Randall Tiedman: In the Valley of the Shadow

By Douglas Max Utter [Belt magazine, October 2013]

The far edge of Cleveland’s Tremont district drops off abruptly, affording a sudden
wide-angle view of industry and commerce in the valley below. A traffic circle at that
spot swirls cars onto Interstate 71, or alternatively shunts them down Quigley Road
toward the big box stores at Steelyard Commons, against a backdrop of intertwining
highway pylons and bridges. To the west buildings and properties owned by the global
steel and mining company ArcelorMittal spread along the banks of the Cuyahoga, and
everywhere exploitation, consumption, and profit commingle in amoral layers. Bearing
the deep imprint of human ambition and need, the area is like an economic Olduvai
Gorge – or maybe a slope in Purgatory, arguably minus the spiritual learning curve.
Such terrain can also be mined and exploited by the imagination. For a long time,
starting when he was a young man and continuing for more than forty years, northern
Ohio artist Randall Tiedman painted tensely expressive, tactile visions most often
focused on the human body. But sometime in 2004 he took a step back and began to
render an oddly wider world – a sort of stage where he performed intricate melodies of
desire and absence and damage. During the last years of his life, his method was to
salvage peripheral impressions of industrial views, restored from the margins of
perception to form the breaking lines of gray and umber mindscapes. These vistas
don’t seem invented, but in some sense read as recovered, or revealed. Tiedman’s
large (typically about 4’ / 3’) acrylic paintings from this time present fraught re-visions
of contemporary wastelands, glimpsed from above in a sulfurous near darkness. They
are the stuff of epic poetry, reminiscent of the Inferno and Paradise Lost, an account
of the wreckage that attends great sin. If you squint across the aforementioned
Industrial Valley (really its name, according to Google) at dusk, you glimpse the sort of
end times panorama that Tiedman improvises in paintings like his nocturnal
“Promethean Web” series, or the inhuman honeycomb of tunnels and dams half
exposed by a rush of primordial waters flowing slantwise down the picture plane in
“Satan’s Chair” (2011).
Familiarity may have numbed most of us to the aesthetic shock of the actual sights
visible beyond the guardrails on the daily commute, but underwritten by a century or
more of environmental degradation the scale and corrosive grandeur of the mess in
and around America’s cities surely does suggest a once and future kingdom of titanic,
chthonic powers – especially if you gaze by moonlight, or by the glare of sodium
compression streetlights, as Tiedman seems to do. Bearing titles with classical or
biblical resonance, like the “Limbus Patrum” and “Promethean Web” series, these
paintings evoke a psychological reality correlative to everyday experience, emptied of
persons but filled with surmise – observed not from any modern roadway but, despite
their references to up-to-date looking stadiums and specifically industrial structures
like water treatment facilities, tremblingly, as if at the reins of a chariot. This is our
world seen through the eyes of angel, or demon.  

