Like all artists of independent spirit, David Tress (born 1955) resists categorisation. He has been called a Romantic and a Neo-Romantic, a mixture of Impressionist and Expressionist, a traditionalist and a modernist, yet not one of these labels quite fits. He is all and none, drawing his inspiration from the great traditions of western art but principally from the British landscape that continues to evoke a response in him that can only find outlet through drawing and painting.
Tress is a landscape painter and draughtsman of great poignancy, imbuing his dramatically coloured and vigorously constructed works with an emotional intensity that makes them difficult to ignore. He paints and draws on the thickest of watercolour papers, but frequently attacks the surface (with all kinds of tools and cutting implements) with such energy and fervour that he will penetrate right through and have to patch over, or under, another sheet before he carries on. This apparently mild-mannered man can work with a ferocity belied by his appearance — though when he starts to talk about the sources of his work, the passion that he channels into two-dimensions begins to emerge in a torrent of erudite conversation.
A typical Tress painting is executed in mixed media on an irregularly shaped support (the overlapping sheets of paper are not squared off but frequently protrude and are allowed to bring a new dynamic to the picture), which usually depicts a landscape under very specific weather conditions. Although a representational painter, he is not a topographical realist. His pictures are not snapshots of nature, so much as ways of thinking about landscape. This more open approach allows his emotional response to the subject to direct the vibrant application of pastel or watercolour pencil that often overlays the paint.
Tress is all too familiar with admirers of his work who are attracted by the more obvious aspects of his technique, what he calls ‘the frilly bits round the edges, the layers and the vigorous handling’, but who fail to recognise the hard work that has gone into arriving at the point when he is able to work with such freedom. He maintains: ‘Unless you’ve been trained to draw — that good old solid background of representational painting (perspective, space, tonal relationships) — you can’t do it. Structure is absolutely essential, and a lot of that is hidden under the layers. Without that, all it amounts to is chic finger-painting.’
Generally, he works flat on a table, but if the painting or drawing is to be larger than the old Imperial size (30” x 22”), he will pin the paper to a board which can then go on an easel or against a wall. Only occasionally will he work on the floor. ‘Sometimes the best paintings you pull out of a situation which is almost a disaster — beyond control. And you can do something very radical sometimes better on the floor.’ Out in the landscape he draws in an A4 sketchbook, but the real work takes place in the studio, where he is constantly making and remaking the image. ‘I am ruthless,’ he says; ‘I have no shame. I will hide things that I don’t want to see or just rip them out. I love the sense of immediacy, and if it starts to get stodgy I get disgusted. It’s important to be visceral about it — I don’t like that bit, so I take it out. Sometimes you get a painting which should work and everything says that this is good, but it just won’t work. And however much you hammer away at it there’s something fundamental that you haven’t seen, something wrong, and it ends up in bits. There aren’t any formulae.’
The first painter to excite him, at the age of 15 or 16, was Ben Nicholson, whose early figurative landscapes have remained a source of interest to Tress. Then, a little later, he discovered Abstract Expressionism, which has exerted a lasting influence over him. When he was starting to paint, John Singer Sargent’s watercolours were important to him. Other artists he continues to look at include Joan Eardley and the 1950s and 60s paintings of Frank Auerbach. He remains fascinated by the great tradition of landscape painting in this country, paying particular attention to such artists as Turner and Cotman.
In the early 1970s, when for a time he was an ardent conceptual artist, David Tress used to frequent the Nigel Greenwood Gallery off Sloane Square, one of the very few venues where the kind of new art he most admired then was regularly shown. Greenwood believed in the importance of documentation, even on a modest scale, and published pamphlets and booklets to commemorate his exhibitions, many of which Tress bought. These exiguous publications — on the likes of Ed Ruscha, Bernd and Hilla Becher, John Baldessari and Art & Language — were priced between 35p and £1.25, and Tress estimates that he spent no more than £20 on his collection of period ephemera. With the passage of time, these pamphlets have become not only scarce but also the primary sources on the avant-garde of the day. Tress sold his collection recently for £1,400, after carrying it around for years from student lodgings to damp stone cottage and finally to his current home in Haverfordwest. This story succinctly illustrates not just how the avant-garde with time becomes respectable and academic, but also that the early years of David Tress’s career were very different from his practice today.
Then in 1976, Tress moved to Wales. Prior to this his work had been self-consciously avant-garde: he’d favoured Super 8 film, installation and performance rather than painting or sculpture, and had worked with Michael Nyman on experimental music. He went to Pembrokeshire with a friend on a chance visit, hiking and camping, and decided to stay. As he says, he’d rather be a barman or stack shelves in a supermarket in Pembrokeshire than in London or Nottingham. At this point he knew next to nothing about Graham Sutherland or John Piper, both distinguished painters of the Welsh landscape, who were later to be of considerable interest to him. He began to make watercolour paintings of his surroundings in conscious reaction to the avant-gardism of his student days. He followed his instincts, rather than a big idea, having come to the conclusion that the ‘continual revolution’ of Modernism was something of a false messiah.
‘The thing that’s driven me always is gut feeling,’ he says, and it has certainly sustained him through years of hard work and impecunious obscurity. I first came across his work in 1995, and have been writing about it and enthusiastically following its development ever since. His painting continues to grow in stature and deepen in resonance; his formal inventiveness keeping pace with an enhanced understanding of the material and metaphysical implications of the landscape he paints. As he puts it very simply, ‘I’m doing things that I want to do, about things I’m interested in, and trying to do them as well as I possibly can.’
David Tress is giving a talk in the gallery at noon on Saturday 5 October. If interested, please contact the gallery (0207 437 5545) as space is limited.