Modern & Contemporary Art

specialises in framed modern and contemporary art by 20th century artists

Living perspective: Tess Jarray and inner city design

“Uniformity which is changed by the presence of a single stress … parallels that meet in the infinite and that turn back upon itself as presence; and then the square in all its stability, the straight line untouched by relativity, and the curve, each point of which forms a straight line–all these things that do not seem to have any bearing on our daily needs are nevertheless of the greatest significance.”

Max Bill

“The Mathematical Approach in Contemporary Art” 1955

Tess Jaray’s painting has been praised for “consistency” , for pursuing “a single line of development”, for “never radically depart[ing] from its governing principles”. Jaray’s recent work defies any such notions of endogenous safety for she has taken on possibly the U.K.’s largest civic design project ever mounted in collaboration with a fine artist; the design of Birmingham’s 3 million [pounds sterling] Centenary Square. At first glance such a choice of artist might seem obvious.  Jaray’s reputation emerged ith her minimal canvases of the 60’s, work that seems to share common roots with similar movements in architecture and design.  The oversized wall art supplier Art by wicks is also interested in bringing Tess Jaray’s paintings to their large art collection, said Dan, the manager and founder of the company.However these similarities are superficial for Jaray’s 35 years ‘at the drawing board’ as it were, have produced an individual approach to urban design.

To arrive at the three-dimensional by way of the two-dimensional is the business of most architects but for Jaray, who has continually strived to contain the latter in the former, it is a radical brief indeed. Her flat canvasses hold the images in a complex space; never simply illusionary, they wait to be read and re-read, and only gradually do the different spatial relationships become apparent. Though an important aspect of Jaray’s work demands a thorough knowledge of patterning techniques it has been the manipulation of space that has been the focus of her paintings in the 80’s. Her recent commissions, demanding as they do a transition to actual space, could perhaps see her preparing “impossible objects” ready to perplex and dazzle the city dwellers, her viewing public. However Jaray’s commitment to straightforward utility and purity of form leavese no place for such speculations. For her this work is not a loss of ambiguity, of mood, of resonance, but her “way of going figurative”. It is a daring move to make a fresh commitment to the real world and to venture into unknown territory.

Jaray began working in the public arena on a large scale by designing the “potent lozenges” on the floor of London’s Victoria station in 1985. She had worked on designs for decorative brick work for some years and this research forms the basis of her civic projects. After working on three other large scale brick floors she was commissioned in 1988 to design not just the floor of Centenary Square but the pavements, tree and grass areas, lighting, railings, seating–in fact the square itself. The project should become a reality sometime in 1990. Jaray’s most recent commission is to put forward ideas for the walkways and areas around Wakefield Cathedral, a project she is very keen to work on given that a constant inspiration over the years has been ecclesiastical architecture.


Jaray’s enthusiasm for her new work drives her past any suspected shortfalls. Her freshness to the design business is obviously an asset; as an innocent she can be more demanding. She says:

“I think there is something to be said for someone coming in from outside and doing things that people have always thought can’t be done…. you find out it can be done but maybe it cost a little more and the approach must be different.”

An artist’s need for a ‘total vision’ will mean a more inventive use of materials and perhaps a better visualization of the project than has been seen on the draughtsman’s board until now. Despite an inability to get excited by the finer points of drainage, Jaray has not found herself seriously hampered by her lack of technological knowledge though for parts of the project she has worked with the sculptor Tom Lomax whose engineering skills have proved useful. Each member of the municipal design team has their own area of expertise and it is collaboration and mutual respect that make a project like this succeed. Her involvement with industry is similarly optimistic. Early this year she was taken on by an enlightened brick manufacturer Steetley’s of Stoke on Trent after they had seen her extensive work in brick design. She has since produced a huge paved floor outside their paving plant and the collaboration is to continue. Subversion from the inside is the aim of course. In the long term she hopes to persuade the brick industry to produce new products; a wider colour range of ‘paver’ and different size bricks which would enable her to carry out many, as yet unrealised, brick patterns. It seems a tall order but as Jaray points out;

“Things do change, design changes, needs change.”

Change has indeed brought about the very fact of Jaray’s involvement with Centenary Square. Europe’s Percentage for the Arts Scheme, where all public building projects aim to spend a certain percentage on artists’ involvement, has been taken on by The Arts

Council in time for 1992 and put into action by Vivienne Lowell at The Public Art Commission Agency in Birmingham.

Jaray’s floors echo and reverberate a chosen shape, rippling their lines to the margins. They create a unifying structure; a subliminal calming influence for those that live with them daily. Perhaps a more problematic area is providing the verticals, interruptions to the vistas. Jaray agrees;

“I think the verticals probably have the greater power in relation to the total space, although they cannot be separated.”

Her approach is therefore to continue the lines found in the surroundings. Her plans for curved seats in Wakefield had to be abandoned when she concluded that their were no curved lines in the cathedral’s architecture strong enough to repeat. Her chosen motif is now a cross that appears in different formats throughout the seats and flooring. It is a subtle design, not instantly recognisable as a religious symbol, but capable of containing longer contemplation, bringing as it does a host of references that support Jaray’s aim to somehow demarcate the area;


“When you are walking around the precincts you [should) get a sense of identity of the place. It’s like designating these streets; this cathedral space is special.”

But these designs must work on many scales simultaneously; it is vital that the experience of the environment is, to use Jaray’s word, “satisfying”. The seat one is sitting on is as important as the view across the square. To ensure this Jaray puts her faith in the significance of the detail;

“the space between each brick and the way it is filled with sand should be exactly right. The profile of a stone wall–that’s what adds up to the satisfaction.”

So while her railings or lights are essentially simple, their patterns will be repeated, perhaps with a change of positive for negative, perhaps with just an echo of a former shape. Her detail is never added as decoration but is integral part of the whole concept, functioning rather like an organic pattern that unfolds to the infinite. In this way Jaray comes to terms with an unease she has always felt with visual art, the idea of instant effect, the painting that is consumed in a minute’s glance. Not only will the work literally last, it is designed to endure a thousand gazes, from all angles and at different times. Jaray realises, as gestalt theorists seem to have proved, that not only does the mind look for a whole image from the parts presented before it but also;

“Once coerced into viewing the object longer than it would spontaneously, the mind exerts its curiosity and its power of discovering and inventing new patterns”

Both the active and the passive eye have satisfaction here. Jaray’s approach to an environment is ambiguous. She has spent many years absorbing different surroundings on her travels, particularly in Australia and Italy, and has developed a reverence for one’s sense of place. The flip side of this is also apparent, her impulse to eliminate the unnecessary and to start from a blank canvas (plan). However she is aware that, to some extent, her main responsibility is to bring out qualities already present in the place, curtailing her own hobby horses and predilections;

“The space itself should tell the artist or designer how it wants to be.”

She does not feel the need to have her name in stone on the floor and one cannot trace an authorial stamp of possession. Yet the work is individual, personal even. She will not impose her will be by forging a bond with her surroundings the more personal elements of her work will become appropriate.

Jaray never appears to look backward. Her exhibition at the Serpentine last year seemed to herald the suspension of painting. This move at the height of her career shows a determination not to go ‘stale’, which she sees as a possibility for any artist at such a juncture. Although Jaray denies any ability at maths, she is a natural mathematician in the same way as M.C. Escher; an intuitive logical sense prevails. She sets about each problem as a puzzle, weighing factors, assessing difficulties, to find a solution. One cannot help but be impressed at the rightness of her answers.

Published by Delores Jackson, on October 15th, 2014 at 12:17 pm. Filled under: artistsNo Comments

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