The Stereoscopic House / by Eithne Jordan

Stephen McKenna

“At the sight of this I became conscious of one of the higher degrees of pleasure, that of stereoscopic sensuousness. The delight which such a colour stimulates is based on a perception which includes more than just colour. In this case there was another dimension, which one could call the tactile value of the colour, a sensation in the skin that made the thought of contact appear pleasurable.

This tactility is particularly marked with very light and very heavy colours, and painters accordingly know how to use them in those areas which pertain to the skin….”

Ernst Jünger “ Stereoscopic pleasure” from “The Adventurous Heart” 1938

This essay is the result of several days spent in the village of Montpeyroux, in the Languedoc region of France, and of visits while there to the studio of the painter Eithne Jordan.

Moist light, while diminishing the contrasts of hue and tone, accentuates their presence. There is a widespread but mistaken belief that in the sunny climates of the Mediterranean colours are always strong and vivacious. In fact the clear, dry skies of the summer there produce a haze in which colour loses its clarity. In the winter the sun may cast strong shadows whose tonal contrast stresses their hue, but real subtlety of colour requires damp air and dim light. In those grey days of early May the background colour of the landscape around Montpeyroux was pink and green, subdued complementaries punctuated by the red of poppies or the sharp blue of cornflowers. The same colour scheme can be found in the paintings of Eithne Jordan. This does not necessarily mean that the artist has drawn her colours from the environment. It could also be that she chose this landscape because the colours in it matched her sense of what was possible in painting . For even in some of her very early paintings there was a tendency to use muted complementaries.

There are other kinds of contrast, spatial and cultural, in the countryside surrounding the village.

On a hillside are the ruins of a long architectural history. The original mediaeval fortifications, probably a place of defensive refuge rather than an aggressive outpost, have had their blind walls softened by Renaissance apertures. In the centre is the tottering shell of an 19th century convent. The whole series of concentric walls, with their stones and lintels fallen to the ground overgrown by grass and briars, is open to the sky.

From this ruin a carefully constructed stony track descends through the rocks, holm oak and scrub, past long abandoned terraces, towards the small, fertile valley on the other side of which is Montpeyroux. At the edge of the village are nondescript modern houses, at a distance indistinguishable from their surroundings or each other, but which will take on significance as the starting points for paintings .

The vines in their small fields are pushing out the early growth of leaves, while the barns and cellars of the vintners, the steel tanks of the co-operative, show no signs of activity. Past these one enters the village , neat but not over-restored, and apparently preserving a way of life which includes a baker, a butcher and a small market hall. In front of the church, solid but closed, as are those in the surrounding villages which are also under the care of the same perambulating pastor, is an interesting crucifixion figure.  In Ireland this would be an 18th century work by a provincial craftsman - here it could be original Romanesque.

Close to the church is the chambre d'hôte where I am staying - a spacious room in an old house on the narrow main street. A few yards further down is the house of Eithne Jordan. However, to arrive there it is necessary to leave my lodging by an external rear stairway which descends t o an open courtyard. This leads to a cavernous vaulted storeroom, beyond which a narrow alley ends in a metal door to a parallel street. Some few minutes and several turns from there one arrives at the discreetly imposing door of the artist's house, a maison de maître which, like the art of painting, is gradually being re-vivified after years of neglect.

Inside, there is a large entrance hall and a stairwell , both instantly recognisable from numerous paintings made over the last decade.The fragments of elegant plasterwork, the elaborate wrought iron and the stone fireplace make up an informal assemblage in a space of which the boundaries are defined by variegated whites, modified by broken surfaces and stains, and by the shadows and reflections from a bewildering number of light sources.

The stairs mount through several levels and landings , with openings, doors and other stairs leading off at intervals . The light level increases as one reaches the top of the house, where a last few precipitous stairs lead to the open door of the studio, through which can be seen the first of four large canvases. The surface of this canvas seems to contain and reflect not only the shadows and lights of the stairwell, but the street outside and the edges of the village merging into the surrounding fields and hills .

I have referred to the surface of the canvas rather than to the subject matter of the painting, because this touches on the complex relationship which exists between a painting, the painter, and the environment in which the painter lives, the external reality of which he is a part.

