Eric Tillinghast: Water/Nymph at Richard Levy Gallery

Northern California-based artist Eric TiIlinghast has been working with water for almost two decades. His diverse oeuvre includes ambitious large-scale installations, sculpture, site-specific works, public art commissions and paintings. In his exhibition Water/Nymph, currently on view at Richard Levy Gallery in Albuquerque, Tillinghast offers up 41 re-contextualized vintage postcards. In these works, he identifies the water feature and meticulously paints over the surrounding environments, leaving only the essential shape of the water and the occasional figures. In many cases, his obsessive process requires the application of 50 of more layers of paint to seamlessly blend and cover up the background image, leaving the surface impossibly smooth and almost devoid of the artist’s hand. As Tillinghast explores bodies of water in all forms - swimming pools, lakes, waterfalls, dams, watersheds and tidal flows, what emerges is a meditation of form in both a natural and domestic context. The results of this aesthetic experience offer a sublime contemplation of our perceptions of Earth’s most abundant resource. I recently had the opportunity to ask Tillinghast some questions about his process. -Claude Smith, Albuquerque/Santa Fe Contributor



Eric Tillinghast |Clytie, 2013, acrylic on postcard, 3.5 x 5.5 inches; Image courtesy of Richard Levy Gallery

Eric Tillinghast | Delphi, 2013, acrylic paint on postcard, 3.5 x 5.5 inches; Image courtesy the artist

Claude Smith: What prompted your fascination with water? Having lived in Santa Fe at one point, was it a natural inclination for you to focus on the one resource that the desert ecosystem lacks in abundance?   

Eric Tillinghast: I began the water series in 1994 in California, with the simple goal of using water as a sculptural material.  When I came to New Mexico I continued this work, but it’s identity as a resource in NM was not a central part of my process until several years ago when I built the Rain Machine at CCA in Santa Fe.

Eric Tillinghast | Hosfelt Falls, 2013, acrylic on postcard, 3.5 x 5.5 inches; Image courtesy of Richard Levy Gallery

CS: When did you start painting postcards and what was your impetus for developing this body of work?

ET: The postcard paintings began in 2011, and were a continuation of some other works on paper in which I was doing similar things digitally.  I began finding postcards with water features, and really took to the idea of making paintings out of found images. 

CS: At first glance, what seems like something that is simplistic in terms turns out to be rather complex. Can you describe your process?

ET: These images all have a central water feature, and as these paintings began it was my intention to remove the context of each, leaving behind just the shape, color, and surface qualities of the water.  Eventually I began picking and choosing other elements to include in the final image, namely people, and found that this creates a distinct narrative dimension for each.

Eric Tillinghast | Rainbow Falls, 2013, acrylic on postcard, 3.5 x 5.5 inches; Image courtesy of Richard Levy Gallery

Eric Tillinghast | Tucson Desert Inn, 2013, acrylic on postcard, 3.5 x 5.5 inches; Image courtesy of Richard Levy Gallery

CS: You manage to remove the contextual information of the original postcards with almost no reference to the process or brushwork. How does the creation of these works by hand (as opposed to digital manipulation or other methods) affect the significance or impact?

ET: I still believe that artists’ hand is essential, and after making a number of these types of works digitally, I found that I simply enjoy the process of making paintings much more. 

Eric Tillinghast | Angel Falls, 2013, acrylic on postcard, 10 x 7 inches; Image courtesy of Richard Levy Gallery


Eric Tillinghast | Iasis, 2013, acrylic on postcard, 3.5 x 5.5 inches; Image courtesy of Richard Levy Gallery

CS: Many of the images in Water/Nymph are quite strong formally. Aside from a body of water, what particular attributes do you look for in a postcard that you’re about to paint over? What are your considerations for composition?

ET: I am quite selective about picking out the original images, there is often too much obscuring the water, shadows, trees, etc., so finding photographs that will work is a whole process in and of itself.  One of the most captivating elements for me in creating these paintings is that I am not completely responsible for the composition, but rather am finding compositions that I like within the found images.

Eric Tillinghast | Sunshine Hotel, 2013, acrylic on postcard, 3.5 x 5.5 inches; Image courtesy of Richard Levy Gallery

CS: By obscuring landmarks or reference to location on the original postcard, you essentially undermine its role as an object. How does the idea of place fit into your work? Is it that anonymity that allows for the work to become an object of contemplation rather than a commodification?

ET: The anonymity that results from omitting the background and context from these images is very interesting for me, and ultimately functions as a way of truly isolating the visual characteristics of the water itself.  This has been the focus of all of the water pieces for some time now, and is for me an effort to examine our perceptions of water and the range of meanings we assign to it.


Eric Tillinghast | Diver, 2013, acrylic on postcard, 3.5 x 5.5 inches; Image courtesy of Richard Levy Gallery

CS: As a reoccurring theme, your work addresses our various relationships with water both in natural and domestic states. Is it a coincidence that the majority of the works in this exhibition speak to recreation and a sort of pedestrian notion of water? 

ET: The social, civic, and pedestrian relationships that people and communities have with water is perhaps the latest chapter in my work with water.  The works in this exhibition definitely reflect this interest, as do much of the new sculptures and installations. The Fountains, Wishing Wells, and Rain Machines all explore these relationships and the history every culture has around the meaning of water.


Eric Tillinghast’s work has been exhibited at prestigious museums around the world including The Galerie der Stadt Mainz Bruckenturm in Mainz, Germany, Rocket in London, P.S. in Amsterdam, and The Center For Contemporary Non-Objective Art in Brussels. His work can be found in the permanent collections of the Albright-Knox Gallery, the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Wisconsin, the Museum of Fine Art in Santa Fe, Portland State University, and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona among others. Although Tillinghast has roots in the southwest, having lived in Santa Fe for many years, he currently lives and works in California. 

Claude Smith is an arts administrator and educator living and working in Albuquerque, NM.


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