The Edge of Painting

‘Painting has died a thousand deaths in the last century. But it rises from the grave as many times. Doesn’t it?’ (Tess Jaray)

Two quite different perspectives on this question - one by a committee of writers and curators, the other by an artist - are offered by ‘Painting Now’ and ‘The Edge of Painting’, currently both showing in London.The exhibition at Tate Britain and it’s accompanying text read like a research paper on an endangered species, a clinical exercise in which the work of five disparate painters is put under the microscope to see what clues it might yield to its continued and - in Darwinian terms - surprising existence in ‘what has come to be understood as a post-medium age’.  Without saying who exactly has arrived at this understanding the committee goes on to report that what painting lacks is adequate textual underpinning, since ‘writing about painting is notably under-articulated at the moment’.

Tomma Abts 'Zebe 2010'.jpg

Yet all they really manage to adduce is that what the five have in common (apart from being born between 1967 and 1977) is ‘a deliberate and measured approach to the construction of the image’.  Drawing on Tomma Abts’ statement that ‘for me painting is a concrete experience that is anchored in the material I am handling’, they conclude, in a way that is hard to dispute, that ‘her paintings are “things in the world” as wrought objects and yet they also deliver illusions of fictive space’.  But simply offering ‘different explorations of the physicality of paint itself” as a form of resistance to ‘rootless postmodern hybridity’ is hardly likely to embolden painters or give these and others of their generation much cause for optimism.

In contrast Tess Jaray uses her long experience as practitioner and teacher to ask not what painting is but what it can do. In a show curated for the Piper gallery she turns the Tate’s assumption on its head by saying painting needs not words (or a rear-guard action) but a more imaginative and playful approach to the medium itself. The artists she has chosen - almost all of whom either trained or taught at the Slade - reflect her sense that rather than being adrift in a post-medium age, ‘now it seems, all art aspires to the condition of painting’. Here the medium need no longer be the message: indeed it is the medium - paint itself - which stands to limit painting’s progress. ‘The Edge of Painting’ (a title borrowed from a new and unusually abstract photo montage in the show by John Stezaker) indicates a practice that is most dynamic at its margins; if it still holds to the idea of a ‘painting’ as a unique artefact which engenders the illusion of space it departs radically from the assumption that paint is the necessary means of achieving this.

Jaray asks if the colour and materials variously employed here to generate patterns, shapes and movement in space still belong the language of painting: after all,  ‘what does it mean to class something as a painting?’.  For example, can’t Sophie Michael’s cine projection of a rotating field of coloured cards on a wall  (‘Carousel’, 2009) be viewed as a dynamic painting rather than video art? Or Onya McCausland’s delicate interplay of white matter and dark shadow across object and wall surface in ‘Support’ (2013) be a painting in chalk and calcium silicate rather than an installation piece? Or Rana Begum’s directional planes of colour modulated by the fall of light on folded steel (‘No. 441- Fold’, 2013) be approached as painting rather than wall mounted sculpture? And further out on the conceptual (or cutting) edge, when Martin Creed investigates the optical play of pattern and colour using no more than cropped lengths of masking tape and coloured ink is he not still ‘painting’?

Tess Jaray.jpg

Jaray’s own piece ‘Migration, Wide. Orange',2013 (shown left) is similar in its concern for the subtle process of order & disruption to Tomma Abts painting ‘Zebe’ (2010) in the Tate and shares in its geometry the same ‘deliberate and measured approach’. So too does the delicate mosaic-like patina of Giulia Ricci’s laser engraving, with its indented surfaces and rhythmic colour spacing. For Jaray these are not isolated acts of ‘post-medium’ resistance but, taken together, suggest the slippery nature of the medium’s perceived boundaries. Perhaps the best example she gives us of how ‘painting’ continues to adapt and mutate as a practice is ‘Silvery’(2013) by Nike Savvas, in which suspended strands of polished aluminium, tinted at irregular intervals along its length in blue & yellow, generate a brilliant curtain of light that shimmers and sways to the transitory presence of the viewer and reflects back the myriad colours it captures in that moment. While over at the Tate ‘the wide discourse around painting is fragmented’ here by contrast it appears fluid and permeable.

Giulia Ricci, Order/Disruption 2012, Laser engraved painting

Giulia Ricci, Order/Disruption 2012, Laser engraved painting

The full article appears in

‘The Edge of Painting’, The Piper Gallery, 29th November – 30 December 2013

‘Painting Now; Five Contemporary Artists’, Tate Britain, 12 Nov 2013 -9 February 2014



Tess Jaray

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, Piper Gallery London, until 9 November 2012

RA Now

Christopher Lebrun, recently appointed President of the RA, writes that by ‘showcasing work from current Royal Academicians, RA Now reads like a who’s-who of contemporary art and architecture: Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, David Hockney, Anish Kapoor, Zaha Hadid and Cindy Sherman to name a few’.

Describing it as ‘RAs from Anish to Zaha’ gives it a desirable international gloss, in a way that the less sexy but more accurate  ‘RAs from Ackroyd to Wragg’ could not. There is an element of over claiming here: if it’s a ‘who’s who’, there are certainly some obvious omissions: Riley, Auerbach, Hirst, Doig, Offili…

On the other hand it covers a much broader range than ever before and shows the RA finally reaching parts of the national (if not international) art scene it had previously failed to do. There is some strong British work by, among others, Tony Bevan (left), Stephen Chambers, Basil Beattie, Hughie O’Donoghue, Tess Jaray, and Maurice Cockrill, which have room to breathe in these galleries in a way they never do in the summer shows.


However, because the work has been donated to raise much needed funds, the quality is uneven, with some insubstantial pieces (from Hockney Emin, and Kapoor for example) appearing tokenistic. By trying to combine a survey with a sale also has the unintended effect of divorcing quality from value. Are visitors to conclude that Jenny Savile (£100,000 for pencil drawing) is a much more important artist than Hughie O’Donoghue or Basil Beattie (right), whose paintings range from £8000 to £12000?

RA Now, Royal Academy London, 11 October to 11 November 2012