In the case of a young or inexperienced painter this relationship usually grows out of three simple variants. There is the situation where the would-be painter wishes to emulate works he has seen, either in museum collections or in the studios and galleries of his contemporaries. He can be stimulated either by the subject or the style. He then looks to the external world to find subjects which will approximate to the ideals he has set himself, and the appearance of his own painting then determined by his aspiration to reach the level of his chosen masters, old or modern. This can degenerate into anachronistic copying or, yet worse, the pursuit of ephemeral fashion. A more likely development from this first situation, or a starting point in its own right, is what we may call the 'studying stage'. This is the involvement of the painter in the procedure of 'learning to draw', of finding out how to transform the world into art. A figure, an object, a scene, is observed, analysed and represented through the use of specific notations . The appearance of the image on the canvas is measured against the perceived reality of the model. The role of the painter is to be disciplined and dispassionate. This is a genuine learning process which can be stultified by either mindless naturalism or by an over-intellectualised pre-occupation with the philosophical questions stimulated by thinking about reality and its representation . The third variant may be best examined by considering the word 'expressionism'. This may be used to denote an attitude or a movement. The first use of the term occurs in the early part of the 20th century, when it was applied to that group of painters in France known as LesFauves, the wild beasts. It was also applied to the early cubist work of Picasso, and later to a variety of movements in Germany, including Der BlaueReiter, Die Brucke and aspects of Neue Sachlichkeit. Eduard Munch, Oskar Kokoshka, Egon Schiele and Max Beckman were also pulled under the umbrella. The totalitarian regimes of the thirties in Europe suppressed Expressionism as a fashionable movement, but there was a revival after the Second World War in a slightly different form.

The movements known as Tachisme in France and Action Painting in the USA involved an attitude on the part of the artist which was as strong as the aesthetic . This attitude, promoted by the New York school under the name of Abstract Expressionism, was to become the internationally accepted norm for two decades. It stressed the importance of the artist's definition of his own identity through his work, which must be informal, spontaneous, instinctive, energetic....the list of predictable adjectives could be continued. There was also an attempt to give the 'expressionist' attitude respectable antecedents by ascribing it to selected Old Masters - Rembrandt, El Greco, Grunewald come to mind . There was a further revival of the term in Germany during the seventies, with the emergence of the painters known as Die Neue Wilde, Les Nouveaux Fauves. These, in fact, had little in common other than being friends and contemporaries who had the support, moral and practical, of a small number of galleries and curators, also of their generation. They were all interested in re-establishing a national, German art, with affiliations in other European countries.They all subscribed to the image of the authoritative genius, working decisively on a large scale at great speed. The stance was part of a romantic ambition which has always had an especial appeal to very young artists, the wish to express themselves spontaneously, if with a struggle, on a large scale using sensational techniques.

The three variants we have been considering - the aspirational, the disciplined and the expressive - while playing a part in the development of all young artists, coalesce in very different forms in the work of a mature painter. And Eithne Jordan, who completed her studies at Dun Laoghaire School of art in 1976, is a mature painter. Not that maturity as a painter is arrived at simply by getting older.

By her own account, the figurative paintings which she was making in the eighties were in part an enquiry into the self, an attempt to express the feelings or the psychological situation of the artist in relation to her chosen subject. This is not to make any connection between the personal biography of the artist and her paintings. Far more relevant is the cultural biography. To live in West Berlin in the eighties was to adopt a cultural viewpoint very different from that of someone living in Ireland. From Ireland one looked in, across the sea, to the European landmass. From Berlin one looked out, in two directions , through barbed wire and economic support - for democratic normality. To the East was a potential threat, but also a reminder of the complexity and richness of Central European culture. More immediately, one was surrounded by the painters, young or not so young, who were thundering out their views of what new painting should look like.

The paintings made by Eithne Jordan in Berlin were not just expressionist in the approach to their subject matter. There was also the use of the expressive, or gestural mark in the description ofthe figures. She was drawing with the brush in anattempt to find the image on the canvas. This procedure of searching for what one wanted to do,not knowing the precise subject one would find in the canvas, continued through the few years back in Ireland and the first years in France.

A change occurs about 1994, both of subject and the way in which notation is used. The figure or the face is no longer the central pre-occupation - at most an incident in a context. This context is frequently the house in Montpeyroux, in its various stages of transformation. The brushmarks are still fluid, because in the end that is probably the handwriting of the artist, something discovered as a natural flow rather than adopted as a convenient manner. But these marks are now used to describe what is seen in the external environment rather than in the internal imaginative world. The new subjects - the entrance hall and stairway with its sharp angles and shadows, its startling viewpoints and foreshortenings, are still seen as additional problems to be confronted , superimposed on the painterly struggle to make a cohesive picture.

