by Brian McAvera
Brian McAvera: At some point, Eithne, you started alternating between Ireland and the Languedoc region of France. Why did you choose that region? Was it for the landscape which you started to paint, or were there other factors involved?
Eithne Jordan: It was partly the landscape. When I had gone there on holiday in 1989 I responded to the landscape. It was an instant affinity. It reminds me of the West of Ireland: harsh, stony and rocky, even though there are vineyards. A couple of years later we bought a big rambling house, having no idea as to what we were letting ourselves in for.
As for painting the landscape: It was partly being there but also something else. My work had been very much about my inner life, being self-expressive and I had begun to feel that I was painting myself into an alley and that I needed to paint outside of myself. This coincided with the move to the Languedoc so I started painting what I saw. I did a whole series of landscapes, and interiors of the house while work was being done on it. You are making reference to other painters all the time. It’s a landscape that has been painted a lot, so the challenge was how to see it with fresh eyes. I became interested in Poussin. He was an influence – particularly his landscapes – and he has also been an influence in my cityscapes. There was also Watteau. I was doing figures in the interior of the house and looking a lot at Watteau.
BMcA: The genres that have crystallised for you seem to be still life, interiors and landscape. Do you think in genre terms?
EJ: A little bit. I do. I like setting challenges for myself. With the landscape paintings, it was – could I do it and a paint a landscape that had been painted to death? Then I spent a year where I painted just still lifes. It’s like going back to basics. Out of the still lifes came the more architectural paintings, like the Bridges. For me they were still lifes blown up in scale and I treated them that way. Still lifes, especially Morandi’s, can be like small cities: you can almost enter them. I always used to do sketches outdoors, it was ideas-gathering, and then I would paint in the studio. At one point I wanted to look at buildings of the port of Sete in France and I started using the camera for the first time to take photos of them. Then I had a visit from a contact who designed for film and theatre and he had an amazing camera, a digital one, and you could see the image on a screen. The quality of the image reminded me of a painting, I didn’t know why. That’s when the camera really became a working tool for me. You can’t stop on a motorway to do a drawing but you can click out of a car window. So, it led to a profound change in the work because the way you look through the eye of a camera is different from the way you look when you are drawing. You are making certain decisions about composition when looking through the lens; in a drawing you make different kinds of decisions. You are doing your cropping instantly with the lens. Although I don’t see myself as a realist painter, I am interested in accurately rendering surfaces and proportions and perspective. The camera also freed me from being tied to place. I could go to Vienna and get a whole body of work out of two short trips. It was a huge freedom. My whole method has changed since I started using the camera.
BMcA: In 2006, during a residency in Paris, you produced a series of urban architectural views of that city. In 2007 you produced Rotterdam Night. Then in 2008 another series of Paris views such as Paris Street VIII. The Rubicon exhibition ‘Night in a City’ (2010) and the RHA ‘Street’ exhibitionin 2012. All of these have several aspects in common: a lack of people; and a generalising aspect in that the particularity of identifying detail is absent. This shift, from landscape to urban view, from figuration to its absence, from bright often primary colour to a much darker, quieter palette – is it deliberate, the product of a progressive interrogation of your concerns, or is it an accidental development?
EJ: A bit of both! I didn’t have a plan with the paintings. They evolve. Let’s start with the Paris ones. I did a residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais and I really did want to look at painting the city. I did do some small-scale paintings there but the value was in walking the streets, taking photographs, and the work for the exhibition I had there in 2007, happened after the residency, in the studio. I was tired of painting the countryside. It wasn’t a deliberate decision to leave out people. But if I introduced them then the painting became about the figure, not the space or the structures, and I didn’t want that.
I’m not interested in documenting a place. I think they are emotional landscapes....settings for a mood. They are in a sense, interior paintings. But at the same time there is a level in which they are very faithful to the place. When I was doing the paintings of the Paris metro tunnels I was struck by the lovely tiled walls, the Art Deco structures – nobody bothers to look at them. There is a certain homage to what I call ‘loving attention’. I leave out cars a lot of time because you can’t see the streets or buildings because of the cars. It is a loving attention to the things I see but they have to become something else. I don’t want them to be documents of time or place. I often leave things out but I don’t add anything in; except for the colour. The colour is invented, though I take my cue from the light of the photo.
