‘What’s in a jug?’ Reflections by Daria Santini

Hanging on a wall in my house I have a small untitled canvas painted by Jason Sumray when he was a student. It shows a figure dressed in a bright red jumper and mustard-coloured trousers slouching back into a dark red armchair, legs crossed at the ankles, arms outstretched against the headrest. The background is empty and so dark it could almost be black but is in fact an intense dark green. The colour pushes the figure forward by emphasizing the interplay between the two different shades of red which dominate the image’s foreground. The person’s face is blurry; what matters here is not a particular individual, but a human presence, a mood, a posture, a domestic allusion. This is not a realistic scene and the painter is not concerned with details. Instead, he seems to be probing the relationship between a human being and his or her surroundings. In a similar way, colour is not used descriptively but rather as related to space, as a source of depth, a means to create drama, mystery and possibilities. On the whole, this early work bears only a vague resemblance to the artist’s subsequent compositions, yet some of the seeds of his future development as a painter are all there: a humanistic preoccupation with figures in space, a focus on the domestic sphere and a dynamic use of colour.

In a recent statement about his artistic vision and practice, Jason Sumray has defined his paintings as lacking in narrative and working instead as ‘triggers for potential meaning’. This desire to eschew literal representation in favour of a more suggestive, evocative approach to his subjects is fully realised in his latest, wonderfully mature body of work, entitled What’s in a Jug? and exhibited in a solo show at London’s Highgate Gallery in September 2020. In my view, this collection of paintings and etchings constitutes the artist’s most accomplished work so far. The works are powerful in their boldness, coherent in their relationship with some important models (such as Chardin and Braque) and technically brilliant.

Paradoxically, the straightforward question in the exhibition title alerts the viewer to the enigmatic quality of the works. Jugs are the series’ protagonists: they entertain a dynamic relationship with the tables they stand on and with the everyday domestic implements which surround them. All these canvases are devoid of human figures, yet they are not conventional Still Lifes. They are not mere studies of objects; they don’t focus primarily on the symbolic or allegorical power of the inanimate world as in the Dutch and Flemish tradition; nor do they recall, for example, the quiet mystery of Giorgio Morandi’s static vessels.

Jason Sumray has called his latest paintings ‘invented Still Lifes’ and has spoken of their dramatic nature. On these canvases, the absence of people left a void in which their presence still lingers: because all the objects portrayed are closely bound up with our everyday lives (jugs, bowls, spoons, tables and chairs); because they have not been carefully arranged, but simply left there, as if waiting to be picked up again; and because some of their colours possess a vibrancy which makes seem alive. True, these paintings are reminiscent of other similar, slightly older paintings by Sumray, also set in domestic interiors and featuring the silent, often tantalising presence of everyday objects. I am thinking of Puppy Love I (2014), a large canvas on which the human and animal figures – someone lying on a sofa, a child on a chair talking to the little dog that occupies the centre of the picture – are almost obscured by the luminous white bowl and the long, slender spoon resting on a small table. And there is also Cherry Pie I (2014), a painting in which two dishes on a dining table and the bowl of cherries that lies between them, with its blood red content and bright blue rim, appear more vital than the human figures, whose clothes are colourless and whose faces we don’t see.

Puppy Love I (2014)

The paintings and etchings of What’s in a Jug? focus on the relationship between objects and the space around them. In the etchings, the objects emerge more clearly, revealing a more expressive relationship between light and dark. Moreover, these are no ordinary objects – or rather, they are among the humblest, most ordinary objects we can imagine, yet they are also full of history, repositories of hidden meanings. That the question in the title should concern the jug is not a coincidence.

Cherry Pie I (2014)              

Jugs have been regarded as both simple things and powerful metaphors since the earliest stages of human civilization. Throughout antiquity – from ancient burial rites to the Greek wine festivals, from Biblical symbolism to modern philosophy and cultural history – jugs have been seen as the embodiment of a connection between the human sphere and the transcendental. Significantly, the vessel’s components are named after parts of the human body and a famous Biblical simile compares God to a potter. Moreover jugs, with their uterine quality of a shape enveloping a void, often allude to the numinous power of a great change, as in the story of Rebekah at the well from the book of Genesis, or in the enigmatic jugs as painted by Vermeer and usually associated with women and girls. Jugs symbolise the ambiguity of all inanimate things, they stand for timelessness as opposed to our own mortality; but, as breakable objects, they can also indicate fragility and loss. More than ever, perhaps, in our era of disposable cups and plastic bottles, jugs stand for the reassuring stability of something familiar and enduring, while at the same time their silent presence is also strangely removed from the realm of human concerns.

