Six monumental canvases fill a reignited space inside the art deco glory of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Tess Jaray has created harmony between architecture and painting through her precise lines and pastel shades, responding to the features of one of the finest buildings in the country.
The works alternate; three are zagged and full-frontal, and between them the eye is left to rest with the more meditative pieces, consisting of flat colour and sparse blocks that allow for gentle reflection on what’s in front of you. The subtlety of the colours used means that the hard edges of the patterns do not jar against one another, rather they shimmer, ripple and dance across the canvas. It is a joy to be amongst them, between them, letting them ever so slightly deceive your eyes. The effect they give is impossible to find elsewhere, reproductions of her work online and on leaflets do a disservice to their wonderful nature. Tess stresses that her paintings are not optical illusions, she does not wish for the viewer to feel forced to look away, rather she wants us to linger on the intricacy of her forms for as long as we desire.
An exhibition with only six canvases could be in danger of a lack of substance, but in the case of ‘From Outside’, the space is essential to appreciating the work. The space isn’t crowded, or overfilled with separate works jostling for attention, it creates an exhibition that is much a feeling as it is a visual experience. This feeling is created because of the painting’s essential connection to its surroundings and the gallery it is housed in, there is a relationship between the two that exists beyond the paint. The paintings would not have the same impact if not for the environment that the paintings stand within, as the crisp whiteness of the space allows Tess’s work to speak uninhibited, to dominate, creating an atmosphere previously unfelt in the Barber. The gallery rarely gets the chance to exhibit work from a living artist, and there is a palpable enthusiasm for what is on show, a contemporary drive that propels you through the space and begs you to stay.
It seems ridiculous to state that the exhibition would be impossible if the Barber institute was not housed inside a 1930s masterpiece. Jaray is reflecting the work of an architect who has been criminally forgotten, Robert Atkinson, and his sketches and initial photographs of the building are shown just before the exhibition begins. This serves to reignite an interest in a monument to British architecture that many take for granted, it will help toward a rediscovery for many people who attend, forcing us to look again at the details and motifs that make up the gallery exterior, from outside.
Tess Jaray, From Outside is on at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts from the 27th of February to the 12th of May 2019.
Address: Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TS