It is the surface of Tess Jaray’s work that first invites attention, with its flat, unmodulated, intense colours carefully designed to ‘glimmer and shimmer but not glitter’. But where the surface was once punctuated, rhythmically patterned, now it is punctured, opening up through its shadowed tracery a delicate spatial distance between two colour fields, the one occluding, or revealing, the other. The surface appears to hover over some unquantifiable depth.
Each picture is finely balanced, carefully wrought and self-sufficient. They aspire to formal purity (and seem to edge closer to this Platonic ideal through her recent use of screen printing and computer aided design) while acknowledging the impossibility of perfection. After all, a perfect square, a perfect design, has no vitality; it denies the trace of human experience. Approached as formal problems, they proceed intuitively, their personal geometry and chromatic energy serving to distil rather than dissipate their emotional charge.
The recent work in her show at The Piper Gallery falls neatly into three parts, each separated (despite their superficial similarity) by marked differences in scale, temperature and feeling.
The first and largest group is made up of small squares, busily hung and clustered together much as they were when they left her studio walls. Individually hot and intense, they read collectively as a vibrant riff on Malevich’s Red Square, with each new iteration visibly disturbed and animated by the impact of the last. Some are stronger than others however: those with two or three colours work best, while those with four or more lose their tautness.
The second is a quartet of mid-size pieces (‘After Damascus’ in green, purple, yellow and red), which each deploy two colours of roughly equal intensity, with an oriental flavour which is distinctive to her work. Some recede, others advance; some carry you inward through windows or grills, while others rise out of their flat landscape to suggest patinated objects, mosaic forms or architectural plans.
This sensual oscillation between line and curve, form and opening, gives way in the last part to a triptych of three large squares, the vertical tension in each being emphasised by their unequal division into two separate parts. The hues are quieter, cooler, the effect more austere and poignant. While there is a passing nod to Newman’s zips and Matisse’s openings, the language is substantially her own; stripped of the radiant intensity of the smaller works, their expanses of milky light and opaque shadow conjure a space where brilliant day gives way to the silent hours of dawn and dusk, before finally retreating into darkness, into that physical and metaphorical realm ‘in the middle of the night’.
Note: the short quotes are her own, from “Painting: Mysteries & Confessions’ (Lenz Books 2010). Tess Jaray: Mapping the Unseeable is on until the 9th of November. The Piper Gallery website is here. A extract from the catalogue essay which accompanies the exhibition can be read here.