The tired, worn textures of a city's teeming streets


It took a long time for Eithne Jordan to approach Dublin as a subject, but her paintings offer a unique way into the city

If you live or have lived in Dublin, chances are you will recognise at least some of the locations depicted in Eithne Jordan’s two exhibitions, Street at the RHA and En Route at the Rubicon Gallery in Dublin.

She doesn’t stray too far from the inner city, north and south. Occasionally a landmark turns up, but not a landmark in any conventional, iconographic sense, more an unremarkable building or a feature, habitually encountered, that lodges in the memory because of its slight oddness or incongruity.

Her city is a quiet domain. Its terraced houses and blocks of flats are inhabited, but they are viewed in the half-light of dawn or dusk, or by night, when there is little movement save a car or two, or a flight of birds. Hoardings, boundary walls and other blank facades situate the viewer firmly on the outside, slightly apart.

If one feels excluded, it is not in any negative sense. In fact, because we are allowed to so thoroughly occupy the vacated spaces, we possess the city in a way we never could when the streets are noisy and thronged with people, cars and vans.

While the big, stark, architectural blocks appear sculptural in a pure, almost abstract way, the paintings never veer towards hard-edged abstraction. Jordan is constantly attuned to the tired, worn textures of the urban fabric, to the fall of soft light on stained, weathered stone and concrete, the gentle erosion that over time softens crisp geometric edges and flat surfaces. What we see is always a real, lived-in, utilitarian place.

The locations are specific and recognisable, but she prefers not to pin them down in the titles. “So many people have said they know where the place in such and such a painting is,” she says. “And that’s fine. I just didn’t want to name them.

“I’m interested in something to do with the way we inhabit cities and I like the idea of paintings things that we pass by every day without noticing. They’re deserving of attention because they are so familiar and so anonymous.”

In the same way, she’s edited out people and cars. “I particularly wanted the big paintings to be very stark, with no clutter. The references to people are implied – lights in buildings, streetlights, advertising billboards, rubbish bins, even a skip. But I found that if you include figures you’re into a whole different narrative.”

After graduating from Dún Laoghaire School of Art (now IADT), Jordan initially made vibrant abstracts. From the late 1980s she moved into figuration, with shimmering images of swimmers, then a powerful, quite sombre series of allegorical works in which a female protagonist is visualised as being the focus of a range of pressures and demands.

When she moved to France in the 1990s (she now divides her time between Ireland and France), she made lyrical, light-filled interiors and figure paintings. Then she began to move out into the landscape, initially looking to classical, pastoral views but gradually responding to the contemporary urbanisation of the rural landscape by motorway schemes, dwellings and other structures. Latterly she began to look into the heart of cities – several European cities, including Paris, and Barcelona.

Dublin is different. An outsider in other cities, she was an insider in Dublin but, for that very reason: “I knew by 2009 that I wanted to paint Dublin, but I just couldn’t find a way into it. I could approach the others in a fairly generic way, but Dublin was too familiar to me, and it has more emotional resonance for me. Painting it is a much more intense experience. Also, as a city I think it’s very much itself.”

Initially, her way in was a series of small gouaches of a quintessentially Dublin subject, the area around the Guinness Brewery. Then, at the end of 2010, she was living temporarily in a house in Rathmines when snow arrived, and stayed. She set out on walks in the immediate locality, taking photographs. “I love that eerie snowy light – I think most painters do. There’s a curious reversal, with light reflected upwards from the ground, and everything is muffled and still.”

A means to an end

She has long used photography as a means to an end. “Digital photography changed the way I work. I think, with a camera, you’re framing things from the start, and the camera itself creates a certain distance. Before, I was more spontaneous. I’d make a quick sketch and leap into a painting. Now, everything is more worked out. I take a lot of photographs, trying to find what I’m after, and print relatively few of them. They’re not that interesting as photographs, I should say. I wouldn’t make any claims for them on that level.”

She doesn’t square up or project a photographic image. “I’ve evolved my own eccentric way of using them, measuring distances between two points, that sort of thing.”

A series of small gouaches she made, of snow-mantled streets, finally provided her with a way into Dublin as a subject. Several changes of living space and studio extended the range of her locations. She was based for a time, for example, in a studio on the top storey of DIT’s Fine Art department in Portland Row: “A fascinating part of town. On balance I prefer the north inner city to the south when it comes to painting. It has always seemed to me that there’s a kind of sadness to Dublin, or at least to the inner city, which has to do with this feeling that the buildings are a bit forlorn, past their best.”

The large paintings in Street are all derived from the gouaches and they are, as she says, starker and emptier. They depend not on greater detail but less, and on surprisingly delicate surface nuances.

“If you look at them, you’ll see that I was drawn back again and again to the older blocks of corporation flats, because I found them intriguing to paint. To take something that is almost banal, visually, and to paint it in a muted light, so that the painting is all harmonies of dull grey tones, really, and yet to convey the atmosphere of the place – it’s something beyond realism. And that something is what makes it interesting to me.”

Street. Gallery 1, Royal Hibernian Academy, Gallagher Gallery, 15 Ely Place, Dublin 2, until December 21st.

En Route. Rubicon Gallery, 10 St Stephen’s Green, until December 8th

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