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The Uplifting Paintings Of Deborrah Tarr

‘Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun.’ Pablo Picasso.

The artist Deborah Tarr, lives and works in quiet anonymity in the village of Primrose Hill, London. Loved on both sides of the Atlantic by private collectors for her sumptuous abstract oil paintings and assemblages, Tarr shuns any grandiose statements about her art. Her work, she insists, is nothing more than a response to the “quiet whisperings” she perceives in the “hum drum” of the every day. She shares a reluctance to describe her work with many contemporary artists like Karen Walker and Louise Bourgeois, as the author Nilanjana Roy writes in her article “An artist’s statement that tells it like it is” for the Financial Times. “Walker’s impatience with the artist statement raises an old question – isn’t the art enough on its own? … Louise Bourgeois wrote, ‘An artist’s words are always to be taken cautiously. The finished work is often a stranger to … the artist…The core of his original impulse is to be found, if at all, in the work itself.’’

Indeed, as Francesco Poli explains in Wandering in the land of Intuition “…most [artists] admit that they are unable to rationally explain, even to themselves, what that secret something is that suddenly triggers the aesthetic success of the work.” (p 35). This echoes Marcel Duchamp who in 1959 called the artist a “mediumistic being” for whom “all decisions in the artistic execution of the work rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a self-analysis, spoken or written.” As with the work of Tarr, one might not be able to rationalise why it succeeds, but we can feel it.

Born in Manchester (b, 1966), Tarr graduated from Winchester School of Art in 1988, and had her first show alongside Danny Rolph and David Atkins. Fellow painter, Vanessa Jackson RA, described her work as ‘truly abstract paintings … that avoid any conceptual theory through their naturally exuberant but highly controlled expression.” With annual sell-out solo shows at Cadogan Contemporary, London, and an increasing presence on the art fair circuit from Miami to Aspen and the Hamptons through Art Bastion, the pressure is on for her to make more work. But Tarr refuses to bow. Her output is fine tuned with her capacity to make what she considers “successful paintings.” Those she deems not good enough, are destroyed.

Tarr’s joyous earthiness is evidenced most in her handling of materials, in particular oil paint. It is deeply sensual. Picking up on the subtle currents that corse invisible between things, her paintings are sparked by feelings she commits to memory via the canvas. With both paintings and assemblages, her work is characterised by an intuitive and harmonious interplay of colour that only comes with practice. Bold swathes of rich pigment balance or pitch against blocks of resonant tones. “The abstract paintings of Deborah Tarr are a forceful reminder of the celebratory power of colour, and its ability to work with subtlety on our spirit and emotions,” says Jackson.


The vertical or horizontal placement of colour is key to understanding Tarr’s visual lexicon; looking deeply one can begin to recognise the nuanced beats and strokes. Like poetry, they invite you to feel your way in. Her schematic is suggestive of growth, and increasingly many of Tarr’s paintings reach into figuration: blocks become boulders and thick impasto swirls reveal landscapes and solid suns. Meanwhile, the titles act as subtle hints to the spirit in which each deliciously textured, nuanced work was conceived. Frequently they reveal Tarr’s playful, cheeky sense of humour: To put a tin Lid on it; Meet me on Charlotte St.; To Absent Friends; A New Place in Town; Affectionately yours.

‘They give a clue to the mood in which the piece was painted, but they also invite a wry smile, and remind both myself and the viewer not to take anything too seriously.’

Tarr’s ability to work on a monumental scale with paintings like The Black Pine and The White Cedar is matched by a capacity to control and concentrate her movement into a small study series. And the Sun was a Demon contains all the searing heat of an afternoon’s burnt flesh, whilst the matt and powdery textures in Flat Land are reminiscent of Pierre Soulages’ mineral experiments. She expands or builds each composition through translucent or opaque layers of paint that carry the history of what lies beneath. What is revealed on close examination of her work is the mark of an artist and painter who continues to mine the seam of her own practice and explore her own sensibility to create what Brice Marden calls “…form as poetry, mystery, that inexplicable thing that painting has.” Tarr’s work offers us the opportunity to come to painting, to savour it, and to lift up our hearts.

Tarr, like abstract painters Agnes Martin, Serge Poliakof or Nicolas de Staël, has developed a unique and highly poetic visual language, one that suggests or alludes to that which cannot be qualified. What she shares with these painters is optimism; compelled to make use of her natural ability she celebrates the fleeting, often inexplicable details that might otherwise be lost in the fabric and the ‘nitty gritty’ of the everyday.

“The Wabi has been an inspiration because it celebrates nature as a guide to seeing – the beauty of imperfection – the ephemeral nature of life.”

by Nico Kos Earle
This post was originally posted on Almost Essential, the Fast-Track to London’s Essential Services for those with a busy life, and written by Nico Kos Earle.