Tess Jaray’s art is a commitment to the unknowable, a desire to understand how the patterns of the world and the patterns of the mind reflect each other. Thankfully for us, she is an unblinking and articulate observer of herself as she goes about looking at art and making art. Her collection of writings, Painting: Mysteries & Confessions, contains thirty-nine brief essays. Many of the pieces are about works of art that span some seven hundred years, including a pair of Resurrections by Giotto and Piero della Francesca, a simple drawing of a window by Leonardo da Vinci, Ingres’ The Turkish Bath, and a painting of a red square by Malevich , along with works by a few of her contemporaries, such as Onya McCausland, Andrea McLean, and Martin Creed. Jaray looks hard, the way artists tend to. But it isn’t just that she looks harder or more knowingly than the rest of us, her entire mode of apprehension is different from that of most laypersons.
Jaray is especially attuned to the myriad decisions that come into play as an artist moves from the glimmer of a concept to final product. Looking a Malevich’s Red Square, painted around 1915, just before the onset of the Russian Revolution, Jaray notices that Malevich clearly changed his mind after painting a perfect square and he painted over a sliver of red so that the red section was no longer exactly square. “You can tell this by the way the paint has dried: it may be the same paint, the same colour, but if it was put on after the first coat, and is ‘joined up’, as this is, it can never match exactly.” Why, she wonders, did Malevich feel compelled to do this?
Would it have been too dull, too predictable, too obvious? Does it appear to be more of a square through being less of one? Perhaps a square is just a square, but one that is not quite a square draws attention to its squareness. It can’t be as simple as that, because what he was doing was so astonishingly radical, so utterly unlike anything that had been done before, that a simple square would have done the job…creating an entirely new aesthetic philosophy for future artists to develop, signifying at least the hope of replacing the brutal system he was living under with the idealism of the new.
Jaray frequently examines both the meaning and the aesthetic impact of the materials that artists use. Turning to British artist Onya McCausland, who often uses ancient earth pigments in her work, Jaray notes the slow methodology of applying the pigment, “layer after relentless layer, built up, erased, built up, erased, changed, transformed, until what remains seems to reflect the traces of time itself.” The result is that “it is not space that is represented, but presence, the ‘hereness’ of the surface, its quiddity.”
Jaray is uncommonly good in discussing the progress of her own artwork. The best example is also the longest essay in the book, Red: Diary of a Painting, the work that appears on the cover of For Years Now, her collaboration with W.G. Sebald, which I wrote about recently.
I don’t think it’s possible to paint a canvas a single colour any more; it’s been done so often, and we’ve become so accustomed to seeing wonderful colours everywhere now. But there’s still the mystery of how the colour at the edge of an area affects the centre. If the area is handled properly the colour at the centre is released in some way.
She decides the paint she wants must be a cadmium. But the challenge in selecting a red is that the color carries so much baggage: ketchup, British post boxes, London buses and phone booths, stop signs… After a discussion of various reds ranging from Renaissance paintings to Bohemian glass to the stained glass windows at Chartres Cathedral, Jaray decides the red she wants is vermilion. This leads to an interesting riff on the history of vermilion and the difficulties in using it (it can turn black under certain conditions). “Yesterday I stared into a jar of vermilion powder pigment, It was everything I wanted, the most perfect, complete absorption into the fantasy of that particular red.” But immediately, the artist must come to terms with disappointment, for the moment that the powder is mixed with something like oil or turpentine it begins to change. And when it is applied to canvas, it changes again, losing the “fine, soft density” of the powder’s color. “The canvas standing against the wall is now red. The red is pretty close to what I have in mind, but it has sunk. Horrible patches of matter alternate with the soft sheen needed to express the colour.” A friend explains to her that that’s what this range of extremely expensive cadmiums tend to do, so she decides that trying to fix it with more cadmium would simply be throwing good money after bad. She decides to abandon that canvas and start over, using acrylic paint this time. “Finally, finally, after weeks and weeks of mistakes I’m getting my eye in. That means, I now feel, as opposed to think.” But the second painting, too, will disappoint.
I’ve come a long way in my search for vermilion. I’ve finished one red painting that is so scarlet as to be almost orange in certain lights, and one using a make of vermilion that’s a lovely colour but certainly not made from any true mercuric sulphide or cinnabar. And now I’ve acquired two smallish tubes of Chinese vermilion which claims to be nearly 99 per cent pigment. They’ve got a skull and crossbones on the tube, and are expensive beyond belief.
In the end, this pigment is yet another disappointment, even though it turns out to be the painting closest to the one she originally imagined. It simply doesn’t work. Only by going through this process of “getting it right” can she free herself of her original idea and see her three canvasses for what they are. And at that moment she realizes the first two are “remarkable.” They are “glowing, almost translucent, lustrous, happy-making.” It’s a startling admission. For Jaray, the process of art making begins by trying to create in an almost scientific manner what she sees in her mind’s eye. But the process that she follows is decidedly non-linear and involves an internal battle to move the mind’s eye to the side so that the “eye’s mind” can take over.
Painting: Mysteries & Confessions. Great Britain: Lenz Books, 2010. [Quotations and images by Tess Jaray © Tess Jaray.]