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Interview with Tess Jaray

In the light-filled rooms of The Piper Gallery is a painting show that features no paint. Brought together by artist Tess Jaray under the title The Edge of Painting, the twelve works are by names that are rarely associated with painting such as Rana Begum, Cornelia Parker, Tom Lomax and Cathy de Monchaux. With work chosen for its painterly qualities but rendered in materials including 3-D print, rattlesnake venom and 16mm film, the exhibition offers, as Jaray states in her curator’s foreword, ‘no answers, but it does pose many questions.’

 

Posing my own questions to Tess Jaray in her north London home, I realise how much the exhibition reveals about her own work. The piece of her own that she includes in the show, ‘Migration, Wide, Orange’ (2013), is listed with deliberate ambiguity as ‘work on panel’. Like the exhibition itself, it is a strong, colourful statement that combines the visual punch and cool intellectualism that characterises Jaray’s work.   As visual artist, writer and tutor (she was the first woman to teach at the Slade), Jaray has kept faith with a formal language of light and geometry that is both constant and infinitely renewable. In her work, precise groups of shapes are arranged on absolutely flat grounds to investigate the elemental effects that pattern, repetition and colour have on our perceptions. From the mid-1990s Jaray started increasingly to write about other artists’ work, and in 2001 she collaborated with the German writer W. G. Sebald, pairing visual responses to fragments from The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo. In 2010 she published her collected writings under the title Painting: Mysteries and Confessions.   On my way to meet Jaray I turn the wrong way out of Caledonian Road station and arrive late; something that she later tells me is because I failed to frame my journey properly. She is gracious in spite of my trouble with framing, and I am warmly invited into her home, which, rather like her show, exhibits a pleasing selection of disparate materials and colours. White walls and pale contemporary floors play host to worn dark carpets and old English oak, and I spot only a handful of her own works – four recent paintings, four concentrated bursts of colour – placed with perfect modesty and deliberation in one corner of the sitting room.   After looking round her studio we sit at her kitchen table, over cigarettes and strong coffee, to talk.  

Q

The White Review

— How did The Edge of Painting come to be?

A

Tess Jaray

— When Megan Piper generously invited me to curate an exhibition I had to ask myself, ‘What has been most important, most challenging, and most relevant for me as an artist over a lifetime working as a painter?’ And one of the answers – there are many – must be, ‘What is the essence of painting?’ What is it about painting that makes so many artists, who have never used paint in their work, still say, ‘I am a painter’?

 

Q

The White Review

— Why the title?

A

Tess Jaray

— We are living at a time when boundaries are being crossed and borders blurred, in art as much as everything else. These artists are working at what one might call the ‘edge of painting’. I do not want that edge, that great mystery, to be lost, and so these artists, who may not actually consider themselves to be painters, represent to me not only many questions with many answers, but, in spite of the fact that there may not be much paint here, a celebration of the word ‘painting’.

 

I was asking myself why I think of these works – works that I particularly admire and love – as paintings. They aren’t paintings in the true sense of the word, but nor are they quite defined as anything else. There was a period about thirty years ago when people would say that a drawing is a sculpture. Well actually a drawing isn’t a sculpture, but we like the idea: it has a certain enchantment about it, a bit of fantasy. But we haven’t really found a way of defining art without reference to style or material, and it’s curious that artists quite like to be called painters despite hardly using paint. It’s almost as though artists are aspiring to the condition of painting, even though they don’t use paint. In the same way, is has been said that painters aspire to the condition of music. Of course we can only aspire, we can’t do it, but that’s part of the search.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you feel that your own work exists on the edge of painting?

A

Tess Jaray

— Well, literally speaking there is not much actual paint there, and it’s not always entirely easy to separate the idea of paint from the idea of colour.

 

Q

The White Review

— So you consider yourself a painter?

A

Tess Jaray

— Yes, absolutely.

 

Q

The White Review

— How did you select your own piece for this show?

