created the 90 collages from photographs and excerpts from her personal diaries, written in ink on to masking tape and assembled. The opportunity to re-experience the initial sensations, associated with the creation of words and pictures, cuts to the heart of Tillman’s work.

Big Sur, After my wedding, September 2013. Emma Elizabeth Tillman
Big Sur, After my wedding, September 2013. Emma Elizabeth Tillman

Life is fleeting – we do not get the chance for a second act, but we can relive and reexamine those moments that chimed with a

greater resonance.

“Each photograph is an intentional moment,” Tillman says. “The images are spontaneous but they’re not random. I may know instinctually what will make for a good photograph before I take it, but this comes from many years of experience, a critical eye and understanding my role as an artist and what will capture the imagination of the viewer.”

Her next project remains in the visual sphere: “I have just written a feature-length film set in France which is being translated into French. The story centres around a young wife’s relationship with her husband and another man. The narrative flips forward and backward in time, and spans many locations in France, the UK and Italy.”

Emma Elizabeth Tillman’s Disco Ball Soul runs until August 30 at Gallery 46, 46 Ashfield Street, London. For more information, see www.gallery46.co.uk

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