Eithne Jordanʼs Electric Tenebrism / by Eithne Jordan

by James Merrigan

With a great desire to be a flâneur (urban explorer), Walter Benjamin wrote passionately of the literary type who wandered the streets of nineteenth century Paris, looking and listening intently to the comings and goings of civilisation.

"For if flânerie can transform Paris into one great interior – a house whose rooms are thequartiers, no less clearly demarcated by thresholds than are real rooms – then, on the other hand, the city can appear to someone walking through it to be without thresholds: a landscape in the round."[1]

Benjamin's city without thresholds originates from what he referred to as the art of getting lost in urbanity: an environment that was signposted by routine and necessity. However, Benjamin wasn't literally suggesting the physical knocking down of doors and trampling of hedgerows, his was an imaginative ideal, whereby the mind was allowed the free will to cross the thresholds of the mundane.

It is with Benjaminʼs ideal of a doorless city that I approach Eithne Jordan's paintings, who dons the cap of Dublin flâneur, or more appropriately Irish Fánaí, for her most recent body of work.

Jordan presents to us a clarity of purpose through painting, that somehow alludes the human habit of breaking down an image into manageable compositional devises. Her paintings say more than the sum of their parts. Of course, there are other avenues to approach Jordanʼs locked surfaces – the artistʼs painting practice has a history, which invariably means a wavering signature.

The Irish Times art critic Aidan Dunne has given the label of Poussinesque to Jordan many times over the last decade to describe the twilight aura of her paintings. While Giorgio Morandiʼs soft abstraction of reality crept into his appreciation of the artistʼs recent portrayals of Vienna. However, the surface signatures of Jordanʼs paintings, albeit an impressive repertoire, is not what makes Jordanʼs paintings special. Erwin Panofskyʼs essay ʻEt in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Traditionʼ can be read as the perfect antidote to this surface gazing.

Presented with the literary and visual quandary of Nicolas Poussinʼs pastoral painting Les Bergers d'Arcadie, which features four centralised figures before a tomb with the cryptic inscription Et in Arcadia Ego (Death is even in Arcadia), Panofsky uncovers modern literatureʼs “soft” rendering of a utopian Arcadia, as one that is populated with hardship and “hard...primitivism.”[2] Maybe Panofsky was a pessimist, but his exhumation of Poussinʼs painted puzzle does draw us past the surface of the painting.

Jordanʼs paintings of Dublin are populated with Poussinesque architectural tombs that are equally impossible to bypass. Their cryptic components include peopleless streets, peopleless windows, peopleless cars. I can see Walter Benjaminʼs moustache brushing up close to the painted surface as he tries to see through the closed doors and curtained windows of Jordanʼs painted architectures, which are always monumental, whether it be a housing estate or mansion.

Standing before her works I am reminded that painting is primarily about the meeting of two minds, that of the artist and the viewer. There is a selfless letting-go by Jordan of any personalised script behind the image, as soon as the painting leaves the studio for public scrutiny. These cropped paintings of Dublin belong to the viewer, in this case the writerʼs projected script. From this viewpoint the artistʼs job is to map out territories as objectively as possible, and then scrub out the noise of their self with paint, so the viewer and writer can assault the image with their own baggage of history and desire.

With the guiding light of Jordanʼs painting I begin with a purpose to bridge the gap between Jordan's previous and current work, to discover what lies beneath the surface of the painted image. I start with the supernatural, which rears its head now and then, from my diabolically point of entry into the flat exteriors of the Dublin architectures that populate the landscapes of her new paintings.

The ʻsupernaturalʼ surfaced when in conversation with the artist in her temporary summer studio in Dublinʼs Institute of Technology, where Jordan had enough room to scale-up her paintings for The Royal Hibernian Academy. The artist took me on a detour of her work from the 1980s – a time when every Irish painter was a Neo-Expressionist – and when she passionately painted the thematic of mother and child. However, Jordanʼs portrayal was nothing like Raphael's saccharine depictions of the same subject: it was less immaculate

conception and more demonic possession (the mythological female demon "succubus" of medieval times was mentioned during our conversation). Nevertheless, it was the reactions by others at the time regarding this specific body of work that surprised Jordan most, especially the reaction by women. The surfacing of the primordial in everyday life usually has that effect. Combined with Jordanʼs mention of Francisco Goyaʼs black painting Saturn Devouring his Son (1819), revealed to me a primordial underbelly behind the artists paintings of that time.

On the surface, the human figure and dark underbelly has seemingly been wiped clean from Jordanʼs paintings for some time. Before, the formal properties of the artistʼs work included bold colour and big painted gestures. Today, those Neo-Expressionist tendencies, inherited from German painters such as Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz, have been obscured by a sfumato haze and unrippled layer of oil paint.

What has replaced the figure in Jordanʼs painted images are architectures that suggest human habitation. We are given a housing estate at twilight, when electricity is pulsing with heightened fervor through the electric cables within our homes (Winter XIV); a street scene whereby the head lights of a car veer toward us, but not even a ghost of a shadow suggests someone is driving (Car Park II); to a block of Dublin flats in daylight from which a scattering of birds may warn the approach of someone, or something (Block of Flats II).