Five years later, the same hallway functions in a quite different way. The painter directs a disciplined eye on the spaces and solids, the lights and shadows, local and reflected colours. This is not to say that the interiors have been depicted in a more abstract way. On the contrary, one is much more aware of a specific interior that has been seen as a reality under particular conditions. One is less aware of the artist as a personality, more conscious of a fine sensibility who has chosen a certain aspect of her environment to stimulate her painterly experience.

These interiors, still lifes, and some landscapes have a celebratory air, whether this be a celebration of the context in which they are made - a house restored to life - or whether, perhaps more likely, they are a celebration of the painter's pleasure in being able to see all the visual possibilities contained in that house.

It has been said often, and cannot be repeated too frequently, that painting is seeing. Maturity as a painter is not only the ability to see a lot, and to appreciate the subtleties of seeing, but to see the previously unrecognisable. This process demands constant renewal, for not only does each generation have to learn to see freshly, but as the individual painter grows older he needs to adapt his vision. Failure for the painter is the inability to see what he knows is there; the ultimate betrayal is the pretence of seeing what is not there.

Eithne Jordan, whose sense of responsibility in this area is well-developed, had no sooner achieved the capacity to see her environment with this kind of clarity before she felt the need to look further. There are times when it is important to make many variants of a theme or subject, even alternative versions of the same work. Without that it is not possible to reach the profundity of familiarity.

There are other situations where it is necessary to change the subject in order to avoid soulless repetition, or because the whole process is part of a sequence which has to be followed to its end. Eithne Jordan has said that the change in the subject of her paintings around the year 2000 was a further attempt to distance herself from the personal. Painters' motives are never simple, and in this case there was perhaps the added wish to extend the already considerable technical means which she had at her disposal.

She decided to paint still lifes of bottles. Using these industrially produced plastic containers was
a way of excluding the anecdotal, of concentrating the painter's attention on the values of painting.There is a conscious reference to, even emulation of, the work of Giorgio Morandi in these simple arrangements. Simple yet complex, for the more one reduces the variety of the subject matter, the more intensely one examines the subtleties of its detaiI: the cast shadows, the reflected Iights, the ways in which contours overlap or become contiguous. There is one significant dissimilarity to the still lifes of Morandi: the use of transparency. Morandi painted the surfaces of his containers, and even if there is a feeling that these surfaces are penetrable and shifting, it is not possible to
see through them, or to know what they might have contained. Eithne Jordan's bottles are transparent or translucent, suggesting or showing the liquids within them and the light shining through them .

Possibly it was this instinctive turn to light and liquid which led her to the next paintings , which are again a conscious decision to leave the immediate environs of the house and village . She went to paint the sea at Sète, on the coast near Montpellier. What is special about the seaside, that conjunction of land, water, sky and architecture (whether domestic, industrial or marine) is the all-pervasiveness of the light, which seems to be carried and dispersed by the very particles of the air. It is as if ozone were more visible than oxygen, and while anyone may be aware of this phenomenon, to be able to represent it in a painting demands refined and sophisticated techniques. Eithne Jordan certainly has such techniques at her disposal, and the resultant paintings are bathed in this marine light. Towers, chimneys, lighthouses, rocks, built of the muted complementary yellows and violets which one had seen in earlier paintings of white interiors, mark out with their verticals and horizontals a carefully defined, but apparently naturalistic space.

After these excursions to the sea, the painter felt able to turn towards her own landscape environment once more, but to use it this time in a quite different way. The four large canvases of houses which form the core of this exhibition confront head-on the double duality which is at the centre of all painting, the paradox and ambiguity that gives the art its uniqueness. On the one hand this duality is in the perception of the representation on the canvas and the recognition of the external reality which was its stimulus; on the other hand it is in the awareness of the physical and notational means which constitute this representation. When I speak of 'confronting' I do not mean that the artist is stating or questioning this duality: that would be just the continuation of the half-ironic intellectualising games which have been played around this fact throughout art history. I mean that the artist accepts and understands these ambiguities as a reality with which she can and must work, without the need to be constantly demonstrating her own cleverness and awareness. It enables the painter to see and present reality simultaneously on different levels, but within an overall reality which is that of the painting itself .

