Small Worlds / by Eithne Jordan

Snow I.jpg

Small Worlds

The art of losing yourself in the paintings of Eithne Jordan

by Gemma Tipton

Whether you are drawn into one of her miniature pieces, beguiled into its world through the delicate delineations of detail and space; or whether you are standing before a larger work, vividly imagining the heat, sounds and smells of the city; Eithne Jordan’s paintings present places that are tantalisingly recognizable, yet discretely unreachable. Jordan’s painting is not about the icons of architecture, those glib clichés each city manufactures to put itself on the map of tourist consciousness. Instead, her travels capture side spaces, factory roofs, subway tunnels, the corners of courtyards, underpasses, blank walls; those non-places that art often tends to forget.

One of Ireland’s foremost painters, Jordan is an artist whose practice has followed its own dictates, first through figuration, then subtly capturing graceful impressions of interiors, before focussing down onto individual objects: a hairbrush, tube of paint, still lives of bottles, artichokes, onions. Widening out again into the world, her current concerns are with spaces that are redolent with emptiness, yet always implying the humanity that lends them their warmth. What remains constant through these investigations, however disparate they may seem, is the artist’s relationship with paint and with painting.

Drawing on influences and antecedents such as Poussin, Chardin, van Ruisdael and Morandi, Jordan is interested in the ways in which light works within the painted space, how working in miniature creates a certain set of relationships with the viewer and how these change with an increase in scale. She demonstrates how paint and line creates movement, and how internal structures within the work create and frame the world of each painting. “What I like about paintings,” says Jordan, “is that they are silent and they don’t move.” This observation raises one of the most important issues connected with the practice and processes of painting, and one which, once fully understood, demands a reciprocal gesture from the viewer – and that is the issue of time. “There isn’t any short cut to making good paintings,” the artist adds. Time, in this equation, is a metaphor for the act of looking closely at something, closely enough to really see, to preserve the memory of, not just the object or place, but of how it made you feel.

In the Nineteenth Century, the author, artist and critic John Ruskin taught drawing classes at the Working Men’s College in London. “Remember Gentlemen,” he would say to his groups, “that I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see.” Ruskin’s admonition to look and look closely at the world came at the same time as the invention of the camera, and the rise of photography as a way of preserving memories and images. Ruskin himself had been enthusiastic about the camera, “Daguerreotypes,” he wrote to his father from Venice in 1845, “taken by this vivid sunlight are glorious things. It is very nearly the same thing as carrying off a palace itself.” The trouble, as he discovered, and as we have seen in the intervening years, is the central paradox of contemporary photography: that the very invention we created to store memories has short circuited the processes of looking, to the extent that many memories now only exist in pixillated, digital form, rather than residing in our minds as a culmination of time spent gazing, imaginatively interacting, understanding what it is we are confronted with.

The painter, of course, knows how to look in order to see. Whether it is Morandi assessing line, shadow, and the relationships of volumes and forms; Mondrian taking in the totality of the scene before him in order to abstract it into component blocks of colour; or Cezanne drawing the conclusion that nature itself can be broken down into basic shapes, before reconstructing these as harmonious formal compositions; painters dedicate themselves to the time it takes, both to look, and to translate that looking onto paper or canvas. In the history of art, the immediacy of the photograph and the temporal nature of painting have generally been placed in a relationship of opposition. The rise of photography, it is said, directly created Impressionism and then Abstraction as creative responses. Artists denied (and some still do) the role of photography as a ‘genuine’ art form. Whether these propositions are true or not is, however, less interesting than the ways in which artists now respond to and work with these different media.

Eithne Jordan’s negotiation of the relationship between painting and photography is to use the camera’s ability to harness the power of the instant in order to grasp the instinctive; deferring the act of looking intensively until her return to the studio when the processes of painting begin. “Photographs as sketches are an integral part of my practice,” she says. “The first choices happen at the photographic stage, the basic spatial structure is there, the instinct for framing the image.” Later, in the studio, she continues, “you wonder if you had noticed the things the camera notices, or if you had seen them in that particular way at the time.” Speaking about Snow II, 2007, showing the courtyard of a museum (the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam), the artist wonders did the snow really feel like that at that actual time, in that actual place? In the painting it veils the empty space catching light as it melts in illuminated pools on reflecting ground. It is as good a memory of falling snow, silently screening the view, as any one I can imagine.

