Tableau — Artforum, March 2018 / by Eithne Jordan

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Since abandoning the energetic, expressionist style that characterized her early work—cultivated while studying in the mid-1980s in Berlin at what was then the Hochschule der Künste—the Irish painter Eithne Jordan has prioritized contemplative stillness and calculated under-statement. Over the past twenty or so years, she has worked in a coolly reserved realist mode, generally focusing her inquisitive gaze on workaday city spaces and nondescript industrial hinterlands. Many of her best paintings catch moments of fleeting calm within the routine commotion of urban experience: waiting alone at a deserted subway station, passing through sleepy suburban housing projects, walking along sparsely lit backstreets late in the evening without another soul in sight. 

The mellow and marvelous city atmosphere following a sudden snowfall has been a recurring subject, too: familiar landscapes of ordi-nary life given surprise overnight makeovers, brightly and briefly trans-formed. Such scenes in Jordan's paintings have a strictly controlled simplicity and sweetness—not far, at their most refined, from Maureen Gallace's exquisitely distilled depictions of rural Connecticut. Jordan similarly begins with real places (sometimes in her hometown of Dublin, sometimes in other European cities), but pares them back to a few core features—a stretch of road, a parked car, a solitary tree, a streetlight, a house or two—shading everything with the softly diffused pink-and-orange glow of winter skies at dawn or dusk. 

There is an unshowy delight in Jordan's measured responses to these everyday terrains, but also a nagging sense of melancholic detachment. Drifting from street to street, scrutinizing one unidentified building after another, it's as if she struggles, time after time, to find her way home. (Perhaps relevant to this undercurrent of dislocation is Jordan's bi-located life: Since 1990, she has divided her time between Dublin and Languedoc in the South of France.) 

Lately, Jordan's urban journeys have had new and unexpected destinations: museums and other historic institutions, cultural and educational spaces that we might, to some extent, associate with authoritative stability in city life. A suite of paintings exploring the facades, entrance halls, and interiors of such venerable buildings formed "Tableau," her exhibition at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane (itself an august civic institution). And, as with much previous work, this series includes pictures of public places in which we find strikingly few signs of a living, interacting public. In several of the works (all modest in scale, the largest being just over four feet wide), Jordan communes only with ghosts. Museum XV, 2017, brings us into an ornate, neoclassical room where we meet four spotlit, heavily shad-owed figures: busts of unspecified historical personages, glowering from tall pedestals or resting on a stately mantel. No visitors enliven the grand meeting place of Dining Hall II, 2016, despite a line of empty, at-the-ready chairs. Rather, this imposing interior is, for now, exclusively populated by a series of formally robed presences gazing down from gilt-framed paintings. The Anatomy Room, 2017, a scene from the more exclusive realm of a medical school—its floor, walls, and complementary sets of tall architectural columns and low metal tables all painted in gently modulating grays—alerts us to the absence of life in another, more implicitly visceral way. Here, at another time, young students come to dissect the dead. If the stillness in Jordan's paintings captures, on occasion, an experience of momentary serenity—or even underlying sadness—perhaps it might also, now and then, signal existential dread. 

When the living do appear in "Tableau," they can seem diminished by their surroundings or dolefully disconnected from wider human society. Stories of long-term loneliness could surely be written about the table-for-one diner in Cafe II, 2016, the hunched, seated male at the edge of the picture in Foyer III, 2016, or the solitary guard watching over the expansive, empty modernist lobby of Museum III, 2015. There is a sentimental dimension to these paintings that could easily tip toward kitsch, but Jordan seems mostly alert to this difficulty: keeping her distance, casting a curious eye over each new scene she encounters, then moving on. 

— Declan Long. Originally published on Artforum.com

Artforum, March 2018. Vol 56, No. 7