Superstition is invoked by the very nature of urban absences depicted by Jordan inChurch, where a fight between godliness and godlessness intrude upon the senses. Under the cover of night and boney winter trees, a church is decked out in pointed arch windows, suggesting the silhouettes of kneeling clergy dressed in black habits. The warmth of the urban lights overpowers a skyline moon that nestles closely beside a square bedroom window that glimmers with life. The temporal shifts in the landscape provoked by the natural and artificial light sources, catapult the viewer beyond the border of Jordanʼs paintings: we are waiting for the actors to drop into the picture frame, but they never do.

In the past, the figure not only activated the architecturally obsessed configurations of the Renaissance painter, but infused the large empty spaces with personality and self- promotion. The patron of the time could be painted alongside his favourite celebrity from the past, whether that be Aristotle or God. However, one painting from 1480 that was attributed to Piero della Francesca up to recently, but now known to be Leon Battista

Albertiʼs The Ideal City, is suggestive of Jordanʼs street architectures that are always destitute of people.

For Alberti, architecture was inextricably tied with humanity, in essence, architecture was human, as its fabrication had the same limitations as humanity. What was conceived in the mind of the architect would be compromised on the soil by the carpenter.

If architecture was seen as human, then mathematics was at the core of humanity. Although Albertiʼs The Ideal City is a faithful reproduction of the architecture described in his architectural treatise De re aedificatoria, it is from the imagination. It is rigorously measured and symmetrical, devoid of human error; the buildings are anything but human.

In contrast, Jordanʼs painted architectures are suggestive of a badminton shuttlecock being hit with a racket, losing their static symmetrical shape to shift and bend in the wind – like humans do. Car Park II is closest to this balancing act between strict representation and adhering to Albertiʼs humanist principals for ʻrealʼ, not drawn architecture. Turquoise- greens and burnt siennas from the palette of Giorgio de Chirico describe a large multi- storey car park, impossibly lit by several light sources. A car drifts across the tarmac, whilst the foot of what can be imagined as a building bigger than it actually is, stands forthright in the foreground (a bank maybe). Two one-way street signs seem to point skyward, God?

In Mansion I and II, Jordan paints the soft architecture of resolute Hammer Horror-like buildings that catch nuanced light. Painted with the attention one gives to a still life, the mansions have an erie intimacy, even though a foregrounded stone wall prevents us from getting closer. The artist discloses in her studio that the photograph from which she worked out the composition, originally had a car and signpost - both have been excluded from the finished works. Although Jordan is not comfortable with such editing of 'real life', her paintings are not historical documents for prosperity's sake, the balanced image comes first.

As if prompting my summation regarding the absence of figures in the artistʼs work, Jordan paints what I view as her most playful painting Billboard III. Here we have a picture within a picture, in which the over-animated figures on the billboard advertisement for the filmJourney 2 (2012) are not real, so defusing responsibility to explain their place or backstory

within the painted image. The thematic of the advertised film is also absurd; dinosaurs pitched against protagonists in contemporary dress.

Tower II also has this sense of play, where banality is injected with an element of exoticism. A soft and earthy cylindrical tower with almond window niches stands erect amongst a middle-ground tier of housing blocks; a foregrounded wall; and blue sky. The tower has been colour-enhanced, as it fails to reflect its grey surroundings. We are waiting for it to rocket off to a burnt landscape that is more befitting of its architectural type.

Above all else it is how well Jordan paints light that infuses her subjects with simple elegance. Since the seventeenth century Baroque, artists have aspired to capture light;Chiaroscuro and Tenebrism being the more blatant painted effects to produce Christianity's theatrical stage production. Caravaggio's draped or naked figures, pasted with Italian daylight – a light that was invited in by the artist through a predetermined cut in the roof of some basement, and imagined leading off a street paved with prostitutes – is stage production at its best. To the north, where the sun has less of a flame, Rembrandt would carry the Chiaroscuro torch when Caravaggioʼs life was snuffed out prematurely. What connects both painters with Jordan's electric tenebrism is the narrative that is unseen on the outskirts of the canvas, like the imagined exterior mise-en-scène of dirty feet homeless and toothless street workers that may, or may not, be waiting outside Caravaggio's theatre, to be cast inside the canvas.

Leaving the lantern light of her Baroque predecessors in the electric shadows, my eyes are pulled like moths toward a pocket of flickering light that inhabits one of Jordan's painted street scenes entitled Winter XIV. Only when my eyes dilate do I take in the rest of a painted landscape populated by a lone street lamp, dark bedroom windows, luminous blankets of snow – the crepuscular light sources of civilisation and nature that activate the artistʼs most recent paintings, signaling the immanent night. However, it could be any hour of the day; the automated street lamp was perhaps tricked by a premature winterʼs night in Dublin. It could be 3pm? Maybe itʼs 8.30am? No matter, the street lamp is there to guide the immanent passerby.

