by Kevin Barry
Eithne Jordan, whose new paintings of Dublin are to be exhibited in November at the RHA, lives in France for some months each year at Montpeyroux, a village of the Languedoc. Three converging streets, each following its own wandering underground watercourse, decided Montpeyroux’s loose, strung-out form. Where they meet is the marketplace and a wine bar, the Terrace de Mimosa. The village houses, dating for the most part from the early 17th and 18th centuries, are tightly terraced, each with its own internal well. Though all were designed to have cool cellars and dry lofts and living quarters principally on the first floor, they come in a variety of internal arrangements, many times revised over the centuries. Most are modest in scale with a couple of bedrooms and a kitchen; but packed in among these narrow houses are a few that have more spacious proportions, with rich internal plasterwork or perhaps an ornate balcony. These appear, long ago, to have combined the family home, workshop and storerooms of merchants or larger landholders.
It is one of these rambling piles that Eithne Jordan, with a few artist friends, purchased in 1990. There was a lot of work to be done in order to rescue it from imminent ruin and to restore what could be saved of its austere beauty. The painting Sand, Front Hall (1994) captures not only the story of the house, but also a transition in Eithne Jordan’s formal interests after her arrival in France. Whereas the human figure who is doing the heavy lifting recalls the ghostly and lonely personages of her earlier work from Berlin in the 1980s, the patterns of doors, walls and mirror, and the light angling in towards the harsh foreground, all indicate a new horizon of attention: built forms, their austere presence, their intrinsic value.
Eithne Jordan had intended that the house in Montpeyroux should be a studio and a place to live. Yes, it might be too hot in high summer, bitingly cold and hard to heat in winter, but there were important benefits: ample space to work in and room enough to store large canvasses. At first no more than a facility, the house, as she got to know it intimately, became itself the subject of her work. In the early 1990s she made from its rescued perspectives a series of prints and paintings in which the hallway and landings, the decorative stucco of arches and ceilings, the massive staircase and delicate wrought-iron handrail, a bicycle tilted against a wall, or a patterned rug making a stone floor livable, all came to be seen as a rich geometry of unexpected forms, rough, expertly made, and beloved.
Radiant light finds its way through the doorway in Sand, Front Hall. And just as the house had become a subject for her work, the local landscape, its vineyards and vegetable gardens upon which the village economy depends, became a fascination. In the late 1990s she painted large landscapes exploring the relatively bleak color range and spectacular light of the Languedoc. Winter Panorama III(1998) discovers in this complex landscape the resonant traces of work done: of villages linked by paths and electricity pylons, of lives given shape against mountain and sky. Copses, lines of smoke, lines of trees, traces of roadway, that are all also compositional devices, draw the viewer’s eye hither and thither within a sometimes serene but always active world. Almost casual in their representational force, the marks of trees, of vineyard frames, of roadways, and of telegraph poles stop the painting becoming purely abstract or purely expressionist. The landscape of the Languedoc, unlike many gardens of paradise, renders explicit the work of the people who live there, work that has made it the way it is.
For Eithne Jordan, the village of Montpeyroux provides a community of friendship. People eat in each other’s houses, share a picnic and swim at the immense local river, the Herault. It is a working village, its economy based on winemaking. Surrounded by vineyards and by the rocky scrubland (or garrigue) of the higher ground, the village is newly accessible by motorway from Montpellier, and has added some city commuters and suburban villas to its population of agricultural workers. There is a strong Occitan accent to its culture, and one of the neighbors is Jean-Paul Creissac, who works in the local wine industry and is a writer and publisher of both French and Occitan poetry. Montpeyroux is also the place where Eithne Jordan likes to spend time with her son Timmy. The house has plenty of room for a noisy piano and he, a gifted player, has completed his formal study of music and composition at the conservatoires of Montpellier and Paris, where he now teaches. For all these close and intimate ties, however, the community of artists with whom Eithne Jordan has the strongest professional relationships continues to be based in Ireland. Montpeyroux, with all its attractions and strangeness, provides her as a painter with a necessary distance, even from itself.