The spectator too, in seeing the painting, becomes simultaneously aware, in an almost tangible manner, of the existence in their own spaces of the image on the canvas, the traces of colour of which that image is made and the external reality to which it refers. This awareness of the reality of colour not only on different levels, but as something spatially tangible as well as optical, can be taken as an example of what Ernst Jünger meant by the term 'stereoscopic pleasure'.

The practical development of these four paintings was as follows: to begin with, the perception of a real situation - a particular view of some walls or buildings, in a landscape seen in a specific light, usually that of the early morning or late evening. This perception perhaps already contains within itself the possibility of a finished painting. Secondly, a digital camera is used to make a snapshot of the scene. This image is then cropped where appropriate before being printed out on ordinary paper. These pieces of paper have few of the attributes of traditional photographic images -they have the character of ink on paper, and indeed have the same function that pencil sketches would have had in the artist's earlier practise - as notes which suggest how an initial perception of the real world could be turned into a painting. They function within an overall concept of drawing as a means of thinking . From these notes, small scale tempera paintings are made on paper. Tempera as a medium accentuates the physical presence of colour on a surface, and tends to produce an additive colour effect which is the result of an optical mixture, rather than the subtractive one made by stirring together coloured paints. This allows for a surface which is both lively and subtle. The final stage is the production of the large canvases, the layout and composition of which are by now fixed. The working process from here is in the refinement of the painted surface, the adjustment of tones, colours and edges, the placing of accents which will articulate the space and establish the character of the light.

Let us look closer at the four paintings. In "White House II" the sky is painted thinly alla prima, with a slight variation in colour from a purple-blue ultramarine tint on the left to a green-blue on the far right. From the top to the bottom of the sky area is a series of variations from blue to pink, always pale tints, with alternating warm and cold yellows in the centre. The sky is perceived as a receding, horizontal, transparent ceiling, seen from below. The foreground is also thinly painted, but in layers, the subdued violet and yellow ochre traces left by large brushstrokes giving the effect of a local tan colour, with shadows caused by unevenness of the ground. This foreground risesinto an assemblage of walls, in which is used almost the same colour structure of complementary violet-yellow ochre, muted, in which varying intensities of violet indicate recessions, shadows or windows. A slight addition of red ochre signals the colour of the roof tiles, the front edge of which is summarised by a wavy line.

These walls are contiguous on the picture plane, although not in the represented space, with the white house and an intermediate white shed, both of which are constructed from a variety of grey- violets and grey-yellows, with a reddish-violet for the roof and grey-green shutters . The accentuation of two small features on the ridge of the hipped roof gives an 'object' status to the house, in the same way as do the marked-out sills and the wavy line of the roof tiles in the wall assemblage.

The middle ground is taken up by a hill side with dark green areas of bushes, and transparent marks which indicate a structured surface on the hillside.

In the far distance, adjoining the sky, are two areas of slightly differing blues which stand for receding hills.

The white house is almost parallel to the pictureplane . The wall assemblage, at perspectival right angles to it, invites the spectator to enter the picture space - an invitation not repeated by the deliberate transparency of the foreground, which would offer no foothold to the intruder.

In the small tempera version of "Houses with Fence", the landscape is a descriptive representation of a scene - the cut-off view of a row of houses, with a schematic fence in the foreground. In the large canvas the detail and anecdote have been stripped away in the interest of overall cohesion. The colours sit on the picture plane. There is no sensation of the space continuing beyond the confines of the painting. The brown trapezia in the foreground exist as planes in their own right, the internal structuring being not a description of wooden slats, but a sequence of brushmarks of different lengths at varying intervals.The structure of lines in the bottom-left corner is seen as a structure, even if interpreted as the representation of a railing. The two small triangles- the black one among the pink roofs above this, and the blue one standing for the distant Pic St. Loup - are primarily geometric figures. The brushmarks on the flat surfaces of the walls are life size variations in colour - they are not a descriptionof a wall. The sky is a vertical backdrop, containing at its lowest point a source of light, immediately behind the blue triangle . There is a unifying colour harmony which is the result of repeated contrasts of various muted pinks and greens. One has the feeling of looking at the planes and spaces of the canvas through a thin, vertical layer of air.