A

Tess Jaray

— It was the one I had most recently finished, and like most artists I imagined, probably mistakenly, that it was therefore the best and most representative. This occurs all the way through a life of painting. In fact it’s not till much later that one comes to understand which works succeed and which don’t. I think that many artists are always behind themselves in terms of understanding what they have done. If you know exactly what you are doing it tends to be rather academic.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you think that because painting is popularly understood as the highest form of art precisely because it is so obviously art? Meaning that people gravitate towards it because it gives them an affirmation that it is art that they are looking at?

A

Tess Jaray

— Yes, though I wouldn’t say that painting is the highest form of art – I think in the end nothing can quite beat music.

 

Q

The White Review

— But there is a hierarchy isn’t there – which is perhaps why drawing was re-branded as sculpture – because it was always viewed as an inferior, preparatory process.

A

Tess Jaray

— Yes, and now people are talking about the materialisation, or objectification, of words and writing. I think that’s pretty debatable. I can see why it is happening, and when a wonderful piece of writing comes into existence it is a nice way of looking at it, but it’s not really exact. It will always be a tool – it can also be a great piece of writing but to say that it is an object, unless that statement is put into a philosophical context, is pushing it.

 

Q

The White Review

— So do you think painting needs to be dispensed with as a category? Do you think that’s where we’re going?

A

Tess Jaray

— Not yet. I think we need categories in order to try and understand things. It is very interesting that so much is happening at the edge of these categories, which worries those who like to be sure of what they’re looking at. Looking and seeing are very different activities. When we read, we understand the language that we read. Perhaps we aren’t educated visually in the right way. Anybody can look but not everybody can see. It should not be underestimated how difficult, what hard work it is, to see. People feel that art should be easily understood, but it isn’t, and I don’t see why it should be. Not enough credit is given to those people who really want to see but find it difficult.

 

Q

The White Review

— There’s often a self-consciousness associated with looking at art, which we attempt to elevate with text and description.

A

Tess Jaray

— Yes, which I think is a pity. Text doesn’t provide more or less value, it’s another thing. On the other hand, well-written text can be enlightening, and sometimes even extend meaning.

 

Q

The White Review

— Because words are another sort of categorisation and pattern that you’re trying to put on something visual?

A

Tess Jaray

— My own view is that a lot of theory and art writing now is for those who really long to be able to see, and find it very difficult. And it is difficult. People look, but they don’t quite know how to see, therefore they scrabble around to find a way of understanding, and they do it through words, which are often useful and helpful and interesting, but sometimes they get out of hand, so that the words themselves become a language which really has nothing to do with the visual. And this is where the changes are occurring – the shift in many areas from the visual to the verbal, because the verbal is easier.

 

Q

The White Review

— Is that something you’ve noticed becoming more pronounced over the course of your career as an artist and as a teacher?

A

Tess Jaray

— Undoubtedly yes. Although I haven’t taught for a long time, I am still very interested in what young artists are doing. My favourite period of art is young art, before cynicism and cool has set in. I really love watching young artists searching for what they want to say.

 

Q

The White Review

— John Ruskin said about drawing from observation that it makes one look harder, and is a way of gaining more pleasure from life. Do you agree?

A

Tess Jaray

— Yes, he’s absolutely right. There’s no comparison, if you want to understand something, between taking a photograph and doing a drawing. You can take a photograph without really seeing at all. But if you are going to draw, you have to look in a way that is really stretching every part of you. And you will never see in the same way again after you’ve done that. It alters the way you think. You see the edges and spaces between things and start to understand the spaces you move around in.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you do much drawing?

A

Tess Jaray

— I now draw on the computer. Is that regrettable? Probably. There is a direct link between the hand and the psyche and anything that gets in the way of that takes away from the immediacy. When I draw I try to make the computer an extension of my hand, but it doesn’t do it in quite the same way. With a computer you can’t really make your own mark, you can only use it as a tool to move towards your objective. There is something unique about the way an individual makes a mark. It is a way of transmitting character, individuality, spirit – the essence of a person.

