by Ben Street
Travel is, for the most part, not the nouns and verbs of time but its qualifiers and prepositions, the bits in between. Look at anyone’s travel photos, shared on social media: time and space are concertina’d into a single lofty peak whose valleys magically disappear in posterity, in imitation of our selective memories. The self-edited life is the life. Past imperfect, present perfect. And yet we know that the experience of travel is really a series of protracted conjunctions in a sentence. Elided from an anecdotal afterlife – then we got here, then we waited there – these liminal moments are what constitute the majority of our lives. But looked at properly, they emanate a coiled energy, like a deep breath before a dive. Eithne Jordan’s paintings of cityscapes collectively present a modest proposal about travel: that every journey provides the receptive eye with an opportunity to find beauty in disorientation and estrangement.
Jordan’s paintings derive from brief, barely planned visits to European cities: Vienna, Paris, Madrid, Rotterdam. Passing through somewhere on the way to somewhere else, not meeting people, Jordan took her cheap digital camera with her as a kind of sketchbook, snapping the kinds of images you’d usually delete: parked cars by a train track, an unremarkable fountain, a housing estate in grey mid-morning light. Each image announces itself as a no-place, all geographic indications gone. There are no means of orientation, no notable domes or famous buildings. They’re what you see when you’re not where you’d planned to be. These are images that barely credit the name: under-photographed, under-viewed, they stubbornly refuse to resolve themselves into photogenic composure. They’re sites that don’t require photographic reproduction in order to exist. Their anonymity stabilises them.
The ‘splitting’ between pre-emptive nostalgia and lived experience is part of Jordan’s process as well as her implicit subject. Each painting begins as a gouache drawn from the photograph, made in an attempt to test the efficacy of the photograph’s translation. Each successful painting, made in the artist’s Dublin studio, is thus both a Platonically removed image of a real site and a test of memory. As in Constable’s ‘six-footer’ oil sketches, built up at a remove from their subjects, the act of painting parallels a mnemonic strain. Made at both a geographical and temporal distance, each work attempts to recapture the strange, sharp moment of seeing something unexpected for the first time, before the brain has time to make sense of it. These are images caught before language removes their sting.
Night Street XXII(2009), for instance, shows a vast slab of unwelcoming apartment block wall, some of whose windows are lit. Lit windows are one of the few signs of human life in Jordan’s work, a kind of absence-denoting-presence motif that lends them their eerie, post-nuclear vacancy. A field of thick, undisturbed snow, punctuated by some spindly trees, fills much of the foreground; a large, brownish, box-like form sits just off-centre. Jordan’s painterly shorthand, parallel to the act of glimpsing, provides little visual information. We get a sense of the box’s size but not of its function. The implication is that analytical vision is curtailed by time. The box sits, mute and stubborn, redolent of the deadpan Surrealism of Magritte’s ‘Empire of Light’ series: nocturnal terraces, with the occasional lit window, glowering under a painfully bright sky. Yet it’s not in the one-liner reversal of day and night, but in their disinterested presentation of the facts of the case that makes them apt precursors for Jordan’s night scenes. In some, boulders – too shadowed to be limned by the searching eye – sit outside the houses, thrumming with potential violence. Like Jordan’s boxes and tent-like forms – what she calls, with notable Surrealist parallels, “dolls’ houses” – they pitch presence against absence, description against distance.
Unlike Magritte, though, Jordan’s scenes don’t make a virtue of their strangeness. Rather, they exist in the lag of time between experience and recollection. A work like Fountain I(2008) acts as a kind of painterly performance; you’re watching a memory talking to itself. A bottle-green sculpture, too dim to be properly perceived, stands on a plinth against a vast municipal building. Bare trees snake around its perimeter, and black ovals – people? Tarpaulin-shrouded motorbikes? – scatter the street alongside. The painting frustrates a narrative reading, sending the eye shooting, pinball-like, between visual incidents: the sculpture, the ovals, the red frame of a leaving bus. Spatial relationships between objects muted by distance refuse to resolve themselves. Sick-yellow light from a hidden source – something else is happening somewhere, somewhere we should be heading to– pulls the eye into recessive space. The feathered, skittering brushstroke holds it at bay: you see only as much as you’re able to understand.
Yet Jordan’s work isn’t wilfully frustrating: instead, it records the action of contemplating one’s own past experience. Scrutinising those over-developed, blurred, cock-eyed digital images once back in the studio, Jordan paints with a guarded amazement about what made her look in the first place. Her works superimpose two different kinds of looking: the furtive, unthinking glance of the off-the-cuff photographer contemplated by the slower, retrospective scrutiny of the painter – Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ made both subject and practice. There’s an inevitable melancholy in the gulf of time evoked, but there’s beauty, too: the eye surprises itself.
In cinema, the establishing shot provides a rapid entrance into the narrative, playing on an audience’s assumptions and past cinematic experiences to locate the film within a generic category. Seen for no longer than a few seconds, they’re often the only part of a film shot in the actual location of the narrative. A crowded pavement seen from above; a lonely bar at the edge of town; a dark street corner in a famous European city. Narrative cinema – like the self-edited life we all lead nowadays – imposes hierarchy on human life. And yet, like those establishing shots - moments of apparent insignificance, mere tokens of generic orientation between narrative events – it’s the bits between that really count. Jordan’s paintings eschew the picturesque. They assert the beauty of the gaps in lived experience and provide a corrective to the life lived on incident alone. Look again, look closer, they say. Again.
Ben Street is a freelance art historian, lecturer, writer and curator based in London.
Published by The MAC on the occasion of the exhibition Eithne Jordan Small Worlds, 2012