Over the past few months, with Covid 19 restrictions limiting travel between our respective
hometowns of London and Berlin, Tyra Tingleff has been sending me photo updates of her at
work in her studio. Scrolling through them creates a kind of crude stop-frame animation.
Don’t breathe out, (but I know you will…) (2021), the large-scale painting that now occupies
the lower- ground floor of The Sunday Painter, begins as a series of squiggles of colour, vivid
punctuation marks on the envelope-beige canvas, which surge and roil as layers are added,
marbled and squeegeed into and over one another. Some passages are definite and contained;
others have an ambient radiance, like the afterimage on the back of your eyelids when you’ve
looked right at the sun. The overall effect is like the slippery, rainbow iridescence of an oil-
slick on water. Over the course of these iPhone shots, the paintings come together – but it
seems clear to me that they also pull apart. The colours resist each other, resist the canvas.
They also, in a punkish flourish typical of Tingleff, resist the viewer: from the street, all you
see of Don’t breathe out … is the upper section of the canvas, like the tip of a hallucinatory
iceberg; once you are downstairs with it, the painting pushes you out. You can’t get around it.
Watching the process of their making has, curiously, posed more questions than answers
about where Tingleff’s paintings begin and end. Their coiled spatial and temporal mysteries
remain itchily unresolved. Of course, ‘finished’ is a never-quite proposition when applied to
the process of painting – which, unlike, say, a cast sculpture or a fired ceramic, always
remains available to addition or subtraction, to things being painted in or out. I often think of
the response of another artist friend who, in response to my question about how she knew
when a painting was finished, told me: ‘When I can see how it started.’ It’s a good answer, I
think. What I understood her to mean was: a painting is like a puzzle, where the last piece
reveals the pattern of the whole. The beginning and end might be thought of as two
undifferentiated points on a continuous loop; the canvas can be read forwards and backwards.
In other words: you know that a certain type of painting has finished because it has come full
There are two images that spring to mind to describe this kind of painting: the first is the
ouroboros, the ancient serpent continually devouring its own tail; the second is the Möbius
strip, a mathematical object named for its mid-19 th -century German discoverer that, when
visualized in three-dimensional space, usually looks like a figure of eight with a twist in the
middle. A Möbius strip has only one surface and boundary. The mathematically minded
Dutch illustrator M.C. Escher famously depicted ants parading around one (Möbius Strip II
[Red Ants], 1963): by indicating the motion of the ants, the drawing shows how one might set
out from a given point and return to that same point upside down. The ant would have to do
two complete circuits to get back to the same point the right way around.
I’m thinking of painting like My love life definitely skews towards crimson (2021), in which
pastel ribbons, diaphanous as chiffon, twist and contort against a reddish-yellowish-purplish
background with the seared intensity of a sunset. The palette is a little sweet, a little sour: a
kind of toxic sherbet. The effect is vaporous; the whole painting feels like it’s in motion – as
though you might look away and turn back to find the formation changed. It is difficult to
pick out how and where the looping forms begin and end in the same way that it’s impossible
to identify at exactly what point one cloud formation becomes another. (The patches of raw
linen, which are frequently visible in Tingleff’s compositions, compound this impression –
like glimpses of sky.) The form of such a work does not resolve easily when you look at it. It
leads your eye around in circles, returning you, compulsively, to never quite the same point.
Call it a Möibus strip painting.
There is another way of thinking about the question: ‘Where does a painting begin?’ that,
rather than answer in terms of form, would give its art-historical antecedents. In the last
century, Modernist painting achieved flatness, ironically, by means of a tool used since 14 th -
century Florence to create perspective, which is to say the illusion of depth. The grid is often
thought of as the operating principal of twentieth-century abstraction – from the fractured
images of Cubism through Piet Mondrian’s chequerboards to Jackson Pollock’s diffuse
surfaces to Agnes Martin’s trembling renditions. For Rosalind Krauss, who had pretty much
the conclusive word on the subject in her 1979 essay ‘Grids’ in the journal October, the grid
‘is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature’. It was the tool that allowed
Modernism to claim autonomy for the artwork: the lines of the grid as a portcullis that keeps
the world out.
A Möibius strip painting knows that art is a bit messier than that. Life is the shit that happens
when you are waiting for the moment that never comes reads one of my favourite Tingleff
titles, from 2019. By turns witty, sassy and guru-ish her titles are drawn from expressions
overheard, platitudes, quotations from friends: The best is yet to come (2019), Beloved are
they who sit down (2016), Just when I discovered the meaning of life they changed it (2019).
They don’t describe the work but, rather, are snippets of speech that attach themselves to the
forms, miring painting in the language of the world, with all of its mis-hearings and its
misunderstandings. This is painting as small talk; ironic hyperbole, not grand
That 2019 title could be lightly amended to double as a philosophy of painting: ‘Painting is
the shit that happens when you are waiting for the moment that never comes’. Painting
happens in the process, not by grand designs. It’s the labour of working every day, trying new
techniques and re-learning old ones, so that the end point might arrive unexpectedly – a
surprise, even to the artist – revealing its logic only at the moment of conclusion.
- Amy Sherlock 2021