Basically, I walk around, doodling, and allow things to snag my attention. I try not to think about it. You are positively framing as you snap. I try not to analyse. I prefer to hold onto that energy for using in the painting.
BMcA: You were born in Dublin in 1954 to a mother who was an artist. What was it like growing up, what did your father do and in retrospect how strong an influence did your mother have on your development as an artist?
EJ: My mother studied at the College of Art under Keating. When she married, she became a housewife and mother and then only painted in her spare time. My father was a lecturer in Education in St Patrick’s College at Drumcondra. He had very forward ideas for his time which he tried out on his own children! My mother was an enormous influence in my very early development. I learnt how to paint from her. She was always at the kitchen table with her oils and watercolours. We had art books in the house and I used to copy from them, so I learnt from my mother and from copying Old Masters. I think it was a fairly happy childhood though I was introverted and dreamy. One of our typical things was a big hike on a Sunday: nature trails and mountains. My mother stayed at the bottom of the mountain with her watercolours and so I stayed with her. July was spent in the Gaeltacht and August in Bettystown where all our cousins were.
BMcA: Between 1972 and 1976 you went to Dún Laoghaire School of Art. Why there? Who were your lecturers and contemporaries, what kind of training did you get, and was it of any lasting value to you?
EJ: I went there because NCAD was in turmoil at the time. The students were striking to change the old academic regime. I was hungry to learn and I just wanted to work. I’d heard about Dún Laoghaire opening up and that the Foundation Year was based on the principles of the Bauhaus, which I had heard about and thought was exciting so I didn’t even apply to NCAD. I liked the idea of a smaller, more intimate environment.
The first year was a general one. Trevor Scott, who was our teacher, was truly inspirational. Initially I had been turned down and put on a waiting list. I got in at the last moment. The prospect of not going to art school was dismal. The first year in particular was really exciting, it was in its infancy but it had a great pioneering spirit. You put up with the shortages. I then specialised in painting. My contemporaries were John Noel Smith, Fergus Martin and Monica Frawley. My other subject, oddly enough, was animation with Róisín Hogan as my teacher. She was fantastic and later set up the film school in Dún Laoghaire. It was as if my eyes were opened to new ways of seeing the world. My teachers Seán Larkin and Colin Murray were all big into Abstract Expressionism: de Kooning, Motherwell, Rothko. I came under that influence and it was of huge value. I learned to work on a big scale.
BMcA: Between 1976 and 1978 you were in London, working in a studio at Butler’s Wharf. What prompted you to go to London, how did you afford the studio, and what kind of exhibitions were you seeing?
EJ: The reason I went was to get out of Ireland. London was the nearest place, friends of mine were going there, so I began working in part-time jobs. Through an organisation like ACME I heard about a bunch of St Martins’ people who were taking over the floor of a warehouse so I got in touch with them and we fixed the place up. That was the first of many times when I had to do that sort of work. There was a permanent smell of hops. Fuller’s Brewery was nearby and I used to see Derek Jarman in a local pub there. There were lots of artists working there, although I didn’t have a huge amount of interaction with them.
BMcA: Presumably you came back to Dublin in late 1978 as you were a founder member of the Visual Arts Centre, a founder member of the AAI, a committee member of the Independent Artists, and also became a part-time lecturer at NCAD in that year. How did all of this happen?
EJ: I don’t know! I never fell in love with London. It was a tough city: too big for me. I heard about some artists who were intent on setting up a co-operative studio space in Dublin and that sounded like something that I wanted to get involved in. It became the Visual Arts Centre, and was the first co-operative studio in Dublin. Our first premises was in a leaky warehouse on South King Street, then we moved to Great Strand Street. It was a really nice environment to work in, being in the company of other artists. At various times we had Cecily Brennan, Gwen O’Dowd, Theresa McKenna, RobSmith, Donald Teskey and others working there.
BMcA: You lectured in painting at NCAD between 1979 and 1983. Why did you go into teaching? Why did you leave in 1983, and did it interfere with, or help, your trajectory as an artist?
