Dear reader, "Mr. Tillerman's World" was on display during the month of February at the Raw Deal in Menonomonie, Wisconsin. I am working on getting a picture of sufficient quality to upload. In the meantime, please use your imagination.
All art is by nature polysemic, the more so the more engrossing. Political art especially needs to pose multiple questions in order to keep our interest. If the inquiries can be answered by logic alone, the work would not be art; if they can be answered only once, it wouldn’t last long.
Brent Gonyea's recycled sculpture "Mr. Tillerman's World" triggers such a cascade of multi-dimensional questions that make it succeed as art, and as political art. It touches aspects of the human condition that provoke further inquiry, then leaves us feeling enlightened. We can't help but be prodded on so, and we sense a genuine experience of art that we hope does not end.
The entire piece is composed of wood scraps and found objects. Mr. Tillerman - a futuristic, jangly Conquistador on legs too-skinny, feet too-large, in an angular hat reminiscent of Franco's Guardia Civil or George Washington, posing as he did crossing the Potomac, chest forward, arms extended, nose in the air, nostrils flaring--stands tall and with one hand casts his fishing line into his own vessel, with the other commands his tiller. His subordinates are hunched over before him in the sunken deck, perhaps rowing but without arms. They do not look a happy lot, naturally, for they are the objects of their captain's fishing expedition. The recycled craft seems to be gleaning itself, comically, eerily.
The political dimension slaps us in the face. Mr. Tillerman a tyrant? Does he stand for a political culture founded on control, on "governing"? Overseeing the inhabitants of his vessel, all of them sunken below, Captain Tillerman is secure on feet of large copper tubing that tightly grip the stern. From this commanding position he needs no Panopticon to observe, regulate, punish the shrunken, stunted armless denizens of his world. Everything here is by nature centralized, and the Captain fancies himself Alexander Hamilton on steroids. Nothing can happen below him on deck, without his approval, and he's not bashful to shout orders like Uncle Stalin, or we imagine, an Antonin Scalia on too much red wine. His posture too suggests the overconfidence of hubris, or rather the intoxication of power, because the pose doesn't quite fit. Nevertheless, we must admit his community appears rather well governed.
The world-traveling Mr. Tillerman's feet are so firmly planted, we suspect he would only begrudgingly leave his own port and wager he would not leave his ship as it arrived in foreign ports, because we reckon he could not bear to walk on anyone else's turf. Yet, somehow, he manages to navigate the oceans of the world. That Mr. International Tillerman would not bother to learn a foreign language, or leave his own ship, doesn't seem to matter to the world, for his ignorance relieves its worries. The world even awards it with a Nobel Prize for peace. Or is it for being tall, good-looking, and nonthreatening to the international status quo? How could he threaten when he's on his own ship, speaking only his own language, circling only in the water! But Mr. International Tillerman does indeed embrace change, so long as it happens somewhere else and doesn't rock his own ship. Moreover, he shows great tolerance for what happens on other boats as long as they stay far enough away not to create waves in the waters around his own.
And although he's been awarded for peace, Mr. Tillerman looks surprisingly strong. So strong, he's been crowned Mr. Universe many times. Since his school days he's trained to “fight, fight, win,” to “b-e a-g-g-r-e-s-s-i-v-e." Fighting hard to “bring it all home” defines leadership for him, and he executes it well. With push ups and bench presses, Mr. Universe Tillerman has built up a hard shell of armor around his sensitive abdomen. And what fine, shiny armor it is!
Indeed, his political, diplomatic, and physical strength are complemented by an equally impressive psychological invulnerability. By avoiding the open water, in casting his line only within his own vessel, Mr. Tillerman maintains unequivocal control. There is nothing unexpected in his world. Neither is there luck. Before he sets his line he knows exactly the type of (armless, misshapen) fish it can bring. He manages to control not only his feelings, but his very thoughts too, by completely shutting out the unconscious, the illogical, the intuitive. This he contrives rather cleverly. Tiny earbud headphones (barely noticeable under his imposing thicket of hair) continually stream his anthem inside his ears; so he hears no rumblings of doubts or murmurings of history. In the meanwhile, he shields himself from other worlds with a flat, thin black mask that covers his face and eyes, as it reflects back his own beliefs, projects, prejudices, and ambitions into his vision. Nothing can get in his way. Only his own laser logic and regimented reason guide him, always onward, always forward, to achieving his ends.
Impressed by this spectacular toughness we ask ourselves, “What for?” To what end is Mr. Tillerman so driven? We wonder, "What if he were pointed in the wrong direction, how could anyone warn him?" We bet he would not hear (if at all) until it were too late. Then we muse, "Isn't this all overkill?"
A true community needs few governing laws because it organically orders itself. The Globe is round, and Mr. Tillerman must get on land somewhere. The shiny armor seems fragile still; after all a rock, solid through and through, needs no protective shell. As for psychological control, courage (with no muffle nor mask) faces change within and peril without. Finally, we ask, "In what ways are we all 'Tillermen,' in what ways are we unaware?"
Gonyea's work, of earthly materials found strewn in dirt, manages to raise inexhaustible, heady questions just the same. But the authenticity, humanity, universality of these questions reflect the small-town earth on which they were found - questions we would ask of our leaders, our systems, and ultimately, ourselves when we have time to reflect. In the end, the work makes us feel special, more than mere observers, that in the course of inquiry we've somehow been transported into the very act of making art.