Thorn in My Side

Tess Jaray’s studio is located in what used to be a Victorian pub in north London: it is light filled with a high vaulted ceiling and an immense sense of calm and tranquillity.  When I arrive, the white walls are pretty much bare apart from the serried rows of evenly spaced nails. Like many of Jaray’s paintings and prints with their punctured surfaces, the nails draw attention to what is there but also, on a more abstract level, to what is not. Laid out on the table are about 30 small works, face down, to which Jaray is applying date, title and number and her name. Following her round the table, her studio assistant is sticking a metal lip to the back of each aluminium stretcher with special glue – glue that Jaray informs me ‘holds glass buildings together in Dubai’.

Thorns 3

Thorns 3

© Tess Jaray

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This new series is called Thorns (images 1-4). All the works have been laser cut – a method that Jaray has been using for the last few years.

I start by drawing on the computer, as the technology allows me to swiftly try out different colours and layouts, so I can make decisions in a relatively short space of time. I silk screen the surface layer, with acrylic paint underneath, for the luminosity and uniformity of the colour and the lustrous sheen you get through the printing process. The printed sheet is then laser cut according to my computer-aided drawing, adhered to the stretcher and the edges of the work are painted.

Jaray is extremely focused on making sure that the colour matching of sides and front is exact and, as a result, the works have a sculptural quality and a sense of resolve from whichever angle they are viewed. Each work in the Thorns series contains an element that subtly varies: a vertical cut-out strip or stripe of singing colour that appears to be placed on top of another intense colour (petrol blue on orange; orange on mustard, for example). From a distance it would be quite possible to think of these works as Modernist paintings with a vertical strip or stripe running down them similar to the ‘zips’ of a Barnett Newman. Get closer however and a subtle depth opens up – these are not flat surfaces as the strip laid underneath opens up a sense of what is beyond or behind.

The particular mark or shape made by these Thorns is highly ambiguous. On the one hand as signs and arrows they suggest a determination or a direction but also as prickles or barbed wire or something that snags or discomforts. This mitigates any heat or sweetness that might otherwise be suggested by the powerful colours. Jaray is interested in how formally they might generate an emotional response while also recognising that this might go beyond naming, beyond language even:

If you take an abstract or a geometric shape you are touching on those primal needs … My impetus is partly sensual – how do I affect myself, how do I make things happen? How can I experience pleasure, pain? How can I feel? Throughout my life I have found myself doing things very uncomfortable in the experiencing, but they bring my sensations closer to the surface.

Jaray’s computer-controlled method has opened up a new way of working with pattern, colour and repetition to explore pictorial space, something which has been a preoccupation since the early 1960s. Having received a travelling scholarship, Jaray spent nearly four months in 1960 studying art and architecture and remembers vividly her visits to the Arena chapel in Padua, where she spent many hours in front of the Giotto frescoes:

Nobody could have prepared me for that actual experience of seeing these frescoes. It was an overwhelmingly emotional experience; the diffuse light, the glowing colours and the subtle atmospheric shifts … Sadly though it is very different nowadays, it’s a much more automated, themed experience, you have to book ahead, it’s timed … post-war Italy is very different after it was rebuilt in the 60s, everything changed.

If her trip to Italy led to works like the GAC’s Castle Green (1962) (image 5) with its rectangular shapes and turrets reminiscent of Italian Renaissance architecture, a later visit to the formal topiary garden at Villandry in the Loire Valley was the inspiration for Versailles (1966) (image 6). In the early 1990s Jaray visited Morocco and spent time in the south in the desert where she was drawn to the ‘repetitions and rhythms of Islamic design and was deeply affected by the ‘Arabic love of the lattice and the pierced screen’.  At the end of the 1990s, Jaray collaborated with German author W G Sebald (1944–2001) to produce a series of works on paper in response to what she saw as the ‘distortion and evocation of space’ in his writing, and his ‘strange ability to focus both on distance and nearness simultaneously’. These two-colour screenprints were produced in response to Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo, and their punctuated marks form grilles and grids that combine opposing notions of apertures and nets; encroachment and recession, and concealment and revelation, that have become the hallmark of Jaray’s recent practice.

Throughout the 1990s, while systematically mapping the limits of the pictorial surface, Jaray was also conducting a much broader exploration of space in the public realm. A series of commissions for public places such as the Centenary Square, Birmingham (1988–92), the British Embassy, Moscow (1999–01) and most recently, St Mary’s Church, Nottingham (2012) prompted this switch between the macro and the micro:

It was the opposite of what I had been used to… suddenly there were some very severe rules and constrictions. If you are using bricks there is maybe a choice of 3 to 4 colours, whereas for paintings and prints you have maybe 2 million. Artists designing for public spaces can be very problematic. I think that it is good to have temporary commissions like the Trafalgar Square plinth – good because if people don’t like it, it can go. If the space is permanent then as an artist/designer it is vital to understand the space from the point of view of how it is used – the desire lines – the way that people actually move though a space.

Designed to relate to all the architecture and landscape that surrounds it, Jaray’s paving design for Birmingham City Centre’s Centenary Square used 500,000 bricks in four colours to look like a giant carpet. In earthy and sepia tones, the brickwork drew on colours and patterns that Jaray saw in Morocco and seemed particularly appropriate when laid out on display in the centre of this diverse, multicultural city. Again, playing with oppositions and binaries, there is something both vast and bounded about Jaray’s public works that retains the tension or intensity of the paintings and prints and makes size and scale almost irrelevant. She may have begun her career by looking to other cultures for inspiration, but it seems that in a sense Jaray has come full circle, with all the works twinkling like stars in an infinite sky – a pattern that doesn’t so much reveal solutions as hint at infinite possibilities. As she said herself:

…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.