EJ: For the obvious reason: to earn a living! It was a well paid job in those days. You could work for six hours a week and survive on it, except for the holidays. I was part-time for the whole period. Campbell Bruce was the Head of Painting. It was very enjoyable work. I left because I got a scholarship to go to Berlin.
BMcA: In terms of your exhibition history, you had a one-person show at the Project in your final year at college (1976), a one-woman show at the Peacock Theatre in 1980 and another one-person show at the Project in 1982 where works such as Beachscape at Noon, Pageant and Flotsam were described by Patrick J Murphy as having ‘an almost tropical exuberance’ in terms of their colour. What were you trying to do?
EJ: The 1976 exhibition was not a solo show but a group show. My first solo show was at the Peacock in 1980 and I was thrilled when I got a nice review by Aidan Dunne. With the 1982 show I was still very much an abstract painter, using collage and cut-outs mixed with paints. Some of the paintings were a response to reading Patrick White’s novel Voss, which I found incredibly visual, images of a man’s journey through unexplored wilderness. When I lived in London I was a breakfast waitress at a hotel in Whitehall and I went to the National Gallery almost every day after work, sometimes just to look at one painting, and one of them was Uccello’s Battle of San Romano. It was the abstract forms of the uprights of the lances and of the shields that interested me, and some of the Project paintings were based on that.
I guess I’ve always been a colourist. Colour and light are my constant preoccupations. At the time I was much bolder with colour. Work was very much to do with my imaginative world rather than with the world around me.
BMcA: In 1983, you showed in the Orchard Gallery, Derry ‘New Artists, New Works’, as well as exhibiting in group shows in New York and Amsterdam, and in the following year you were in Michael Cullen’s ‘The October Exhibition’ at Temple Bar. This suggests a fairly determined attempt to carve out a career for yourself. Were any of the shows successful for you in terms of either situating you as an artist, or in providing useful introductions?
EJ: I would say, in relation to the one in New York – I wasn’t over for the opening – no! And the same for Amsterdam. The Derry show with Declan McGonagle was important but it was really Independent Artists and the ‘October’ exhibition that grouped me with the new, younger artists. But also, the environment of working in the Visual Arts Centre, which was a great solution to the isolation of the artist working alone inher studio – a co-operative studio situation. We were able to get Arts Council grants, and do Open Studios, which were a big success. Then getting the Project show was a big deal, it was a great venue with a superb gallery space. The October show looked at an emerging group. In that time I got to know a whole group of artists: Michael Cullen, Pat Hall, Mick Mulcahy, Cecily Brennan, Gwen O’Dowd, Theresa McKenna. I found it an exciting time to be in Dublin, though now we talk about the 1980s as a grim depressing time.
BMcA: You lived and worked in West Berlin and also at some point became a mother, as reflected in your Mother and Child works. Clearly Berlin had an impact, especially on your use of colour, and indeed one would imagine, in your exposure to much contemporary German art of that decade. How would you sum up your development there as an artist?
EJ: My son Timothy was born in 1984. Together with his father Michael Cullen, we moved to Berlin not long afterwards. I wanted to go to Berlin for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to get out of Ireland, and secondly, I was interested in the German Neue Wilden, the New Expressonists. I got a DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst) scholarship to study at the Hochschule der Künste. Professor Karl H Hödicke, a painter I admired, was my tutor, but in fact I hardly ever saw him. The art school was short on studio space, so together with a bunch of artists we took over the floor of a factory and moved in to live and work. It was all very bohemian, and very cold in winter. Something important happened to my work at that time. I started to introduce direct references to the figure. Paintings such as Woman and Fish, and the Beauty and the Beast series (stemming from the subject of Mother and Child) used mythological themes as metaphors for aspects of my own life. The animal in the Beauty and the Beast paintings turns into a little clinging creature, half-animal half-child. I showed this body of work at the Lincoln Gallery in 1985.
I was interested in exploring the Mother and Child theme from the inside out so to speak. The colour range was dark, I used a lot of Prussian blue and black. This was probably influenced by living in Berlin, which at that time was an island in the middle of the DDR. The winters were long, dark and bleak. There was ice on the ground in April, then it would suddenly turn hot almost overnight in May. I loved the bleakness in a way. I was influenced also by the German New Expressionists, and the long tradition of expressionism. I had seen Grünewald’s Isenheim Altar in Colmar while I was on a German language course in Freiburg in the Black Forest. Colmar was only a skip away and I went several times to see it. It was a major experience for me, and I could see where the great German expressionist tradition came from. I also went to Basel often from there, where there are great museums. I remember Otto Dix’s portrait of his parents, and one of a new-born baby. So, German art was a big influence, but also Goya. I loved his black paintings then. Now, because I’m older maybe, I find them too bleak and prefer his earlier paintings.
