Abstract Critical

Tess Jaray: Mapping the Unseeable

Written by Terry Pitts

The following is extracted from the catalogue essay to Tess Jaray: Mapping the Unseeable. The exhibition opens at the Piper Gallery on the 9th of October and runs until the 9th of November. All images are courtesy of the Piper Gallery.

Door Dark, for Katharina, 2012, work on panel, 131cm x 131cm

‘It just occurred to me,’ Jaray wrote around 2009 or 2010, ‘perhaps I’ll end as I started. When I was a child – in the days, and nights, before television, I sat every evening and drew the landscape in which I then lived. Fields, meadows, and orchards, divided by hedges, so many hedges, which gave the land a totally different scale from the one it has today – at that time each hedge was full of its own life, birds and creatures you hardly ever see now.’

Around 2006, Jaray wanted to achieve an even finer precision in her work, so she began drawing on the computer. At the same time, dissatisfied with the surface of oil painting, she longed for a way to bring the sheen and uniform surface of her screen prints to canvas. Her solution was to create the background and the foreground as two separate components. For the top layer, she silk-screens a single colour onto strong paper using oil-based inks, and then she varnishes the sheet. This sheet is then laser cut according to her computer-aided drawing and is adhered to a wooden panel that has been painted in the colour of the solid background that she desires. The resulting two-colour work is not only larger than she would previously have been capable of making, it also has a very subtle depth that greatly appeals to Jaray.

After Malevich, 2012, diptych, work on panel, 29.5cm x 29.5cm (x 2)

In many of these laser-cut pieces Jaray has deployed a grid of dots or other small shapes that are layered and rigidly locked into place parallel to the sides and bottom of the picture space, but which undulates or curves across the top, giving the impression of looking at a cross-section of a landscape. At times, the contrast between the two colours of the image is so minor that one really must get close to see the subtle shape.
Jaray often thinks of these as equivalent to night-time images. ‘Where I grew up in Worcestershire the earth was brown in Winter, deep purple in Spring, red in Summer, and dusty pink in the Autumn.’

In the end, whether she is drawing upon a tradition of pattern-making that is as old as humankind or pursuing the shape of her childhood landscape, she is ‘attempting to define a particular metaphysic, one that belongs to me alone.’ Jaray began her career by looking to entire cultures for inspiration, more intrigued by what is shared by many than what is felt by a single individual. But even then she seemed to have realised that whatever was revealed in her artwork would be, in the end, deeply personal. Jaray maps the invisible, firm in the belief that something crucial is being revealed, even if the map is never completely understood. While the specific sources of inspiration for Jaray’s work have, at times, spanned the globe and traversed centuries, she seems to really be pursuing an inner, personal compulsion to understand the linkages between the patterns she creates and the patterns of her own mind and being.

After Malevich 26, 2012, work on panel, 29.5cm x 29.5cm

Something of a perfectionist, Jaray begins the process of art making by rigorously trying to create what she sees in her mind’s eye. Thus rigor serves as a kind of gyroscope that seems to be a way of staying true to the inner vision she is pursuing, which, in turn, permits her to trust the resulting work – no matter how it turns out. For, as she has learned, her perfectionist side is certain to be disappointed, especially when it comes to trying to replicate in paint the colours she sees in her mind. But only by going through a determined process of ‘getting it right’ can Jaray ultimately free herself of her original idea. The result is an internal battle that pits the strength of her vision with the reality of her artist’s materials, and in the end she discovers that the mind’s eye has yielded to the ‘eye’s mind.’ The hope, which will surely never be realised, is that a creation of such utter clarity would emerge that ‘the secrets behind the riddles could be revealed, you would understand, finally, how to make a painting.’ Instead, ‘all you can do is observe, and hope to be able to learn from, how repetition of similar shapes implies perspective and distance, which in itself implies longings for another, non-existent world.’