(Catalogue Essay for William Busta Gallery, 2013)
Brinsley Tyrrell at William Busta
About forty years ago Brinsley and Lillian Tyrrell bought a rambling mid-nineteenth
century farmhouse on four acres of land. It was surrounded by fields and woods and
needed all kinds of work, but it wasn’t impossibly far from Tyrrell’s new job as Head of
the Sculpture Department at Kent State University -- and it was cheap. They made an
offer, which was accepted. Soon they moved in with their two small children. Later
they learned the house would have been bulldozed the next day if the deal hadn’t
The structure is updated by now, but still retains most of its original Victorian-era
features including high ceilings and hand-wrought hardwood moldings, curving around
double doors that open onto formal downstairs chambers. One of those rooms still
contains a large loom that Lillian used to make tapestries, like her widely acclaimed
Disaster Blankets of the 1980’s; she died in 2007.
It’s not hard to fall in love with the earth wherever you are, but it may be especially
easy in the fields and byways around Ravenna. Brinsley is British originally, and the
Ohio countryside reprises the English landscape in many respects. But the long
flanks and sinews of the earth, and the grand stretches of beeches and oaks, the
broad palette of native plants near the Tyrrell’s farmhouse, are seductive by any
standards, even when winter scrubs it all away and leaves only the sketch and bone of
other seasons. At some point in the 1980’s Brinsley began to make portraits of the
fields and trees that he saw every day driving into Kent. He was known for his
imaginative, surrealistic sculptures, but he felt a need to do another kind of work about
He began by making large-scale pastel drawings, which depict the wide gestures of
the land itself, the swirling motions of fields and the fingerprint-like whorls of woodland
and stream eddy. His drawings are almost like rubbings, intense efforts to simplify and
say only what needs to be said about the mixed majesty and intimacy of place. These
aren’t plein air or observational nature studies, nor for that matter are they merely
memories; they’re epitomes of landscape, like genomes of a country walk, templates
for a solitary and rare beauty.
In 2007 Tyrrell had a chance to do something a bit more sculptural along these
lines, when the university acquired a large kiln that could handle large metal sheets.
Again the terrain around his home was his inspiration, and the results of his
experiments with unfamiliar, often unpredictable materials were exciting. No one can
predict exactly what will happen inside a kiln. Streaks of powdered oxides vaporize
and re-manifest feet away from where they started, explosive shrapnel marks of
chemical reactions rain down in a tachisme-like fury, exotic colors bloom improbably.
The new works were highly expressive and full of surprises.
Tyrrell’s most recent panels display an ever-increasing mastery of this challenging
medium, packed with a wealth of graphic incident and etched in the hues of a jewel-
like palette. After successive tinkering and multiple re-firings, Tyrrells’ heat-forged
visions outdo even the natural exuberance of ironweed and chicory and dozens of
other native plants that paint the fields at this time of year. One of these pictures,
rendered in resonant tones of yellow and blue-gray, milky white and raw umber,
depicts a few tree-like forms, their foliage blowing upward as if caught in a strong wind.
They’re immersed in long lines of rain or sleet spotted with snow flakes. Tyrrell often
shows several seasons at once, mixing the weather together with the colors. Some
images, like this snowy one, have the stylistic verve and drama of an Ukiyo-e print.
Others are more about color and dynamic juxtaposition, exploring an achingly
beautiful range of warm and cool pastel tones. Sometimes the polished gleam and
hardness of the enameling can be reminiscent of stone and the rhythmic patterns of
geological formations, offering a longer perspective on interlocking natural and
Another picture shows a road running straight toward two towering masses of
lavender trees. The pavement is white, scrubbed through to deep gray, and the trees
grow at the crest of an abrupt ridge, so that the road suddenly rises up to pass
between them, looking also like a waterfall rushing down. The trees part, like some
bilateral structure of the human body, lungs or breasts or thighs or the chambers of a
bursting heart, and the road passes through to the brightness of the sky. It’s the sort
of composition – completely forthright and symmetrical – that How To Paint books
would advise against, but which made Barnett Newman’s reputation as an abstract
expressionist secure. In Tyrrell’s hands the device points the way home more surely
than any map.
Untitled Landscape, 2013, Brinsley
Tyrrell (enamel high-fired on steel