BMcA: You were back in Ireland in 1987, on a Residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre from 1987 to 1988. The transition from bustling Berlin to the peace and quiet of the isolated Guthrie centre must have been striking! How did it effect the work and why did you leave Berlin?
EJ: We were in Berlin when Chernobyl happened. There was terrible air pollution in the winter. Everybody was burning coal, there were filthy cars, smog alarms – you weren’t supposed to let children out when it was bad. After Chernobyl, if your child fell on the ground, you had to scrub him down! I think I freaked out a bit and thought we should get away.
We were offered the Residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig. It was a wonderful year. They had a cottage for families, we were in Maggie’s Cottage, and we also had studios in the Big House. A whole load of kids ran around on the farm and Timmy had a great time running around and we both got a lot of work done. We didn’t give up the Berlin studio so we must have been intending to go back. Then in 1988 I had shows at the Hendriks in Dublin and Riverrun in Limerick. I don’t think the rural location affected the work. I was still living in my own head. It was a nice privileged situation, and there was nothing else to do but work. I met lots of interesting people though: artists and writers and lasting friendships were made with Eamon Colman, Leland Bardwell, Bernard and Mary Loughlin.
BMcA: You clearly like travelling and living in other countries be it France or Germany. You once remarked that you liked to see the kind of faces you observed in an Otto Dix or a Botticelli when walking down a street in Berlin or Florence. Presumably there are other attractions?
EJ: Of course. I like speaking a different language. I speak French and German. Hearing another language opens up the music of another culture. I enjoy being immersed in another culture and also being an outsider. In fact, my first preference would have been Italy rather than Berlin and that I would still like to do. Then, I couldn’t find a way to finance it and I didn’t speak Italian. I learnt German at school and I went over there on an exchange while at school, got summer jobs there, made friends.
I don’t really know anywhere outside of Europe, apart from the USA. I like having a project in another country but I’m not interested in travelling for its own sake.
BMcA: What are you doing now? Take us through the genesis of a painting.
EJ: I’ve just finished a body of work which is now on show at the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny. The title is ’When Walking’. I’ve been on the Tony O’Malley residency in Callan for a year, and I’ve been working on two separate bodies of work. The first is a response to the environment at Callan. I go walking most days, snapping anything that takes my eye and so a body of images of the houses and buildings in the Irish town and countryside has emerged, from the 1950s town hall to the modern bungalow. It’s something to do with an expression of the soul of the landscape. A whole new palette for me – green and grey. The green: that was a hard one; it’s a difficult colour to use successfully. There are about twenty gouaches and acrylics on paper and six oils on canvas in the Butler show.
The second body of work is for a show in the Hugh Lane in October. Completely different. They are all views of public and institutional buildings such as museums – mainly interiors – a lot of paintings within paintings. One of my new paintings is of the Dining Hall in the King’s Inns, lined with portraits. The light is totally different: interior, indirect light, so I’m learning all the time. These interiors are a new challenge.
I have very specifically gone to places to take photos: doing research. The interiors started with a painting I did of the foyer of the National Gallery in London with a giant vase of flowers. In 2014 I was invited by Sherman Sam to take part in an exhibition at Ancient and Modern in London on the subject of flowers, A Poem for Raoul and Agnes, and for me, it was only interesting if they were in a formal context. That was the beginning of this new body of work, this whole series of interiors.
I put the photos onto my computer and wait for my attention to be snagged. One of them will give me something. Sometimes, not always, I do a bigger painting in oils. I don’t project onto the canvas. I’ve tried that but I really hated it. This way, I’m building a structure, a composition, a painting. It’s slow methodical steps. I think my work has nothing to do with photorealism. I would see the paintings as something like metaphysical spaces.
Irish Arts Review,2017, Vol 34, No 3