Subject, Painting / by Eithne Jordan

by Sherman Sam

Anatomy Room lll.jpg

When the Abstract Expressionists wanted to create a school, they called it The Subjects of the Artist. It was there that artists met in the evenings to discuss abstraction, then a new thing. Though long gone, the name of the school suggests something that is still relevant today. What is it that artists are trying to get at? What is the real subject? For the last two decades Eithne Jordan has been devoting her efforts predominately to painting buildings. Just as we associate Morandi with bottles, Katz with faces, and Poussin with arrangements of people, from her small gouaches on paper to the large oil paintings it is easy to connect her to architecture. 

This, however, has not always been the case. Jordan describes her work on leaving art school as ‘abstract expressionist’, and being more interested in Rothko and loving Goya’s black paintings. Today Poussin and Watteau offer more intrigue. And if this show was to be a career retrospective, we would see that she went from expressionist paintings of her inner life, to still lifes, domestic interiors and landscapes of her surroundings, then buildings in the landscape, cityscapes, and now the institutional interiors that populate this exhibition. There is also another narrative that accompanies these shifts. Born in Dublin, where she went to art school, Jordan then moved to London and West Berlin, the latter on a fellowship which turned into a four-year stay. From there she relocated to the South of France with her son. These travels coincide with the different periods in her oeuvre. It was the house in the Languedoc that allowed the expressionistic mother and child paintings of the 1980s to give way to paintings of the world around her by the mid-1990s. 

Today with Jordan it always begins with a photo, and in a sense it was the digital camera that truly liberated her. Not having the patience to sketch out each building’s details, she used it as a tool that allowed her to wander and quickly catch places that might be right for painting. Although the photograph has replaced the sketchbook, drawing still comes in later, when she constructs the composition in pencil before completing it in gouache. From there, some are scaled up into oil paintings on linen. Of this method, she speculates that ‘maybe I am interested in what happens to the image in its transition from photo into painting’.1 

Buildings have been her subject since 2000. The paintings are really about the objects and spaces. There is a distinct lack of human presence. In that regard her work differs from the American Edward Hopper, the artist to whom she is sometimes compared. People create a sense of drama, and Hopper’s scenes are certainly dramatic and emotionally charged encounters. In comparison, Jordan’s paintings emit a more remote atmosphere; when people appear, as they do now and then in these interiors, they are more like ciphers rather than characters. The most Hopper-like scene is a man being served coffee by a waiter in Café II. But the drama, if we can call it that, is more the result of our encounter with the tall space, rather than the interaction of the two beings. It is Hopper’s dramatic light that charges his drama, whereas Jordan’s paintings conjure a cooler feeling. ‘They are not about realism’, she says, ‘[but] more about creating these spaces where something might happen. Maybe there is a sense that these are emotional landscapes; there is something interior about them’. That idea of interiority is certainly something that is a constant throughout her work, despite the changes of genre. 

One of the few extra-ordinary spaces depicted in this show, both for the scene itself and its function, is that of Anatomy Room III with its rows of pillars, trolleys and yellow bins. Unlike most of Jordan’s other choices, this anatomy room itself is theatrical. However, several of Jordan’s formal themes can be found here. First, there is a mural in the background. Many of these interiors have provided her with an opportunity to depict an artwork within a painting. This theme was introduced in 2011 in the paintings of advertising hoardings and billboards from the streets of Dublin. It is a picture within a picture, yet unlike the more notable examples in this genre, her contribution is more subtle. Like the spaces themselves, the artworks depicted are more discreet and part of the greater mise en scène rather than its central drama. A related motif is that of carpets and wallpaper. Like the details within the depicted artworks, they are schematically filled in, creating a fuzzy, out of focus quality. Repetition, not just in the form of pattern, is another quality to be found in these pictures: rows of pillars, wall lamps, windows, white shrouded cocktail tables, coats on a coat rack, and, of course, the ranks of paintings. So in Salon IV a picture is flanked by two back-lit busts in their alcove with a row of chairs along one wall. These paintings also discreetly catch the encroaching effect of modernity on older architecture. In Conference Room II, for instance, a framed picture reflects the blue glow of the projection screen with its computer desktop, while in others we feel the soft glow of electric lights in chandeliers and modern light fixtures. Also there are fire escape signs, extinguishers, and even foldout tables. These are subtle and constant reminders of how our surroundings are constantly being adapted and changed. By focusing on these institutional spaces situated generally in older buildings, the subdued calm to be found in the singular buildings is now giving way to a different visual rhythm and exploration. 