"Roadside House II" could be described as an object in a landscape space, but the object is not so much a house as a façade and an end wall, the first in shadow and the second a source of reflected light which illuminates the entire scene.The original light source is an orange glow on the horizon behind a range of blue hills . This horizon terminates an arched, advancing sky which changes from orange through pinks and yellows to a pale blue. The bright orange pink of the end wall is reflected on the parapet of the wall beside the road, the surface of which occupies the whole of the foreground, and recedes in a steep perspective to a line level with the base of the house. Its further progress is marked by an apparently casual dark line, crossing the middle ground diagonally. The shadowed façade, or more likely rear wall, of the house is marked by large dark rectangles standing for windows through which light will never shine, the wall itself containing a miraculously subtle shift of colour from warm to cold in the violet -yellow of its grey surface . Surrounding the house are the violet -greens of foliage, with two tall poles, vertical stripes whose tips are on a line with the short, vertical accent of the chimney. The fluid strokes which indicate the leafless branches of a bush provide an elegant rhythm at the edge of the painting . The dark purple -red of the roof gives a weight to hold everything in place. This is a space into which the spectator could walk until he had reached the invisible but inviting front of the house. But only on the right hand side of the road - the broken reflection of light on the left would give no support to the feet.

"Building Site II": the sky is like a pale blue vertical blind, pulled down, through which an orange light is shining, increasing in intensity towards the bottom. It finally bursts through to illuminate the strip of walls, roofs and trees which stretches across the middle of the canvas like the stacked planes of a painting by Juan Gris. Several planes and blocks protrude from this strip into the vast foreground, in which precisely placed marks of warm and cold colour, ranging from earth-red through violet to pale blue, represent untidy heaps of earth. There is no possible entry into the picture space, which runs rigorously from left to right, continuing on either side. The blues of the protruding blocks and planes are echoed by the diagonal shadow on the front, lit side of the house - a shadow indicated by an increasing intensity of hue rather than a darkening of tone .

The foregoing observations were noted in front of the paintings, and while they were certainly stimulated by the formal and notational complexities which the artist has built into these works, other observers may note different matters. These complexities are the result of an intense concentration by the painter on what the canvas looks like at any stage of her work on it. The changes and additions she then makes will depend on the maturity of her experience rather than any preconceptions about what the painting should look like.

On a different level, looking at the canvases ranged round the studio is like exploring the house in which they were painted. Angles, openings, slanting planes, all submerged in the violet shadows from the walls washed with faded white or pink distemper. The yellows come from unexpected light sources, the greens from the village and the landscape which contains the same houses referred to in the paintings.

Looking at a painting, whether as the artist while making it or as the spectator afterwards, involves the memory in recognising and ordering what is there. We have seen that a painting of a house in a landscape can contain within itself the visual echoes of a quite different house. It also recalls to the memory countless other houses, and paintings of houses. Every painting has the potential to contain within itself the whole past of painting, and the whole past of the viewer's experience.

This is a large claim, and in order for it to come about both the artist and the spectator must concentrate to fulfil their respective roles. The concentration of the artist is directed to discovering the inner laws of the painting on which he is working. But what are these inner laws? To begin with, they are valid for only one painting, or a small number of similar works. They are discovered through the artist's experience - both his total experience of painting pictures and his concentrated experience of focussing on the particular canvas on his easel. He has to remember everything, he may not neglect any detail which could be relevant, but he has to exclude rigorously all those comforting technical solutions which could bring the painting to a familiar and predictable end. The figurative painter of today has to be able to recognise the implicit image without predicting it. It comes down, as always in good painting, to knowing which apparently insignificant adjustments to the colour, the light, the space or the line are to be made, and how.

To discover the inner laws of a painting one has to learn to know it, and this knowledge enables one to recognise whether it is true, to use an unfashionable moral term. This truth, this inner law, as we have said, is valid only for a particular work, and the recognition of its presence gives that work the qualities of authority and beauty, to use an even more unfashionable term. Any attempt to simply transfer the hard-won truth to the next painting would be to distort it into a style or manner.

It is for this reason that the painter of today can no longer be part of a movement or school, may not even invent a personal style, much less a trade-mark manner. Each new subject calls for a re-appraisal of the technique of representing it, each shift in time requires a fresh view of the subject matter. All this was of course well understood by Picabia and de Chirico eighty five years ago.

Eithne Jordan is one of the few contemporary painters who have grasped this and accepted the consequences. It is one of the causes of the apparent dislocations in her work, and it has made possible the intensity and perfection of these new paintings. It probably means also that after a small number of equally good paintings in this series, she will move on to yet another level of achievement.

Published by Ormeau Baths Gallery & Rubicon Gallery on the occasion of the exhibition Eithne Jordan at Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast, 2004.