David Tress and the Force of the Real

How would an artist born in 1955 paint? For that matter, should he be painting at all? After all, when David Tress was at art school in the early seventies the glamour of the Pop Art movement was already faded and David Hockney safely settled in southern California. Francis Bacon was still Francis Bacon, but by then really consecrated as a Modern Master, to be admired but no more to be emulated than Alfred Munnings. Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossof were there, of course, but in a sort of critical no-man's-land. The general orthodoxy was that Painting was Dead, and the vogue was all for performance art, conceptual art, the making of installations. This might not be the way of art school teachers' own work at that time, but then, when did students take any notice of that? And anyway, after the rebellion at Hornsey in 1968, teachers hardly expected to teach anything, but merely to assure students that their prime duty was to do their own thing.

So, all things considered, it would be faintly surprising if an eighteen-year-old Tress wanted to paint at all. But he never seems to have had much of the conformist about him. As a teenager in London he had fallen in love with art, the idea and the actuality, and haunted public and West End galleries. What particularly excited him then was the work of the American Abstract Expressionists, and he took to painting his own abstracts: turbulent, expressionist, landscape-based canvases rather than the poised, geometrical kind favoured by such British artists as Ben Nicholson and Victor Pasmore. This was all a spare time enthusiasm: at school he specialized in the sciences to A level, but then, having got that under his belt, he determined to turn full-time in the direction of art.

During his first venture into art education, doing a foundation year at Harrow College of Art, he happened to spend a term under the tuition of Ken Howard. Howard was an RA, which in the seventies put him virtually beyond serious consideration. On the other hand, he was not only a landscapist, but a very enterprising one, taking up the landscape more or less where Turner left off, and carrying it forcefully into the twentieth century. One must suspect that his influence on Tress was profound. But not immediately. When Tress went on to do a fine art degree at Trent Polytechnic, primarily because the famous avant-garde artist and thinker Victor Burgin, was teaching there, inevitably he found himself in a hotbed of modernism as it was then understood, and dutifully immersed himself in performance and the conceptual.

The enchantment of such things did not last long, however. Finally he just did not find that art as thus defined was very interesting for him. So, for the moment, he gave it up. Once graduated, he took off hitch-hiking for West Wales, got a job in a pub, moved into a caravan, and put art on the back-burner. The point of this lay in something he had realized already at Trent: whatever contemporary orthodoxy might say, he had to paint or he was nothing. And in order to paint he had to learn how to. If there was no one available to teach him, he had to teach himself, starting, he says, almost from scratch. At least, if he had no teacher except himself, he had no one else's taste to respect, no one else's judgment to fear. In any case, his own was severe enough.

He began by working in watercolour, a medium of which he had no previous experience. Perhaps for that very reason, it was a discipline, and discipline was what he primarily needed in re-educating himself. After about ten years of working by himself, far away from the mainstream of professional art practice, he finally felt that he had mastered all the technique he needed, to do what he wanted to do. And that proved to be painting in oils and watercolour - mostly landscape, but with occasional excursions into working from the human figure. His style at this time was apparently a minute realism, reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth and others whom conventional wisdom at that time tended to condemn as mere illustrators.

Again, it was a discipline, as well as being about as extreme a reaction as one could imagine to his conceptual phase. But something so finicky clearly was not going to be a long-term solution for one of his artistic temperament. He was by nature an independent, but a bold, rather wild independent, who could not take refuge in almost photographic realism for very long. By the time that he knew inside out how to do it, he knew also more precisely what he wanted to do. Never one for pussyfooting with his materials, he began seriously to treat them rough.

Not only was paint itself splashed and plastered and trowelled on to board and paper, but oils were boldly mixed with acrylic and gouache and crayon, and what they were applied to became more and more complex, with surfaces built up from scraps of paper and card, often pasted on top of pigment and then painted over again. The overall effect became more and more turbulent and dramatic, reminding one of Tress's teenage devotion to Abstract Expressionism and his slightly later contact with Ken Howard. But clearly by the mid-eighties Tress had become confidently his own man.

He was still living and working in isolation from anything resembling the metropolitan art world. Well, why not? Though born and brought up in London, his roots were Welsh: his mother's family were among those who went out from Wales to found the Welsh colony in Patagonia, but then returned in time for her to be born in Anglesey. Whether this constitutes an ancestral sympathy for the more fierce and stormy elements of the Welsh landscape is arguable, and probably had little to do with his settling in Pembrokeshire in his early twenties. But once there he obviously found his surroundings congenial and conducive to the sort of work he found he needed to do.