The presence of Irish artists in the Languedoc has been a fairly rare occurrence. This is neither Pont Aven nor Paris, and very few have come down this way. Michael Farrell lived nearby, a little northeast of Montpeyroux, until his premature death a dozen years ago. The poet Derek Mahon, some time after he had translated Paul Valéry’s Le Cimitière Marin, arrived to check out its location above the ocean at Sète. Medieval Irish monks, according to the scholar Véronique Guibert de la Vaissiere, illustrated the Sacramentaire de Gellone, the most precious artwork of a nearby monastic village St. Guilhem le Désert. These early Irish artists have at least one belief in common with the painter Eithne Jordan. Made visible in the vegetable and demonic forms that radiate from their sacred text is a heresy, often attributed to the 9th century Irish philosopher Dun Scotus Eriugena, that everything deserves our attentiveness, that nothing is to be damned. That is how things stand in every canvas Eithne Jordan makes: an attentive discovery of everyday life, however desolate it is. And it may be that she is the first Languedoc artist to bring into the foreground of a canvas the new motorway flyovers that crisscross the region’s narrow roads; the first to recognize the elegant geometry of industrial wastelands at the once-great port of Sète; the first to capture, in a style as abrupt and respectful as that of Poussin, the shock of one-off housing, as in Roadside House II(2004).
Eithne Jordan’s first major exhibition in France was at Sablé-sur-Sarthe in 2002. Her first solo show in Paris took place in 2007 and a residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais at Paris triggered her decision to paint cities. Since the paintings of the disused factories at Sète in 2001 she has used a camera as a key tool in surveying a place and planning a painting. Previously, she had worked from sketches or small paintings made at the scene. The camera offers two new and fundamental opportunities. She is free to work at a distance from the environment that she paints: for example, resident at Ballinglen Arts Foundation at Ballycastle, Co. Mayo during 2008 she set herself to work on a series of paintings of Rotterdam. And she is free to work on new edgier material, such as the motorway flyovers, or city warehouses at nighttime, subjects that do not permit her to hang around longer than it takes to photograph them, as in Rotterdam Night I(2007).
Following her series of studies, in small and larger works, of Paris and Rotterdam, Madrid and Vienna, Eithne Jordan turned her attention toward home. The forthcoming RHA exhibition of her paintings from Dublin, her native city, is the climax of many years of work elsewhere. ‘To arrive where she started /And know the place for the first time.’
By erasing the human figure from her urban canvasses, Eithne Jordan enables the viewer to be alone. Alone we are attentive. She has deliberately emptied her paintings of narrative. Exiled from the painted surface, undistracted by the passerby, the citizen clearly sees what this place is. Signs of particular human presences remain: the lights in a building glow, each one different from another, as in Winter VI (2011); the posters indicate our various desires in Hoarding II (2012); and Brewery VIII (2010) is uncannily familiar and unfamiliar, although all of its elements are as we think we have forever known them.
Today in Dublin the project that she began in Montpeyroux, of finding her distance from a place and discovering its lonely and independent presence, confronts its most vivid challenge. Faced with the achievement of these Dublin paintings we recognize that Eithne Jordan is a European artist. Her influences are in classical European oil painting. When in 2000 she was working in her studio at Montpeyroux on small and exactly stained still lives of plastic and glass containers, catching the different geometry and transparency of Vittel, Perrier and Badoit bottles, she often spoke of how she saw the still lives of Giorgio Morandi as comparable to tiny cities. And, in her cityscapes, it is Morandi and also Chardin who are strongly felt. Her rural landscapes catch the everyday preoccupations of Jacob van Ruisdael. Her interiors remind me of the bare architecture of Saenredam and of de Witte, one of whose paintings is in Dublin’s National Gallery. Above all, Eithne Jordan is never far away from the calm and disorientating stoicism of Poussin. A cityscape, such as Night Street XV(2009), displays in its foregrounded dark block a strong formal recollection of Poussin’s Paysage avec ruines(c. 1634) at the Prado in Madrid.
Perhaps the key difference that life in France has imprinted on the work of Eithne Jordan is a French admiration for coherence. That is what they love in their own place, even if they enjoy the wilderness abroad, say in Connemara or Timbuktu. We Irish have been schooled to prefer a wilderness at home. In her French home-from-home at Montpeyroux Eithne Jordan learned and now in Ireland re-creates austere, coherent beauty.
Irish Arts Review, Autumn 2012, Vol 29. No 3
Kevin Barry is Professor Emeritus, School of Humanities, NUI Galway.