It’s no wonder these vertiginous works have earned Tiedman an enthusiastic new
audience over the past half decade. His earlier styles (his first paintings date from the
late 1960’s) applied some of the same qualities to renderings of the human figure,
often distinguished by bravura brushwork and beautiful drawing. But these newer,
hallucinatory hills, doom-colored tarns, and the hurricane-like devastation swirling
around them, convey a very different immediacy and conviction. Perhaps they strike
iPad-weary eyes as nearly classical, while retaining a cinematic sweep that feels
freshly scripted, as if urgently dictated by subconscious impulses. Tiedman explores
as he prophesies, digging among the roots of fascination, evoking the seductions of
disaster, distance, and power. It’s exciting to contemporary curators and collectors that
he uses such leitmotifs to introduce a highly unusual romantic-apocalyptic slant to the
repertoire of regionalism; clearly this is a far cry from your grandparents’ painted
midwestern reveries. Tiedman’s new fans include national art magazines, as well as
major museums and collections. Twice featured in the high profile publication New
American Painting, he was also collected shortly before his death by the Albright Knox
Museum in Buffalo, the Butler Museum of American Art in Youngstown, the Erie Art
Museum, and several corporate collections, most notably Progressive Insurance. At
the far end of a career marked by solitary, almost monkish activity those events were
practically a firestorm.
Barely within Cleveland’s city limits, a few miles out from downtown in North Collinwood,
Randall Tiedman lived most of his life in an up-down style duplex purchased by his
grandparents in the early years of the last century. His older brother Richard (who
writes commentary and criticism about classical music) occupied the downstairs suite.
Grovewood Avenue, which is part of one of the east side’s main bus routes, bumps
along a few feet past a narrow strip of front yard, and the neighbors’ houses squeeze
in from adjoining lots. About a block to the west a grassy athletic field spreads across
a dozen acres and a small abandoned community pool yawns nearby, dating from the
1960’s, seeming like a city planner’s meditation on absence and changing times.
Earlier than that, around the mid-century mark, Cleveland’s most popular amusement
park, Euclid Beach, was located less than a mile away on Lakeshore Boulevard. In its
day it attracted countless thousands of visitors who filed past the still-standing,
turreted gate house, and though the roller coaster and the beach itself are long gone,
the location seems to have stubbornly good karma; a well-appointed new Collinwood
Recreation Center recently opened on the other side of the road, at one end of an
otherwise decaying shopping complex. Whether the zeitgeist is coming or going, the
restless shifting of priorities and populations continues, channeled through the hard
decades.
All of this found its way into Tiedman’s never-lands, though it’s hard to say just how.
He improvised without preliminary sketches or photo references in a tiny back
bedroom studio, hunkered in front of oversized etching-weight sheets of paper,
grafting hypostatic spiritual scenery from back brain to painted surface as if by sorcery
or prayer. Fragments of the fences and batting cages, benches and bleachers on
Grovewood show up in the pictures, but so does everything else; Tiedman found grist
in every corner of his reality. A short walk from his house to a bridge over the CSX rail
yards reveals enough industrial strength creative DNA to power a whole fleet of his
“Promethean Web” paintings. Along the way the road seems pregnant with a life of its
own, finally buckling and splitting apart at the corner of a short street named “Darwin.”
From this point you can peer through a fence and see the lumbering freight cars.
Punctuated by a gothic-looking grain elevator to the north and the white vanes of a
wind turbine to the south, intertwining tracks flex like exposed back muscles, pushing
the residential zones of North Collinwood away from the derelict GM and GE factories
to the south.
And if, like Tiedman in his paintings, you levitate above this scene and withdraw to a
greater height, it becomes clear that the most important view by far, from Collinwood
or anywhere else in northern Ohio, is Lake Erie, which shears off all other geographic
features and human doings like a titantic guillotine. You may forget that they’re there,
yet no more than five blocks from the Grovewood house the gray waters loom almost
secretly, out of all proportion to daily life, as improbable as Leviathan. Mostly hidden
from view either by buildings or the lay of the land, the lake is the priceless dreamtime
of the city, cradling actual and imaginary worlds in the same primordial gesture, never
to be landlocked or subdivided. Its presence in Tiedman’s paintings is perhaps the
crucial way in which he tells the secret truth of place, a secret which his images so
compellingly argue. We realize that the fundament of Tiedman’s tragically peaking and
crashing visions isn’t earth at all, but water. Paintings like “St. Neot’s Margin” (2008) or
“Night’s Speechless Carnival” (2010) have sometimes been tagged post-apocaylptic,
but a close look hints at sources in the Book of Genesis rather than the Book of
Revelation. These are places half-drowned and overturned by a great flood.
Amid all the drama of his technique, maybe it’s necessary to remember that the sense
of place native to Tiedman’s paintings isn’t really on any map but is a residue of the
life experience and physical presence of Tiedman himself, who in his early sixties was
a slightly stooped but still imposingly tall figure. Despite the neutralizing effects of age
and a neatly trimmed gray beard, he retained the ageless intensity of a natural
athlete. One of the qualities that unites his different styles and subjects across the
decades is the sense of sheer human physicality that they convey. It makes sense that
among the complex roots of Tiedman’s self-taught practice, Abstract Expressionism
stands out as a central inspiration – a school of painting much inflected by
existentialist thought, emphasizing above all gesture and presence and the native
spontaneity of truth- telling. Of all the loosely knit groups that invented postwar
modernity, the New York based abstract expressionists were the most triumphantly
individualistic, and athletic in that they competed in life-long agons not only with each
other, but most of all with themselves.
Tiedman was cut from that cloth.
He began to draw and paint when he was teenager, interests strengthened by visits to
the Cleveland Museum of Art and by his friendship at that time with Gary Dumm, the
future cartoonist of American Splendor fame. He would continue to draw through thick
and thin, gradually achieving an artistic identity. He drew soldiers and their girlfriends
when he was drafted, and made collages when he came close to dying, not in a fire
fight but in boot camp during a deadly outbreak of spinal meningitis. Following eleven
months of service in Danang,  news of his mother’s death arrived and the army sent
him home. A series of jobs followed, including one with Dumm at Kaye’s Books in
downtown Cleveland. Eventually he settled into a job as clerk at the Cleveland Public
Library, preparing books and materials for the blind. That turned out to be a position
he would hold for 32 years.