In any case, his days of isolation were numbered. They probably always had been: from the beginning of the eighties he had been making his living with his art, and he was teaching the history of art part-time in the Extra-Mural Department of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. But it was still true that he remained, by chance or design, distant from anything resembling the conventional art market. One might say that the arrival of Myles Pepper in Fishguard and the opening there of his West Wales Arts Centre in 1983 did not necessarily have any radical effect on Tress's attitudes; he would probably have developed in much the same way even if Pepper had never come upon the scene. All the same, Pepper was far from being a conventional art dealer. He arrived with a sense of mission and a desire to test for himself the possibilities of modern art in the area. And thus it was that Pepper and Tress ended up developing very much together.

During the 1980s Tress had had a number of small one-man exhibitions in local galleries, but the scope of the West Wales Arts Centre was much wider, its ambitions more far-ranging. Pepper did not want it to be speaking just to locals, but to provide a national display case for local art, exposing it to a larger and more varied public, as well as bringing in art from further afield to fertilize and enliven the local scene. In all this the presence of Tress was a key factor. He had his first solo show at the Centre in 1991, then again in 1994. He began to exhibit also in Cardiff, and from 1995 in London, at the Boundary Gallery. In 1997 he had a more extensive show which started in Fishguard and travelled to two other venues in Wales. He was beginning willy-nilly to return to the main stream of art, but doing so on his own terms.

Since he is, and has been for some time, essentially a landscape painter, one has to ask what influence the physical surroundings of his self-imposed isolation have had on his art. Pembrokeshire has never been the home of an art colony in the way that, say, Cornwall has. But during the thirties a number of significant artists found it fruitful as a painting-ground. For several years Graham Sutherland came to paint in the southern part of the county, and John Piper in the northern. Their work in Pembrokeshire had remarkably few common qualities, perhaps because of fundamental differences in the landscapes that inspired them, but more likely because of the radical differences in their temperament and vision. John Piper once said to me that he could not imagine quite where Sutherland had found all the twisted, tortured roots which played such a prominent role in his paintings of the period, as Piper had never seen anything similar in Pembrokeshire. Then, after a moment's consideration, he added: 'But of course painters find only what they are already looking for, and paint what is in their heads rather than what they see outside.'

The same must surely be true of Tress. No doubt the colour range of his pictures must have a lot to do with the landscape that has inspired them, and it is highly unlikely that we would encounter the vibrant blues and luscious pinks of his recent Greek paintings, or the steely greys of his Trafalgar Square paintings, in work done in or inspired by Pembrokeshire. But even within Pembrokeshire different weathers and different seasons have an important effect on what we see in Tress's work: the rich, slightly acid greens of the spring scenes are replaced by the golds of summer and the russets of autumn, while storm and stress provoke a corresponding agitation of the pigments.

And always there are reminders of Tress's past with and in Abstract Expressionism. Though Tress seldom seems to lose touch entirely with the physical facts of landscape or, in his nudes, the human figure, you get the feeling that the precise rendering of appearances is not his primary concern. Instead, he goes more for the spirit, or, one might say, the soul of his subject. And this is something which is always tugging him towards abstraction. Though appearances are always his starting-point, what he is finally painting is not the appearance, but the emotion that it engenders in him. And this never seems to be emotion recollected in tranquility: Tress's paintings plunge us right into the maelstrom.

The sheer emotional power of the mood swings embodied in the works is such that no formal convention seems adequate to contain them. Instead, the brush-strokes (to use a general term which may well include splashings and scrapings and trowellings of colour) become more and more wild and apparently uncontrolled. But only apparently. It has often been noted in recent years that even the master of 'Action Painting', Jackson Pollock, for all his wild gyrations in front of the movie camera, in fact knew exactly what he was doing, and the element of chance involved in where his paint fell on the canvas was always moderated and held in check by calm reconsideration leading to careful balances and realignments in the final composition.

So it is with Tress. Occasionally, like all artists of conscience, he may abandon or destroy a work-in-progress which stubbornly refuses to live up to his mental picture of it. But finally none of his pictures just happens: they are subject to full artistic control, even if kept on a very loose rein. The basic materials of sky and sea and foliage and raw earth are always unmistakably there, like the silhouette of London's National Gallery, the angry/cheerful outbursts of graffiti on Temple Bar walls, or the generous outlines of the female body. But above and beyond that, the paint seems to take on a life of its own, swirling and slashing and dripping through the composition, finding its own way to bypass our intelligence and work directly on our emotions, to deconstruct the facts of the matter and reconstruct them nearer to Tress's inner vision.

John Russell Taylor

back to top…