If we draw closer to the same painting, the base of a stork-like street lamp is translucent, as if a figment of our imagination, or the artistʼs. Beside, a brawny tree, all arms and elbows, muscles in on the lifeless house: it looks like the possessed tree from Steven

Spielbergʼs Poltergeist (1982), but thatʼs my stuff. My eyes rest however on a telephone pole with spindly cables, reaching out into the encroaching night and beyond the edge of the canvas. How the cables are painted remind one of spiderʼs legs, but more specifically, how such night dwellers avoid human detection. The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl once wrote with reference to Vija Celmins – an artist that displays the same modest and sensitive portrayal of space that Jordan does: “A spiderʼs – or a painterʼs – fleeting stab at perfection is a negligible stitch in an unbounded fabric. Its only significance lies in our own momentary, mortal gaze, as we reckon with eternity.”[3]

Then an arachnoid tree comes into my field of vision. Situated at the meeting of two houses, itʼs delicately painted, but could go unnoticed. Jordanʼs compositional complexity is over-coated in flat simplicity, but if you manage to stay a while, a slight-of-hand narrative will begin to play out on the canvas, drawn out by you, the viewer.

My original plan for this essay was to start with Jordanʼs ʻChristmasʼ paintings, as they suggested the final curtain rather than the raising of one, à la Samuel Beckett. But I have arrived, aptly enough toward the end of this essay, thinking of Jordan's 'Christmas' paintings, which are not of the chocolate box variety.

When I first saw them in the summer of 2012 I was simultaneously pushed and pulled before them, as if time was turned on its head. Christmas has this effect when seen out of its seasonal context. To paint Christmas without a context that relates to your art practice seems absurd: but within Jordan's oeuvre – images that compel the viewer to produce memories – Christmas is the perfect exorcist. For me, they suggest a movie (Gremlins,1984) that has been left on pause in a sitting room, and you, the viewer, are the only one left in the lightless room except for the glare from the T.V., while your family can be heard in the neighbouring kitchen through a slightly ajar door that lets in a smidgin of dusty light.

The compositions of both paintings are not focused like Jordan's other 'winter' works. It's as if the camera is in the process of panning left-to-right in Winter XIII, and right-to-left inWinter XV. Immanence is not at play either as we are not waiting for a passerby, or the Christmas lights to be switched off in the shop; they will be left on for the night and it's presumed that the population are hibernating in their homes on such a cold and late hour. What Jordan offers us in these specific works is not an image that can be broken down into colour, form, application, but a memory that pulls us a away from the painted object.

The 'panning' shots are on pause to arrest the viewer, until the Christmas lights wrestle our thoughts away to the stuff that we try to forget, or salvage.

Winter XII displays Jordanʼs compositional complexity at its most human. There is something reminiscent of early Alex Katz or Giorgio Morand in this specific painting, in which the general objectivism of a painted landscape is transformed into an intimate portrait. Itʼs nothing to do with the obvious asymmetrical position of the car, or the fact that the car seems to be pointing in the ʻwrongʼ direction as we read left to right. It could have something to do with the flat equilateral red triangle of the tail light against the soft blue of the car. Or how the hip roof meets the light and shaded walls of the conjoined pair of houses perfectly straight. The architectures of this scene are not angled enough. The diametrically positioned bends in the road keep pulling my eyes in opposing directions. There is something restless about this sleepy portrait of a housing estate.

Leonardo da Vinci once raved about the twilight hour being the best time to achieve beauty with paint. However, da Vinci's concept of 'beauty' wasn't said with the casualness that it is proclaimed today in everyday language – it was a rarer, unattainable kind of Beauty, veiled by sfumato mists and shifting horizons. This brings me to the first painting that I was drawn to in Jordan's studio, but the last painting that I am left thinking about here.

Like a lasso, a fence drapes across an expanse of snow that fills the lower half of Winter XVI. Dotted on the horizon are a collection of buildings – two-up, two down family homes, with other pitched roofs visible on the periphery. What stops me in my routine tracks is a statue of the Virgin Mary that, like Jordan's Tower II, takes up a centralised place on an otherwise mundane pastoral drive-by.

Once again, Jordanʼs paintings invoke Walter Benjamin: "The crowd is the veil through which the familiar city beckons to the flâneur as phantasmagoria – now a landscape, now a room."[4] Without the crowd, or even a lone figure, Jordonʼs paintings become populated by the viewers that stand before them, generously giving us free reign to wander. In an effort to break the still surfaces of Eithne Jordanʼs paintings, I repeatedly skid toward their edges, where the unseen world is at play, waiting, whether it be day or night, for the passage of time to begin, or for the curtain to be drawn on daylight.


  1. [1]  Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 422.

  2. [2]  Erwin Panofsky, ʻEt in Arcadia ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition,

    from Meaning in the Visual Arts, University Of Chicago Press, 1983, p. 299.

  3. [3]  Peter Schjeldahl, Letʼs See: Writings on Art from The New Yorker, Thames &

    Hudson, 2008, pp. 36-38.

  4. [4]  Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings of Walter Benjamin, 1935-1938 Volume 3:

    Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 40.

Published by Royal Hibernian Academy on the occasion of the exhibition Eithne Jordan Street at the RHA, 2012