Jordan says that it takes a while for a theme to emerge; that is, she has to paint through to her ideas. In a very prosaic way, sometimes making a painting is about the opportunity to depict certain elements such as curvy chair legs, pictures within pictures, tree limbs, light emerging from dark, flowers. These offer opportunities to take on new challenges. However, they are not the subject of the artist. What is constant throughout her paintings is a shimmering quality. Earlier, it was the result of her gestural paint application, her expressive sensibility conveyed through brushwork, but later this trait re-emerges through depicted light. A group of buildings in the South of France has a dusk or dawn light, a warm fading quality, while in both Paris and Dublin there are street lamps. Her atmosphere is often conjured with soft electric lights; nothing is quite in focus. Is this her subject? This shimmering stillness? Unlike the crystal clear, sharp focused seventeenth-century Dutch church interiors that conjure a sense of certitude, Jordan’s soft gaze leads to quiet rumination. That is where these paintings bring us, her viewer, to feel a place of interiority. The anonymous quality of all these places adds to this. Are we intended to be there? Or out of there? 

Should we think of Jordan as some sort of a travelling painter, or a painter of journeys?
In this exhibition, for example, there is the National Gallery and the reception area of Gagosian Gallery in London; from Paris there is the eighteenth-century Musée Jacquemart- André and the église Saint-Eustache; the stairs in Philadelphia made famous by Sylvester Stallone who, as Rocky, runs up the steps of his hometown museum and punches the air, as well as the reception area of the Barnes Foundation; the dining hall of the King’s Inns
in Dublin – to name but a few. But she says that these are not documentary paintings, that is, they are not recordings of a place; hence their generic titles and almost mundane, unmonumental portrayals. Look through her images, consider them carefully and there is something pedestrian about what is represented – in both senses of the term. Yes, they have all been captured on foot, that is, eye-level views from the ground. Secondly, her views are often of something quite ordinary, rather than extra ordinary. A row of chairs, some pale pictures in a white space, a café, museum steps, waiting areas, hallways, foyers, meeting rooms; to a certain extent these are places we all have been in, maybe not those particular rooms but certainly spaces like them. And mostly never notice. They are places both familiar and forgettable. Many of these could be categorised as what the French anthropologist Marc Augé calls ‘non-place’. For him they are places that are transitional and relative, where humans are anonymous.2 Eithne, for instance, photographed a bouquet of flowers at the National Gallery. I stood next to her while she did this, but only noticed that the flowers and vase were huge when I looked at the painting, Foyer III. ‘That can’t be right’, I said. It was. She showed me the photograph; why would you not believe a painting? The point is that we are often unaware of what’s around us in our rush through daily life. Mostly we see and remember small details, but who really looks at a waiting room? That is one way that art helps us re-enter our day-to-day world. More so today, since most of us seem to have found a compelling reason to stare at our hand. Perhaps after this show, we will start to see, closely, those non-spaces again, or maybe remember ourselves better in those places. 

‘Journeys’, the philosophical writer Alain de Botton says, ‘are the mid-wives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is almost a quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts new places’.3 Likewise, something similar occurs in front of paintings, and most certainly it is something that a Jordan painting shows us. Rather than a space to open the mind for thinking, perhaps paintings, and in particular Jordan’s paintings, allow us to focus, or more precisely, to open a channel of emotional focus. Maybe the words ‘quietly compelling’ are the ones I am looking for in regard to her work. Now, stop, take a look, see if you agree with me. 

1. Unless otherwise stated, quotes are from interview with artist. 

2. ‘A person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants.
He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer, or driver…..The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude, and similitude’. Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (New York: Verso Books, 2009), p.103. 

3. Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel (New York: Pantheon Books, 2002), p.57. 

Published by Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane on the occasion of the exhibition Eithne Jordan: Tableau, 2017