Telly Tu’u

Sharing work in progress in June 2020, Telly Tu'u described a painting for his upcoming show as one of his ‘latest, most resolved’ pieces. He hadn’t, yet, ‘decided on the right way up.’

Tu’u’s new work is, indeed, an exploration of resolution: visually, chemically, and perhaps in a sense more greatly abstracted. Developing the abstraction of his earlier painting practice, he explores in this new material ideas of dissolution and accretion, impermeability and melt. He’s interested in the process of resolving these binary oppositions, but not necessarily in any conclusive, or declarative, manner. Instead, Tu’u’s resistance to conclusion is much of the point: in these works, there is exactly no singular right way up. 

The title of Tu’u’s new show, Mingle, opens up many of the questions held at the centre of his paintings. What does it mean for elements of a painting — colours, lines, strokes — to commingle? What happens to these building-blocks of visual language when they come together, interact, and are each altered by their shifting relations with the others? How is the self-identity  of these visual elements maintained; how do blues stay blue and greys grey? Why might we want them to? 

Gestural strokes of vibrant colour, familiar from Tu’u’s earlier paintings, emerge in their distinction arrhythmically from the soft conglomerations into which they’re pooled. The show’s titular work, Mingle, for instance, is structured along a diagonal axis with a slick of dark, opaque paint swiped at either end. These little patches, like traces of oil with their spectral dispersions of colour, spring out of the softer cloud of grey tones covering the centre of the painting. These clear notes of formal self-identity — these solid grounds of visuality — could be thought of as ‘calling to’ or ‘echoing’ each other. Perhaps, though, the painting’s interest in blending, shifting, and de-stabilising its constituent elements calls for a more fluid model of the relationship between its moving parts. There is the soft sense that their relationship is something more rhizomatic, varied and variable, always already on the move. These paintings stage a commingling, a mixture, in which the constituent parts dash in and out of both each other and themselves.

In a statement for the show, Tu’u reflects that much of his thinking recently has been around the matter of what makes an interesting painting. Certainly, these are paintings within which can be challenging to find a bearing. However, the sense in which ‘interest’ speaks also to a process of accumulation can be another fruitful way into these works. Interest builds on what is deposited here: as colours and strokes blend together, they build each upon the other. With this sense of interest in mind, the paintings swell in front of our eyes. 

So, too, does each painting in the series represent interest gained on the others. The series is extremely coherent in its tonal range, and also its continual preoccupation with the techniques of commixture applied to its elements; each piece is an answer to the same questions about abstraction, relation, and self-identity, differently approached. Looking across the body of work as a whole, the accrual of interest in this way is also, ironically, frustrating to the eye seeking ‘interest’ in the sense of narrative progression, or new information. 

An attentive approach to abstraction – inspired in part by the patterned tropes of Samoan Pe’a and Tapa cloth which Tu’u grew up with – makes for works satisfyingly frustrating. The compositions of these works may well be resolved, but happily the ideas that they open up are indeed just that: open.

Telly Tu’u: Mingle
27 January – 13 February 2021
King Street Gallery, Sydney


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