Living With Art: Telly Tu’u

Telly Tu’u is an exciting abstract artist based in Sydney, after migrating from New Zealand some years ago. His heritage is Samoan, Chinese, Tokelau and Tuvalu; culture is a critical element of how his practice has developed. The Samoan Pe’a (tattoo) or Tapa cloth consist of patterns that are abstracted from nature, so abstraction is comfortable ground for the artist, another mode of expression.

3:33 Art Projects collaborated on a survey exhibition of Tu’u’s work as part of the Clayton Utz Art Partnership at Clayton Utz, Sydney in 2019. We spoke with artist after the launch of his latest exhibition ‘Mingle’ at King Street Gallery on William, which is on view now until 13 February. It’s one which he describes as part of an ongoing inquiry into how and what makes an ‘interesting’ painting.

Telly Tu’u in the studio, 2020

Has preparing for ‘Mingle’ been different to other exhibitions?

My preparation has always been the same. I’ve always approached painting like it’s my last painting, or even my last show possibly. There’s a certain discipline involved, of course I can only speak for myself as I’m in my own head. It’s an ongoing thing. I have the luxury of living and having my studio in the same place. But at the same time, it’s also really bad for me. I’ll make a mark, and I might wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning and just start painting. Next thing you know the birds are singing and people are driving around.

You’re very knowledgeable about art history, what particular touchstones either artists or works were you looking at in the making of this series?

I recall the stuff that moved me at art-school. Joan Mitchell was a really important force in what I was interested in. I consider her one of the best abstract-expressionist painters. She was second generation, at that time it was a ‘boys club’. I think she is one of the greats. Willem de Kooning is still one of my painting heroes, or Charline von Heyl. It constantly changes for me.

Telly Tu’u, Ransack, 2020, oil on linen, 61 x 61cm

We observe floating fragments in an explosive state, with hints of smoke. The eye darts and settles. There’s a continuity of movement within a single frame without conclusions, which is relaxing and meditative. Are you trying to create a particular emotional state or response from the viewer?

It’s completely intentional and responsive. I love the idea of movement and my paintings being a slow burn. It may seem like you get it straight away but through time, when you come across it every now and again, it’s different or changed. What I find problematic at times, because I paint so much and often at night, sometimes I’ll go to bed and think ‘Oh, man. This is really good. I’ve done it’ and then in the morning it’s a completely different painting because of natural light.

I’m so invested in the gestural mark and these washes to build up movement and use hard edge forms to create an anchor or pause. I like the idea of a moment suspended in time.

There’s only so much you can do on a two-dimensional surface, you’re just pushing around pigment right? I hate to simplify what I love but it’s limited to a certain point. What I’m trying to do is create an atmospheric thing that feels like it’s constantly moving.

Telly Tu’u, Aitu, 2020, oil on polycotton, 183 x 198cm

It’s a somewhat new process, removing paint from your compositions. You seem to be doing it a bit more?

Yes in this body of work more so than others. The removing of the paint has become just as important as the putting on of the paint. It adds to it. It creates a jostling of mark making that kind of confuses myself. It throws the viewer off a little bit from the rules of foreground, middle ground and background, for example the closer something is the more detail you will see. But I’ve been doing the reverse. It’s all about learning the rules and trying to break them. I’m trying to dump everything I know all at once in some kind of controlled way; with compositional form, disregarding or regarding the edges and marks, or just go off on its own.

I hope that’s enough to hold the viewer and they make up their own idea. I believe in prompting a conversation. That conversation starts with me in the studio by myself, but I have no place to tell you how to feel.

Can you talk about your love of paint and speak on colour, I know you sometimes use residue colour from the palette…

It’s my student mind-set I guess. I had no money. I was eating tuna. I had some crappy jobs. I did whatever I could just so I could paint.

I’ve worked in art stores in Sydney for past few years. People will come in and buy the most expensive brushes and paint thinking they’re going to make a great painting. But I don’t think that matters. You’ve got to commit, or you don’t. That’s why I think whatever is left on my palette should be used. In a weird way it’s served me really well as it’s kept my paintings connected through the palette. It’s also like me cheating as I don’t have to predetermine colour for a painting, it’s what’s left on the palette which will determine what I do next.

It’s good to free yourself and ease into the stream of consciousness style.
Yes and it gets me away from the ‘Pantone colours’. I think the worst criticism I’ve had is someone say about a painting ‘Oh that’s so hip and hot’. I went home and changed the painting. The idea of trying to be professional painter makes me cringe. If you’re constantly trying to chase what’s fashionable I think you’re in trouble, you’re behind. Painting for me is not about trying to be relevant it’s about painting.

What is unique about working with 3:33 Art Projects?
You’ve been so supportive. You’ve all been encouraging and I can see from the background how you care about artists and giving people a shot. I am so grateful and humbled by the experience I had with 3:33.

Telly Tu’u, Beat about, 2020, oil on polycotton, 81 x 92cm


This article is presented in collaboration with 3:33 Art Projects