There is an almost childlike quality to Joe Tilson’s constructions: the primary reds, blues and yellows of kindergarten building blocks, panels slotting onto shelves like wooden shape sorters, pictograms that recall those early learning books encouraging association between word and image. They are presented to us like a game, a puzzle with clues and connections unexplained: we feel an urge, one of deep-seated, childhood curiosity, to try and piece together their disparate parts.
Made in 2010, Zita is one of a recent series of constructed works centred around Venice, where Tilson has visited, held a studio, and more generally sought inspiration for over forty years. Its title derives from the eponymous Santa Zita, patron saint of maids and servants, who worked for the slothful Fatinelli family in the Tuscan town of Lucca in the early thirteenth century. One tale relates the young Zita, beloved for her piety, taking leftover bread into the streets to help feed the homeless. Spied upon by a member of the family, she was confronted hiding the loaves within her apron; to their amazement, as she opened her smock the bread was transformed into flowers.
As well as being declared ‘incorrupt’ upon her exhumation in the 1500s – Zita’s body was found not to have decomposed, but naturally mummified – Saint Zita’s name has been connected to the Greek word for ‘seek’, and she is often invoked to find lost keys or (appropriately enough, given the Venetian theme) as a guide across bridges. Her invocation here is fitting: solver of problems, escort to the lost, she will be our sibylline guide through Tilson’s wooden panels.
In Zita, Tilson has adapted the recognisable shape of a Venetian window. Like many works that draw upon the skills he developed as a young carpenter, Zita incorporates a joined wooden frame with acrylic painted panels and lettering. Adorning these compartments are a mysterious collection of symbols relating to Venice. Look closer, and we find that the window is in fact a map of the city. In the top left-hand corner, a ‘V’ for Venice, reflected in the watery panel below like a canal-side façade: to its right, a star of David, recalling the famous old Jewish quarter which first gave birth to the word ‘ghetto’.
Echoes of Christian hagiography (the scallop shell of St James) and architecture (an ‘accolade’ arch just below it, from the basilica of St Mark perhaps) call to mind the city’s many hidden churches which have given shape to so much of Tilson’s recent work (‘I’m fond of the little-known ones,’ he writes, ‘the ‘secret’ ones most people walk straight past, such as San Pantalon, San Zan Degolà or Santa Maria della Visitazione.’).
Zita even boasts a direct connection to the city in its construction: at the heart of the window sits a circular dove motif, made from opaque white Lattimo ‘milk’ glass, produced specially for Tilson in the glass factory in Murano, which has remained in operation in Venice since the 15th century. And grounding the whole construction, along the bottom rung the four ancient mythic elements of earth, air, fire and water that recur throughout Tilson’s oeuvre, like a visual incantation, time and time again.
But as with any of Tilson’s constructions, a final explanation of Zita’s panelled rows remains elusive; strange shapes and symbols resist translation or interconnection. Even as he approaches his 90th birthday, Tilson still teases and tantalises – the best we can do is enjoy his cryptic games.