There is a certain irony attached to this brief text; why would a reviewer narrate the fleeting art fair1 stand display of an artist of such great longevity and of a lifetime filled with 6 decades of professional achievement? Well I propose the point that Tess Jaray is simply one of the few painters who continues to make indelible marks in both painterly and art historical terms, and what follows, is my attempt to qualify this assertion.
Whilst I have been aware for some years of the artist’s allegiances to Syria, to the writer W.G ‘Max’ Sebald and to her late gallerist, Karsten Schubert, it is probably in her role as a Royal Academician that she has gained a wider public awareness in more recent times. Jaray is not only a painter’s painter, she has delivered architectural paving designs2, exquisite writing and prints - but she also has a great talent for radio and public speaking.
This brief and unlikely outing in Vienna (her place of birth), gives us a jarring and timely reminder that she has been at the top of her game for an unlikely 60 years. The paintings in this show date from the early sixties, but look like they were painted yesterday, and though I have recently tried to debunk the spurious notion of ‘timelessness’ in art, I find myself genuinely challenged by the currency of works that date from the dawning of her professional career in the early 1960’s. In this display, choice geometrical projections and colour perspective vie for supremacy within works such as Early Piazza (1964) and Green Sanctuary (1965). These works also serve to speak to us of places and spaces in a manner that anticipated such themes were becoming ‘hip’ with a current generation of architects, behavioural scientists and social engineers. The clues are only partly in the title though, and the clues expand to be found in the play between the word and the image.
Jaray’s geometry is interesting, it incorporates the Palladian and the Moorish, the aesthetic and numerical, whilst being a slave to neither. When I stated earlier that elements within Jaray’s work compete for attention, this is perhaps the edge that makes our eyes zoom and pan in wildly unpredictable ways. The object and ground exchange and collide a thousand times a second; in looking, I would like to think that we rehearse the same visual dilemmas as the artist in trying to broker a bearable equilibrium between our perceptual compulsion and narrative apparatus. To qualify myself here though, I would like to refute those who might wish to put Jaray and Op Art neatly in to the same breath. This is clearly on a different plane(t) than Vasarely, Picabia or Riley and I would suggest that more comparable reference points might be Brunelleschi, Malevich or Agnes Martin.
Without wishing to get onto really very uncertain ground, there is something of Tess Jaray’s work that is also deeply personal and brings out in me the latent dendrochronologist. To explain what I mean, the fascinating locus of Jaray’s life arcs across and makes geographical intersections between her practice and travels, with the art variously acting as some kind of fluid fossil record.
Jaray’s European origins and sensibility, the move from Austria to London in 1938, her time in Rome, the Middle East, her relationship with Sebald and her time in teaching, all resonate in series and parallel. Through her range of creative outputs over the past half century, Jaray has offered perceptual and perceptive insights with a rare intelligence; not only this, but there is also a deep and implicit compassion for humanity underpinning the work. The tragedies of Sebald and Aleppo inform works that offer privileged glimpses into a life through the mind (and eye) of an artist who sees more than most on our collective behalf. Long live the queen.
1 Tess Jaray, Karsten Schubert Gallery at the Vienna Contemporary. Marx Halle, Austria. 26-29 September 2019.
2 The paving design for Centenary Square in Birmingham, UK in 1991.