There is a persuasive but gentle emptiness to the works of Eithne Jordan, spread across two companion exhibitions, one at the Royal Hibernian Academy, and the other at Rubicon Gallery. The focus of each is buildings: houses, apartments, a deserted mansion, a courthouse; sited on streets, empty save for the occasional car, and lit by street lamps, twilight or pale dawn. Sometimes there is a light behind a window, but more often the eyes of these buildings are dark, the façades blankly impenetrable. There is a division of scale and medium: at the RHA, the works are larger, oil on linen; while at Rubicon smaller gouaches on paper, some of them studies for the RHA pieces, are on display.
Scale is significant because in the smaller works there is a drawing in, as the miniaturisation condenses the gaze into an intimacy that feels more personal than the alienation accruing to the larger paintings. There, the soft flatness of the muted, subtle gradations of greys, browns, and colours of brick and stone, hold you at a critical distance from inhabiting any more than the ground the artist herself inhabits, always outside. And Jordan’s preoccupation is with the condition of being outside, not on the way to being inside, but, as the title of the Rubicon’s exhibition suggests, always on the way to somewhere else.
In his essay, ‘The Interior of a House’, commissioned for the RHA catalogue, Colm Tóibín, chooses to imagine a story of the hidden life behind one set of these windows. Tóbin creates a small world peopled with the sensitive banalities of family relationships: the little manipulations, the modest ambitions for interior decorating. It is a sweetly resonant story, but one at odds with the intent of these works. Jordan’s streetscapes do not in fact present us with a dialectic between interior and exterior, and they do not invite us to imagine what is going on inside. Instead these works are all about the outside. Here, buildings are symbols of a society that may also alienate, rather than icons of warmth and shelter.
The title of the series Hoarding (2011) reveals this intent, as here walls and boards act as barriers. In Hoarding IV, at RHA, the promises of adverts on the wooden shuttering are as empty and unreadable as the dark shadows behind the windows of the apartment block beyond. Perhaps Car Park II (2011) encapsulates all these strands most fully. In the Rubicon Gallery study, the rain-washed streets of a wet dawn, and the soft lights within the multi-storey building, open up the potential for the idea of journey to take root. This may not be ‘our’ place, but it is a point on the way. At the RHA, the scene is altogether darker, and the boarded up windows on the building that dominates the right hand side of the painting are in dialogue with the No Entry road signs. Here the way ahead is unclear, but the overall sense is that we cannot linger, and there is no way back.
The light at Jordan’s chosen times of day is that of dawn or twilight, those liminal moments between day and night. This chimes with the idea of En Route, which alludes to the placelessness of being separated from where you are. It is also, in the hands of an expert, a simply stunning light to paint, and Jordan, rightly considered one of Ireland’s leading artists, is an expert handler of paint, composition and form. That is part of the reason why, loaded as they are with a sense of existential angst, Jordan’s paintings, whether oil on linen, or gouache on paper, are so seductive.
Another reason is the way in which each of these works presents both a puzzle and its own answer: the conundrum being the question of how we can continue to live, hope, think and love, in a landscape that reminds us that all the edifices we have created for civilisation and comfort are nothing more than cold brick and stone, excluding more than they shelter. The answer, which lies at the heart of these two exhibitions, is that understanding all this is our strength. Jordan’s viewpoint offers us a position from which to view that condition, and draw power from the reality of being an individual, rather than through the mythologised stories of home, and the fiction of finally settling down to satisfaction.
Eithne Jordan: En Route, was on view 3 November – 8 December 2012; Eithne Jordan: Street, was on view 15 November – 21 December 2012.