In hurried passage through London’s Victoria Station, Tess Jaray’s monumental public installation may go unnoticed. Bodies criss-crossing the terrazzo tiles may conceal parts of the formation, made up of 23 interlocking lozenges spread across the floor of the station’s vast concourse. Yet this natural reduction of the work seems fitting for an artist who has described her practice as reflecting ‘the sense of all experience of life being part of the whole, perceptible only in flashes and fragments’.
As a young girl, Jaray spent time wandering the landscapes of rural Worcestershire in England, where her family relocated from Austria in 1938 following annexation by Nazi Germany. She would assimilate her experiences of nature, in particular boundary spaces such as hedges and fences, into simple pencil drawings. At age 16 Jaray left for London, and joined Saint Martin’s School of Art in 1954. There, she met Singaporean-British artist Kim Lim, whose abstract sculptures developed a reciprocal subtlety of form. Works by the two artists and lifelong friends will be placed in dialogue at the 2023 Gwangju Biennale.
Jaray’s seminal explorations of space arose in the 1960s from a simple discovery orchestrated with masking tape placed horizontally across the canvas, with two lines entering at an angle. The artist had recently returned from Italy, where she travelled after graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art in 1960, and the influence of Renaissance and Baroque architecture and frescoes found its way into her work. In the painting Cupola Blue (1963), domed formations are suggested by the rust-brown trapezoidal shapes surrounded by teal, with thin borders of light blue and green.
Since then, Jaray has sought to push structures and experiences to their pictorial extreme in the service of abstraction. Drawing is central to the artist’s practice, with works originating from a careful mapping process. When it comes to the act of painting, Jaray’s surfaces come into being through meticulously chosen colours and structures. Precision is paired with playfulness, and the works come alive in their surroundings.
On view at Karsten Schubert London are Jaray’s ‘roundel’ paintings, which zero in on the circular form and push external experiences and geometries to their extreme once more. Begun in 2020, the paintings mark a significant departure for the artist, embracing greater economy of colour and form while retaining, if not augmenting, the characteristic strength of her compositions. In 2021, the paintings were featured in Jaray’s solo exhibition at Secession, Vienna, marking a significant homecoming for the artist to the city of her birth.
At the Royal Academy’s 2019 Summer Exhibition, nine of Jaray’s ‘roundels’ in varying shades of purple were placed in a line high up on the wall, resting mischievously out of reach, aligned by a single white dot at their centres. At Karsten Schubert, works from this series are displayed in a similar fashion, emphasising the form’s definition as a circular decorative panel or architectural niche.
Whilst Jaray’s ‘roundels’ occasionally come in pairs, their sizes do not always match, as in the case of For Your Eyes Only, Pink & Turquoise (2020), where one circle in turquoise containing a pink dot is reciprocated by another, in pink and containing a turquoise dot, that is one centimetre larger in diameter. Across her paintings, these subtle differences, including brushstrokes that become visible at certain angles, reward the lingering glance and add depth and visual jest to their presupposed flatness.
LISTEN: Podcast: A brush with... Tess Jaray
An interview with Ben Luke for The Art Newspaper. Tess Jaray speaks with journalist Ben Luke for his podcast 'A brush with...' This in-depth interview with Jaray touches on her cultural experiences and greatest influences, from Henri Matisse to W.G. Sebald.
Tess Jaray: For Your Eyes Only | Press Release