A survey of 40 years of Imants Tillers' paintings at the University Gallery | Jill Stowell

MELANCHOLY LANDSCAPE V: One of the works included in a survey exhibition of Imants Tillers at the University Gallery.
MELANCHOLY LANDSCAPE V: One of the works included in a survey exhibition of Imants Tillers at the University Gallery.

Imants Tillers has long been recognised as a major presence in the Australian art world. So, to find a survey of 40 years of his paintings at the University Gallery until May 26 was a virtually unheralded surprise, particularly when told that these dozen large works from his private collection arrived in boxes in a family station wagon.

The paintings, some wall-filling, are assemblages of small commercial canvas boards, attached to the wall with Velcro. They are painted individually to a complex plan and are numbered in sequence, started with the first composite piece in 1981 and now approaching 10,000 components. Examples are in all major Australian galleries and have represented Australia in many international exhibitions.

They have earned a new relevance for painting in an increasingly complex world, layering images and associations from many sources, with the physical disjunction between the panels lending animation and a deceptive sense of spontaneity.

The images have many origins, appropriated from literary sources and from other artists. Irony is never far away. The neo-expressionist East German painters, superstars of post-war nihilism, have been a rich field and the exhibition contains anarchic quotes from Baselitz and Polke, still powerful in today’s less frantic Europe. Classical Surreal borrowings add further resonance.

More recently, Tillers incorporates passages of quoted text and lists of evocative names, including relics from disappearing Aboriginal languages. An indigenous presence has long been important for the artist and there have been shared projects with Aboriginal painters. He sees their plight as parallel to the cultural displacement and alienation of the migrant experience, coming to terms with a new homeland while still weighted with baggage from the old. Tillers still has strong links with his parents’ native Latvia and is assembling work for a major survey exhibition in the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga.

The Australian landscape has become increasingly dominant, layering historic process, including the ethos of its earliest inhabitants, with contemporary concerns. A wall-filling work in the exhibition starts with a borrowed panorama of sparse hills by Fred Williams. It is overlapped by borrowings from Rosalie Gascoigne’s celebrated sliced iridescent road signs cut up into abstract shapes. They gain new meaning from a litany of names of almost forgotten historical gold fields and famous mines, setting up an allegory of our layered landscape both to read and see; metaphysics vying with brush strokes.

Another work subverts an opulent flower painting by Adrian Feint, its still life vanitas suggestion amplified by a dark star of radiating spikes. Intimations of mortality in metallic geometry extend into a stellar time frame.

The large number of visitors to the University Gallery I noted during my visit confirms the importance of this opportunity to study the development of a major contemporary artist.