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Tess Jaray: Into Light

Marlborough Gallery, May 15, 2017 - June 17, 2017

Reviewed by Fiona Grady

‘Into Light’ displays recent paintings and early graphic works on paper by the artist Tess Jaray. With a career spanning six decades, she is known for her distinctive use of colour, geometry, pattern and repetition. The exhibition explores three bodies of work: her large-scale paintings inspired by Aleppo, her small but punchy thorn paintings, and graphic works mainly from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  The selection of works are testament to the accomplishment of her abstract vision.

Aleppo: The Light Surrounded, 2016, paint on panel, 194 x 200 cm. Copyright Tess Jaray, 2017. Courtesy Karsten Schubert and Marlborough Fine Art, London

The exhibition opens with Aleppo: The Light Surrounded, a large (two-metre square) multi-panel piece comprising six laser-cut painted panels. Each section is in a muted tone of purple that references the dark basalt and pale pink sandstone of Aleppo. The colour is lightest in the centre, surrounded by darker shades, sitting together to create what could be described as large shutters. They suggest an opening that might be from a window or archway, containing a source of light that radiates from within. They are placed with a sense of ease, yet are highly considered, balanced with the perfect degree of separation. The panels protrude from the wall to form a deceptive space that forces a conversation between each section, both in relation to one another, and to the wall. They are carefully measured to be the correct distance -  too close or far apart, and the tension would be lost. This fragile equilibrium isn’t quantifiable; it is instinctive, and can only be discovered over time with experience and knowledge. The confidence to create such minimal yet powerful compositions is an enviable skill.

Her practice is inextricably tied to architecture, with pieces inspired by the churches of Italy, Islamic design and Renaissance architecture. The artworks are inspired by, or make reference to, the elements of design and sensations created by their environment, yet the Aleppo paintings have a deeper and more personal context than is often discussed in Jaray’s work. Jaray visited Syria before the war, and was taken by the beauty of the country, documenting the buildings that would later inspire her work. As they directly reference a now war-torn country, it’s important to ask whether they are a political statement. She talks about the unease she feels towards political art:

“I am suspicious of much ‘political’ art, knowing how hard it is to contribute anything other than the satisfaction of – possibly – appeasing one’s own conscience. Nevertheless, when that beautiful city was really destroyed, the paintings declared themselves. They are panels of dark and light, with no identifiable colour. It seems to be the only way I can say anything about that tragedy.” (1)

Her works avoid the trappings of political art, by creating a mediative response that invokes her memories and feelings of a place lost. They are in contrast to the bright colour palette of the other paintings on display, the use of tone and reference to light is a subtle metaphor for her sentiments.

In the middle section of the gallery are a series of Thorn paintings, a motif that has preoccupied Jaray’s work for the past few years. This pattern appears both in her screen prints (not on display) and her current paintings, which are composed using laser-cut metal panels and bright tones of acrylic paint. Jaray began working with this medium as she “wanted the surface of the canvas to have the same resonance as a screen print” (2) and found that painted masked shapes couldn’t achieve the clarity of line that she desired. What appear to be flat surfaces are more deceptive; in order to separate the layers of colour, she has physically placed one tone on top of the other. Stepping closer to the painting, the embossing effect can be seen, with the discreet shadowed edge of the metal plate. The Thorn paintings are works that need to be viewed in the flesh to fully appreciate their delicacy and beauty.

Despite the subtleties of their surface, the Thorn works are striking due to their bold use of colour. There is nothing quiet about the colour palettes -they alternate between acid yellows and aqua blues, fuchsia pinks and mustard yellows. Playing with colour theory, they contrast opposite shades such as red and green to create a cohesive plane, that does not mute, but perhaps balances the loudness. The scale provides a sense of modesty which allows the powerful combinations to be contained within a small frame. The vibrant colours act of a tool; the pairings split the canvas in two, forming a gap that allows a sense of movement on the surface. Jaray describes her use of colour: “Personally, I don’t believe that I use colour as colour. I see it rather as aspiring to certain conditions, or certain states. Time of day for instance…I’m really talking about the memory of a colour, and how a pigment, or a surface, can equate with that memory.” (3) The use of colour is a tool to set in place both motion and emotions. Jaray summaries her practice as ‘the geometry of human relationships’ (4) which challenges the viewer’s perception and our relationship to the space surrounding us.

Tess Jaray studied Fine Art in 1950s’ London, when American Abstract Expressionism was first reaching Europe; its influences can be seen in her practice. Comparison can be made between her paintings and those of Barnett Newman, particularly Stations of the Cross; both in their colour palette, and the sense of scale and structure of the Aleppo paintings, her paintings are arguably more refined. She described to John Stezaker the excitement of discovering the movement: “There was something so forceful about American painting at that time in that it achieved a clarity that European art could not match”.(5)  Yet what she took from these artists was the confidence and energy that surrounded them. She felt a stronger affinity with European artists such as Kasmir Malevich, whose work she described as “a search for the fundamental, the beginning of things, as well as the belief in the transcendent”. (6) This can be seen again in the Aleppo paintings, which have a soul, equally as important as their visual impact.

Finally, tucked away in the Marlborough graphics section is a selection of beautiful works on paper, including pencil drawings and a digital print. The studies date from the 1960s, and give insight into the way Jaray’s mind operates. Drawn on graph paper, they provide clues to the internal logic of the works, to understand her process of forming graphic shapes. The small studies have an intimate quality, giving the viewer a sense of pleasure in being allowed to share this insight. Each decade covered here tells the story of the imagery she was making at the time, and her reduction of form over the years. Her output is not hindered by modernisation; the digital print demonstrates her willingness to embrace changing technology, as do the laser-cut Thorn paintings.

The exhibition demonstrates Jaray’s breadth of knowledge, and the skill she has honed over the years, compounding her instantly recognisable signature style in the viewer’s mind. It tells stories of Jaray’s early career and the development of her visual language in the works on paper, while revealing her intimate thoughts and sadness in response to the political climate. It celebrates her memories of Aleppo, once a source of beauty and inspiration that has now been destroyed. We understand this loss more deeply when we contrast it with the rest of her output, the brightly coloured, dynamic Thorn paintings, which make no concessions. It is an exhibition of an accomplished artist with a singular vision, well worth delving into.

1. Interview with Art Image, published online 17 April 2017

2. Quoted from her lecture Slade Contemporary Art Lecture Series 2015-16 - Tess Jaray which can be viewed

3, Interviewed by Plinth, 25 July 2016:

4. Marlborough Gallery ‘Tess Jaray: Into the Light’ press release May 2017

5. Marlborough Gallery ‘Tess Jaray: Into the Light’ exhibition catalogue p.8, May 2017

6. Marlborough Gallery ‘Tess Jaray: Into the Light’ exhibition catalogue p.9, May 2017

Borromini's Balustrade Red & Green, 2014, acrylic on metal panel, 24 x 43 cm, Copyright Tess Jaray, 2017. Courtesy Karsten Schubert and Marlborough Fine Art, London

'Study for Thirty One Steps' 1985. Copyright Tess Jaray, 2017. Courtesy Karsten Schubert and Marlborough Fine Art, London