The images Jordan is photographing and then painting at the moment are largely unpopulated; cityscapes without their inhabitants, buildings standing out against the environments of land and skies. They are, as she describes them, “monumental still lifes.” Factoryscapes, such as the series based on the Sernam Depot in Paris, call to mind the industrial photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher, which found a certain romance in the designs of water towers, silos and factory buildings. Meanwhile scenes of flyovers, underpasses and tunnels might seem to relate to Andreas Gursky’s photographs of motorways, but that is to mistake subject material for subject matter. Jordan’s paintings are not about the monumental banality of Gursky’s images, or his heavy-handed juxtaposition of the man made and the natural. Instead she is a far subtler artist and, by bringing the intimacies of brick in an exposed wall to the forefront of an image of a massive architectural edifice (Bibliotheque, 2006), she refuses the inhumanity of super-Modernity in Gursky’s photographs. She also refuses to exclude the potential for beauty evident in the shifting patterns of colour, shade, texture and paint in these images.

In this way, her images have more in common, perhaps, with the Seventeenth Century artist Jacob van Ruisdael’s series of views of Haarlem, showing the linen bleaching fields running to meet the viewer. They are also about the artist choosing to pay attention to forgotten spaces; those places in and around our cities and towns where real life is played out. Another suggestion of context for the potentially banal scenes chosen by Jordan for this most recent series of work might be the paintings of Edward Hopper. But while she has been arrested by moments in Hopper’s work, remembering the handling of paint in a white wall, for example; comparison with Hopper simply serves to illustrate the welcome lack of mythologizing heroics in Jordan’s paintings. Instead of dictating experience and telling you how to feel, Jordan’s images allow experience to soak in and create scope for feeling to find a space to be itself. As the artist describes it, her work is not so much about preserving a memory of place, but a memory of feeling, a memory of memory itself.

In their emptiness, the spaces depicted also display a sense of waiting for people to come along to make sense of them, to complete them. The Metroseries (2006), painted from scenes in the Paris Underground, show stations and stairwells in that rare state of emptiness one experiences occasionally in the lulls between the departure of one train and the arrival of the next. There is movement held latent in the lines of the train tracks, a sense of waiting. Despite being, to all intents and purposes, empty, the platforms and corridors are populated with ghosts in that they are haunted overwhelmingly by absence. You can see this also in Rotterdam Night I (2007), the emptiness almost vacuum-like in the way it draws you in.

One of the ways in which this is achieved is by means of scale. Seen in miniature, the Paris of City Street I (2006) is a place bejewelled with light, the blank gable wall of a building dovetailing with the glowing windows of its neighbour, thickly leafed trees creating a barrier to further discovery. And yet the mind journeys in, creating its own stories of lives lived behind those lights, of journeys marked by the passing of street lamps, of evening visits to the pharmacy that lies beneath the glowing green cross… And as you gaze and imagine more, you become lost; the miniature has served as a focus, concentrating the mind until you are utterly absorbed by the world of the picture. The same scene, depicted large (City Street II, 2006), is quite different. Facing those buildings at a size that is more overwhelming, there is a fresh tension to the work. The brutality of cement comes into play, as does an understanding of the estranging nature of the architecture that makes up so much of the fabric of our cities. The welcoming light in the apartment windows, evidence of habitation, now becomes evidence instead of our own exclusion from their world. Without the intimacy of the diminutive we gain a new insight into how our cities morph from welcoming to alienating with a shift in perspective and presence. Jordan handles these shifts in scale with an instinctive mastery, and some scenes do not easily yield themselves to a larger size. Pharmacy (2005) and Snow VI(2007) remaining small because the bigger versions of themselves have, so far, seemed to lose something central to their meaning; became too monumental, too open to that glib mythologizing perhaps. “You never know, however,” says Jordan, “when that may resolve itself, it might happen yet for these paintings.”

Although born in Ireland, so much of Eithne Jordan’s work has been made elsewhere; living in Berlin, on a residency in Paris, taking a trip to Rotterdam, in her current home in the Languedoc region of France. And yet place is not as significant in her work as mood, for this is an emotional kind of travel. These streets, tunnels, factories, underpasses and precincts could, conceivably, be anywhere. What matters is that commonality of experience; the streets we all inhabit, the journeys we all go on, the stories we all tell. Captured by Jordan’s camera, and becoming art through her electing to spend time on painting each scene, these works are worlds of their own for us to travel within, gaze at, become lost in and later remember; and it is that losing of the self, which is the most effective, the most vital part of any journey we may take.

Published by West Cork Arts Centre for the catalogue Eithne Jordan City, 2007.