Encountering Risk

Rapid communication systems have changed our lives, but not, I think, our need of nature. The experience of it continues to inspire artists as diverse as Bridget Riley, David Hockney and Richard Long. And if there are aspects of today's culture ('Thrillingly heartless,' says Martin Amis of the writer Will Self) that seem deliberately to promote an absence of meaning, landscape art continues to have a tremendous resonance, perhaps because it comes freighted with tradition yet is also capable of touching our concerns for the earth's future. To draw or paint the land is today one of the most radical things an artist can do.

There has been a long love affair in David Tress's life with Pembrokeshire. Though he can find the impulse to create elsewhere, in North Wales, Holland and the South of France, for example, his work is primarily a dialogue between his inner life, constantly weathered by memory and emotion, and the Welsh landscape in which he lives, with its hills, valleys and coastline. Over the last twenty years, his familiarity with this countryside has become ingrained. He has watched the gathering storm clouds after a period of great heat, witnessed much seasonal change, knows the indigenous flora; his awareness of the landscape's age and use has deepened as he has moved along its ancient roads and visited its cromlechs, while the recent history of local families, houses and farms steadily accrues in his mind. It is no longer a terrain that can be painted objectively, merely for the sake of the view, but a place of encounter where a change of climate, atmosphere or scene can uncover a corresponding tenderness or violence in the artist.

The starting point can be a flash of recognition. As Graham Sutherland once observed, the moment of seeing is often very fleeting, and Tress often finds that it is those things happening to the left or right of what he is looking at that contain interest. His initial drawings are a form of note-taking and the information they contain is taken back to the studio where most of the painting is done. Because Tress was involved with conceptual and performance art whilst a student at Trent Polytechnic, certain critics, notably Andrew Lambirth, have argued that a conceptual approach underpins his painting of both landscape and the figure. But if Tress has escaped the limitations of a predominantly perceptual approach, he steers well clear of the more arid reaches of conceptualism owing to his dependence on gut response, instinct and the workings of his subconscious.

The painting, whether oil or water-based, emerges over a period of time and becomes a theatre of action between the artist and the landscape. Because it has its own demands at an abstract level, it helps bring increasingly into focus that 'inner necessity' (Kandinsky's phrase) that will shape the final image. There is often much trial and error, also deliberate repainting in search of effects that look offhand and spontaneous, if hard won. With water-based paints, Tress works on thick paper, often adding further layers of torn and pasted paper, also scratching and sometimes even cutting into the paper, as if wishing through disfigurement to express the 'slow violence' which he admits sensing now and then in the landscape he knows and loves. There are days when the Pembrokeshire landscape raises the farmer's hopes and welcomes hikers; others when it is more enigmatic, capable of crushing lives or simply offers a blank indifference. 'But where to turn?' asked the poet R.S.Thomas. 'Earth endures/After the passing, necessary shame/Of winter, and the old lie/Of green places beckons me still/From the new world…'

Thus to struggle with this landscape in paint is also to wrestle with notions of birth and death, with exhilaration and despair, and a whole gamut of feelings. In order to arrive at these, Tress can become completely involved in the picture at a physical level, sometimes smashing his brush, loaded with fluid paint, across a headland or sky, or gouging tracks into wet oil with a screwdriver or the wrong end of a brush. There are various techniques at his disposal, and his delight in handling these with knowledgeable skill is offset by his recognition of the importance of risk, of challenging the known with the untried. Nietzsche would have approved. 'I tell you,' he wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: 'one must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star.'

In his series of half-length studies of the female nude, Tress again works with and against the subject, catching with sudden breath-taking accuracy the fall of light or the weight of a breast, but in other places pushing the image to the edge of dissolution. It is as if the seductiveness of paint leaves him on edge, constantly wary of any encroaching facility, for behind even his most freely expressive work lies severity and a critically alert mind.

He is also intensely aware of the artistic legacy which the Welsh landscape has inspired. Before the Graham Sutherland Gallery closed at Picton Castle, he was a regular visitor and can name the sites that gave rise to certain of Sutherland's paintings. Another artist who painted in Wales was John Piper whose heavy use of black may have encouraged Tress to do the same, while Joseph Herman's Welsh paintings may have set an example for the atmospheric combination of red and black which frequently appears in Tress's work. Mention Augustus John, J.D.Innes and Derwent Lees and Tress will instantly acknowledge the lyrical intensity that all three artists brought to the small panels in oils which they painted, using clear, strong colour, on trips to Wales in the period leading up to the First World War.

But Tress is also aware of certain contemporary artists, such as Peter Prendergast, who, like himself, are rugged individualists, deeply committed in their art to the Welsh landscape. In Tress's case, the result is work of impressive authenticity which combines controlled spatial and tonal relationships with expressive abandon. It is impossible to look at his recent pictures without being infected by the vigour and passion which, like an electric charge, travels through them all.

Frances Spalding

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