In Jason Sumray’s latest paintings jugs appear to come to life, and his visual exploration of the motif is compelling. In a recent interview about his own work, he said that he prefers to call himself a painter rather than an artist and concluded the interview by exclaiming: ‘What a wonderful thing I’m doing!’ These canvases prove both points, for they reveal his perfect ease with the paint medium as well as an enjoyment of his craft.

Greek Urn with Pears (2020)

The paintings in this series are playful, serious and profound. Though not realistic, they portray moments from life and enact small everyday dramas: a pot with its lid off teetering on one end of the table; a jug jutting out behind it; two turquoise spoons ‘looking right’ and brightening up an otherwise sombre scene; and spilt strawberries and cream taking centre stage, while a dark jug, a cup and spoon are perilously close to the table’s (and the picture’s) edge. Yet most of these paintings are also enveloped in a void, their backgrounds dipped in deep, velvety shades of black and various hues of grey. In Greek Urn with Pears (2020), the urn of the title (surely a nod to Keats’ ‘unravish’d bride of quietness’) stands, with its dark opening towards the viewer, on a pink tabletop next to an assorted row of kitchen implements: a frying pan, a brown jug, spoons, a knife and two smaller jugs. The lighter objects – the glinting of a metal spoon, a milky-white jug and a pink-reddish pear – provide flashes of colour and imbue the painting with a lightness of touch that counteracts the more intense drama of the larger vessels.

In Chair, Stool and Serviette (2017), the objects emerge dramatically from the dark. They are a grey stool, a light-coloured serviette with an orange pattern, a tablecloth in a shade of red which recalls the rich intensity of Titian’s red velvets, and a blue-green jacket hanging on a chair, eerie and magnetic like the depths of the sea, or like a flash of light from outer space.

Chair, Stool and Serviette (2017)

Sumray’s sophisticated use of colour and light, and the arresting way with which he arranges his subjects/objects, are evocative of his earlier works and of some of his favourite painters, but they are also utterly original. They exude confidence and – despite their darker, enigmatic undertones – they are strikingly vital.

Jug at Top Table (2020)

The etchings that accompany this series are bolder but also more nuanced because of the carefully controlled contrast of light and dark, which results in a more marked difference between the different objects. Here, compared to the dense ambiguity of the paintings, flowing lines and precise strokes create a different sort of space, and the atmosphere changes as the blackness is more textured and the outlines reveal the objects in a new light. Yet at the same time, the darkness of the bare backgrounds is also enhanced – a darkness so absolute that in some cases, as in Jug at Top Table (2020), it almost enfolds the top of one of the jugs, hiding its opening from our view.

There is no simple answer to the question ‘What’s in a Jug?’, and perhaps the artist is teasing us. Or perhaps there are as many answers as these beautiful and mysterious objects conceal in their all too familiar forms and in the emblematic nature of their millenary history. In the video that accompanies the exhibition, Jason Sumray recognises the need to paint as ‘wrapped up in one’s own identity’ and as connected to the desire to say something important. In his case, the inspiration behind these works comprises a multitude of personal and creative influences, from a significant family heritage (his father, Harman Sumray, was a painter and art teacher) to his fascination with an artistic tradition which includes the dramatic style of Goya and Braque’s deep probing of the essence of things.

Above all, despite the absence of figures, the content of Sumray’s works reveals a fundamental preoccupation with human life. His impressive use of colour, for example, is far from being merely aesthetic. In a tweet from October 2019 he quoted something the American painter Robert Motherwell wrote about colour in 1946: ‘The “pure” red of which certain abstractionists speak does not exist no matter how one shifts its physical contexts. Any red is rooted in blood, glass, wine, hunter’s caps, and a thousand other concrete phenomena. Otherwise we should have no feeling toward red or its relations, and it would be useless as an artistic element’. In Jason Sumray’s paintings, too, colour – and other formal elements such as light, space and composition – is rooted in the fabric of our lives, in human identity and experience. And his jugs, together with their humble companions on his tabletops and on the backs of his chairs, do not only accompany our daily existence; they also remind us of an older, shared history, and of all the trivial and serious complexities that make us who we are.

Dr Daria Santini. Writer and literary historian. Recent books include ‘The Exiles: Actors, Artists and Writers who fled the Nazis for London’. Bloomsbury 2019