Giulia Ricci, Order / Disruption 21, 2011. Image: Vijay Sebastian.
By Tess Jaray
TJ: When I first saw your work at the Slade two or three years ago, I was struck by the connections you seemed to be making between your heritage as an Italian, your love of – mostly ancient – pattern, and a desire to interlace these things with your own fluctuating emotional states. Of course this sounds very simplified, but is it a correct reading of the work?
GR: There surely is a connection between my love of patterns seen in my environment in Italy and my inner world. It is so on a number of levels. As you remember, my fluctuating emotional states were turned into patterns in my series of work entitled “My daily emotional states categorised according to the four humours”. Patterns have always been central to my practice since I was a student in Bologna and I realised quite early that the obvious influences, Roman floors and Byzantine mosaics, were coming to me from my surrounding environment (the province of Ravenna); in terms of ancient art, this soon extended to Islamic art and its multiple manifestations across Italy, from Venice to Monreale. And then when I moved to the UK five years ago I started to become more aware of other aspects of my previous environment that had shaped my obsession with patterns (and my sensibility for small everyday events), such as weaving, repetitive farming tasks, seasons’ cycles, oral literature patterns and the flat countryside landscapes dotted with fields, to name a few. I always strive to remove my subjectivity from my work, hence the use of geometrical shapes and rules; so when I started to focus on a personal subject matter such as emotions, I consequently see them in relation to a wider system; and create links between my microcosm and the macrocosm in which my experience had developed for a big part of my life. Now that I have been away from that environment for a while, other references have been added.
TJ: Your description here is so close to my own influences and inspirations that I’m quite startled. It seems almost like asking myself questions – which you clearly do, although for some artists, I think, it takes time to learn to do that. So much art comes into being by somehow short-circuiting the more accessible part of our brains and seeking out more fundamental instincts and intuitions. So I’d like to ask you, as so much in the world can be seen as pattern, how do you go about selecting what you need to work with? And how much has it do with how you – both literally and conceptually – find, or create, a framework for it?
GR: The way I select material that I turn into patterns is mainly determined by me being able to visualise certain aspects of it into an order, which can be, for instance, a set of data that fits into a pattern like the 4x4 square that I have used for the emotions, a list of things or a set of categories; this last one is the case of the work I am producing as a result of a residency project in a library (where I once worked myself as assistant to cataloguing) in which I am cataloguing random objects forgotten in books by the readers and creating mock shelf-marks in which they fit in. Because I am so focussed on the handmade and the tactile, the framework for the selected idea of pattern is closely linked to the material outcome of the piece; this is quite straight forward in the Cuisenaire-patterned blanket that I had produced last year, in which the colours and length of the stripes of wool match those of the Cuisenaire rods. While in the case of the library project, it is the other way around: I turn some real random objects into an abstract pattern of categories. Although part of my work engages with data, another important chunk is still dwelling on specific patterns that I have worked with for a very long time; these visual patterns have gradually become the place for questioning the contrast between order and disorder, creating a disruption. So here again the tactile and handmade are very important qualities, which carry a number of meanings, as I mentioned earlier, including of course a personal and emotional commitment in making the work.
TJ: Can you clarify what you mean by a set of categories, or a linear list of things? When you say that part of your work is generated by data, it sounds very abstract and impersonal, whereas in the actual work there is a strong sense of your handwriting; your Italian heritage comes across in all kinds of ways – one is reminded of the mosaics of Ravenna, the paving of San Marco in Venice, fragments of old Roman floors such as in Aquilea – and all this and more that is married to and contained by the systems you choose to use, and by your private and personal responses to the world.
GR: I think that maybe I should make it more explicit the extent to which patterns, categories, system and order are a big thing in the way I read the world around me and make sense of it. I think that I find it reassuring to be able to systematise things, and it has been so for a long time now; I like to think that my need for ordering chaos is a coping mechanism to avoid getting overwhelmed by external stimuli which can distract me very easily, also emotionally. So disorder and chaos are important for me as much as systems, order and data; and the hand making aspect of the work is an important part of that ability to be in control of accidents. I think that out of the artistic sources that I have grown up surrounded by (which are many and from a variety of historical periods), those that have left the strongest mark are those, like mosaics, that present that kind of visual language which is linked to my love for patterns and structures.
TJ: So what seems to be emerging here is that your work brings together different approaches, from different directions. Can you describe what these are?
GR: The approaches I use have quite different origins. On one side Minimalism has been a very important influence; with Sol Lewitt’s statements about the possibility of removing the author from the work by using geometry and systems. Islamic art is also another big influence, as I have mentioned before. On the other side, and this is an aspect that I started to understand more recently in my research, I have been influenced by things like the Pattern and Decoration movement. I guess these diverse influences somehow reflect the two opposites that I am trying to explore: order and disorder. Order being a controlled and distanced approach, and disorder the more unpredictable side of experience.
TJ: Thank you, that has certainly clarified some things for me, but I can see this is a conversation that could go on and on…
Giulia Ricci, Order / Disruption 28, 2011. Image: Vijay Sebastian.
Giulia Ricci, Order / Disruption 31, 2011. Image: Vijay Sebastian.
The work of Tess Jaray RA (b.1937, Vienna) is characterised by the enigmatic interaction of forms and colours; the patterns she creates suggest spatial ambiguities and shifting structures which work on the viewer’s perceptions in subtle ways.