 

I’m not saying that making art or a painting is simply a way of putting your identity on the wall, of course there are all kinds of conceptual aspects that go into it as well, but in my view they must not subsume the spirit.

 

Q

The White Review

— When you know the artist, when you know something about their background – do you feel that is an important part of looking at painting? Do you feel it helps the looking or hinders it?

A

Tess Jaray

— It’s probably not necessary, but it does help. We can really only talk in that way about those artists that are around us. We can’t know the real character of the artists of the past. Think of someone like Holbein for instance. How brave he must have been to paint Henry VIII! There is such ferocity to his portrait of him that you know it could never have been painted by a wilting lily. On the other hand we are told that certain great artists – Bonnard perhaps? – were rather timid. But there is no doubt that if you know the person you understand the work better.

 

Q

The White Review

— There is a striking combination of mediums and colour in the show. It almost seems to have a pattern in itself.

A

Tess Jaray

— Yes, I believe it does. The individual works seem to reach out to each other, and so become more than just the sum of their parts. No single artist can say everything in one work – perhaps our visual language doesn’t allow this anymore – and in this exhibition each work gives something different that creates a larger whole.

 

Q

The White Review

— It must have made you think a lot about how painting could be defined.

A

Tess Jaray

— There really can’t be any final conclusions as to how painting can be defined apart from the obvious ones – you think of colour, form, shape, light, the formalistic aspects of painting which are all interesting, but they are not what present the spirit of the thing. As far as this exhibition is concerned, one could say that if, as happens here, the parameters of painting are expanded, everything still remains within the orbit of the visual, rather than the conceptual or the cerebral. I love the work of artists who seem to make something out of nothing. You can’t quite see what it is that makes them so amazing. Metal is transformed into something that reflects the space around it, computer printing becomes a strange devil out of Hieronymus Bosch, tape becomes paint, poison becomes a mark, chalk becomes shadow, moving-image on a wall becomes a painting. There is always transformation, alchemy, and rarely can you see how this is done. Or rather, even if you can see how it’s done, it doesn’t explain why it holds such mystery.

 

Q

The White Review

— Have you always worked with pattern?

A

Tess Jaray

— I see pattern as seeing the expression of certain kinds of order that reflect both what is in the world, and what is in oneself. There is pattern in everything, in a sense. Some see it as being formalistic, I don’t. Our lives are patterned; our lives are framed. Everything is framed one way or the other. You had trouble with your framing this morning when you got out of Caledonian Road. If you had framed it properly, you would have known where to go. I think this is how we live our lives, and of course the repetition of anything creates pattern.

 

Q

The White Review

— How would you describe your own work to people?

A

Tess Jaray

— I would say that my work is what’s left when everything else is taken away.

 

Q

The White Review

— So it’s very much to do with the essential.
A

Tess Jaray

— Yes. And if I could tell you what that essence was then I’d be very happy, but I don’t believe it can be done. And what is interesting about most art, to me, is that thing that can’t be explained. That transformation. In The Edge of Painting there is very little in those individual works that tells you why they’re so amazing. You can’t explain them. There’s a lot of work around that can be explained, but which doesn’t hold the attention. What holds the attention is something that you can talk around, and philosophise about, but can’t explain.
 

The Edge of Painting runs at The Piper Gallery, London to 30 December 2013 and features work by Rana Begum, Martin Creed, Cathy de Monchaux, Tim Head, Tess Jaray, Tom Lomax, Onya McCausland, Sophie Michael, Cornelia Parker, Giulia Ricci, Nike Savvas and John Stezaker.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


LILY LE BRUN is a freelance writer on art and culture based in London. She has written for publications including Apollo, the Economist, the Sunday Times and AnOther Magazine. Her interview with artist Tess Jaray was published in The White Review in December 2013.