So far this is a straightforward narrative, though these days anyone of Tiedman’s
evident gifts might be more likely to continue his education, whether after or instead of
military service. But there’s another interesting twist. He describes himself as a very
nervous young man – yet despite that, or maybe partly because of it, he had a
longstanding passion for boxing, and intermittently throughout this early period the 6’
2,” 185 lb artist not only drew, but jogged and sparred and handled himself very well in
the boxing ring, engaging in one of America’s great midcentury sports romances.
Tiedman trained at the Old Angle Gym in Collinwood with Sammy Greggs, who had
prepared heavyweight hopeful Ted Gullick (eventually defeated by George Foreman)
for the ring just a couple of years earlier. Greggs thought Randall would have world
class potential by going down a class in weight. He sparred at the Angle with Windmill
White, he even boxed in Vietnam. Eventually Tiedman’s ambitions faded, but not
before he met and talked to legends like Floyd Paterson, Joe Frasier, and Muhammad
Ali. He actually saw Ali three times, the last time at his bout with Frasier at the
Cleveland Arena.
There’s no telling how important these early boxing experiences are to an
understanding of any of Tiedman’s paintings; perhaps they’re not important. Painters
don’t have to spend time in the ring (though as Tiedman once reminded me, Picasso
was fond of boxing) to master the kind of sparring with line and plane, color and
substance that he does so well, or to convey the half-sick feeling that life’s savor, its
delight and detail, is kneaded with dull blows, mixed with pain and sweat.
       But there’s something about a brightly lit stage, bound around with ropes in a
dark room, and the shouting and the smoke and the bell, the intimacy and the
distance. This was boxing in its glory days, brutal and shady, but also archetypal, and
sexy – a kind of theater that harked back to the ancient origins of drama in sacred
rites of passage. During those years Frank Sinatra might show up ringside as Life
Magazine’s photo correspondent, and Burt Lancaster pitch in as announcer.
Everybody in America knew the names of the fighters. They were more than heroes,
they were people who embodied an American dream that has since passed from
cultural currency. They were men who devoted their lives to an impossibly punishing
discipline, all for the long moment in the bright light. Even when they lost it was like
waking up, and what they woke up to was themselves – plus maybe a pile of money
and global fame (so it was partly the same old dream after all).
       Teidman’s dark slopes combine a sense of limitless space with an intimate range
of painterly techniques, engaging something like the mind’s sense of touch even as
they encourage the gaze to sweep to the far edge of forbidding prospects. Maybe that’
s the connection with the night time world of blood and cigar smoke and with the hard
side of life on Cleveland’s margins

– Tiedman brings the realities of pain and disciplined brutality to his images,
illuminated intermittently as implacable forces rush and twist half-seen in deep
shadow. Maybe time in the ring is something like time in a painting -- a matter of
accumulation and compression. Under such pressure pain becomes a desperate way
of counting. Minutes stretch between the eyes around the ring, and snap back to the
gleam of muscle. Everything evaporates, effort and learning and hope, flattened on
the hard surface of plain need. The view in the ring has no real height or depth but is
a seed of night, a point that divides before and after, fear and bravery, triumph and
defeat. Each of Tiedman’s paintings is, in its way, a bout between paint and thought,
angling from the tight closeness of struggle, to the freedom of loss, of falling.

“Inscape in Green and Gold,” “Monument,” “Genius Loci,” are works that speak of
hopeless desire and desertion, of long pain and longer hope. They don’t merely
propose a prospect or point of view, a country or a state of mind, but seem to
incarnate all of these things, as well as a sharp, wounded jouissance.  This painterly
orgasmic quality parallels the transgressive delight of the alchemist or the tired
magician, whose spells and passes, experiments and toil have at last produced a thing
whose worth lies beyond mere cause and effect, beyond the last horizon of talent or
proficiency. You can get lost in Tiedman’s fields and hills as if they were real places,
poking through ruins that might be either the rusting hulks of alien starships, or the
blasted roofs and ramparts of Satanic mills.
They came in a flood, these late landscapes, much like the flood that soaked and
swamped the lands they depicted. Every week saw a new painting, a new angle, a
different hour of the dark night that he visited with his palette knife, or the wan days
that dawned over strange derricks and towers, along cold, hostile horizons. By 2004,
around the time that he retired from his job at the Cleveland Public Library, Randall
became aware that he was sick. His heart raced unpredictably, even sometimes when
he was sitting still, skipping beats in an irregular pattern. The sensation was of a rapid,
out-of-control fluttering as the electrical signals governing the heartbeat dissipated in
a series of jerks across the muscle. Atrial fibrillation rarely results in death, though it
generally indicates a serious underlying condition.  In Randall’s case this was first of
all a much-enlarged heart, and his doctors at the Cleveland Clinic implanted a
pacemaker to address the graver dangers, especially the risk of stroke. The operation
was a success for a year or two, but then the arrhythmia began to recur, causing
symptoms of increasing severity -- shortness of breath, weakness, near exhaustion,
pronounced nervousness. By 2009 Randall’s cardiologists put him on the list for a
future heart transplant.
But while symptoms and trips to the hospitals continued to multiply at their own uneven
pace, Randall painted constantly and corresponded with museums and galleries,
displayed works in more than a dozen shows, and in 2008 married his coworker at
CPL, Susan Wiltshire Kleme. It was in many ways a triumphal period for the artist
despite his gradually worsening physical condition.  Landscape paintings continued to
flow from his hand at new peaks of fluency and excitement. Each seemed to penetrate
deeper into the terra incognita of perceptual recollection and invention where Randall
travelled night after night, hunched in the brightly lit back bedroom. Every time he
stretched a new piece of Arches on the easel and picked up his brushes and knives,
the flight continued above the black wreck of worlds, the rich mosaic of slanting,
abandoned ochre fields. Rivers twisted into far hills at the edge of vision, moonlit,
starlit, wreathed in mist and the chill winds of a country that was everywhere and
nowhere, that was mapped in his breast, that was the steady ground beneath his
fluttering, high-flying heart.