masters of colour, form
There are no obvious
links between these concurrent shows at Mossenson Galleries in Subiaco;
neither are any implied. Worlds divide late Ngarinyin songman and
narrative painter Omborrin ( 1926-2009) and 83-year-old Sydney abstract
painter Col Jordan. Yet despite our talent for conflict, we are
hardwired for connection.
"Lately I joined
up with the old cattlemen who are painting," Omborrin, a former
Kimberley stockman and horse whisperer, said in 2005. "I am
not a read and write bloke, but painting lets me put my history
on canvas for people to see and think about."
exhibition Munja Country includes depictions of Omborrin's Ngarrabggarni,
his spirit totem, the freshwater turtle; the night bird, Schuwar,
and one of its habitats, the Dolok cave; the Luiid tree; Wandjina;
and the crafty, hermit-like Amalam.
In 1968 The Field
exhibition opened at the Natiional Gallery of Victoria, introducing
a conservative public to the work of 74 young Australian arists
working in the areas of abstract, conceptual, colour field, geometric
and hard-edge art. One of those artists was Col Jordan.
years later and coinciding with the commemorative exhibition The
Field revisited at the NGV, Col Jordan's Field Work Perth featured
some of his hard-edged abstract and op-art works from between 1969
artists are masters of colour and form. To move from the dancing
dot patterns and rich earth tones of Omborrin's portrait like images
of Wandjina and Amalan and double-perspective panoramas of country
to Jordan's vibrating orchestrations in bold primaries and multi-layered
geometries is quite an experience.
both artists'painstaiking attention to detail forcefully evokes
something less tangible; a meditative, spiritual quality that is
the hallmark of any art which transcends time, place and culture.
Yoeman writing in "The Weekend West" June 2, 2018
Any overview that
ranges over forty years of a significant artist's career takes the
viewer on an engrossing voyage of "circling back", as
one traces the unfolding evolution of the artist's style and imagery.
However, Col Jordan had two other allusions in mind when he titled
his 2007 Melbourne exhibition Circling Back.
The first allusion
refers to the fact that his most recent work of 2006-2007 is revisiting
and extending some of the picture-making issues that he had broached
in previous years.
The second allusion
refers to this exhibition being presented in Melbourne, which involves
Jordan reengaging with the city which had been particularly important
in the first three years of his career.
2006, Col Jordan acquired a studio in an industrial estate in Guildford,
a suburb convenient to his home in the Sydney Olympic Games Village
(now called Newington). The new studio had soaring and expansive
walls, and this allowed Jordan to hang simultaneously numerous works
from his personal collection - works that he had painted over the
previous four decades.
From his first exhibitions
in the 1960s, Jordan had always conceived each exhibition as an
essentially self-contained body of works that addressed a specific
pictorial theme or formal characteristic. His exhibitions may have
all shared a consistent aesthetic and a continuing use of flat paint,
climactic colour contrasts and razor-keen edges, but each exhibition
used those devices in a fresh manner, to new ends. Exhibitions would
generally carry titles that would point to the new "theme"
or to a new formal point of departure - titles such as Weaver Series,
Stack Series, and the Travelling South Series.
In his Guildford
studio, surrounded by what was in effect a summarising retrospective
exhibition of his life's work, Jordan recognised that this practice
of devising a fresh pictorial gist for each exhibition had had manifest
benefits, but he began to realise that it also had one shortcoming.
The advantages lay in demonstrating that formal colour abstraction
was an abundantly flexible language that was adaptable to many formal
purposes and inflections in the hands of an imaginative artist.
It also ensured that Jordan never lapsed into reiterating comfortable
and familiar solutions. His work was regularly nourished, reinvigourated
and steeled by setting itself new pictorial ventures.
However, the shortcoming
of this practice of exploring new compositional strategies with
each exhibition was that a fruitful theme or spatial ploy might
be set down before its full array of possibilities had been exhausted.
Over the last year,
Jordan has been scrutinizing these earlier works, and has chosen
to resurrect and readapt and some of their ingredients - such as
the use of shaped supports - where these characteristics retain
unexplored or unexhausted potential.
In 1966, Col Jordan
had his first solo exhibition, at Watters Gallery in Sydney. This
exhibition immediately established his position in the front rank
of the just-emerging Australian circle of formal colour abstractionists.
The next year, 1967, he exhibited at Strines Gallery in Melbourne.
Flash (1966) was included in that show. Jordan, who was then living
in Wollongong, drove to Melbourne for the Opening, in the company
of Syd Ball. While in Melbourne, he visited John and Sunday Reed
at their properties Heidi I and Heidi II. John Reed was already
acquainted with Jordan's work, having earlier exhibited at his "Museum
of Modern Art and Design of Australia" the first colour-field
painting Jordan had made using masking tape.
The Reeds were very
hospitable to Jordan. At Heidi I, Strines' Director Sweeney Reed
pulled a cavernous portmanteau from under a bed, and he and Jordan
perused its contents: a breathtaking trove of works on paper by
Albert Tucker, Sydney Nolan, Charles Blackman and Joy Hester. They
then pored over a stack of Nolan's masterpieces from his early Ned
Kelly Series. Sunday Reed's deteriorating hearing hampered conversation,
but Jordan (who had completed a BA in English literature at Sydney
University) became engrossed in John Reed's reflections on contemporary
avant-garde writing. Reed acquired one of Jordan's paintings from
the Strines exhibition, and this work is now part of the collection
of the Heidi Museum of Modern Art.
Melbourne exhibition met with critical praise. Patrick McCaughey
review in The Age warmly commended Jordan's "lyrical gift".
We carry away not a memory of dead planes of colour, but a delicate
almost miraculous experience of light, moving from shadowy diminuendos
to immaculately controlled climaxes, and then descending the scale
While in Melbourne,
he met Trevor Vickers and Alun Leach-Jones, who were also painting
within colour-field precepts. He was impressed with Leach-Jones'
immaculate technical skills, together with his very individual take
on the colour-field aesthetic. Leach-Jones demonstrated that formal
rigour need not be arid and exclusively cerebral, and that it need
not exclude a highly personal imagery or a highly individual style.
Jordan's work would demonstrate the same points.
In 1968, Jordan was
visited by John Stringer, Exhibitions Officer of the National Gallery
of Victoria. Stringer selected two shaped canvasses and a sculpture
for inclusion in The Field, the inaugural temporary exhibition at
the NGV. This majestic exhibition was a comprehensive analysis of
1960s Australian formal abstract colourists, and it reconfirmed
Jordan's position in the vanguard of this manner. Colour-field painting
represented a style that reconciled the avant-garde art circles
of Sydney and Melbourne, which had been divided during the late
1950s and early 1960s by a stylistic Mason-Dixon Line which separated
Sydney's abstract expressionism from Melbourne's figurative expressionism.
Colour-field painting found adherents in both cities, and Sydney
and Melbourne artists were roughly equally represented in The Field.
would later point to The Field exhibition having imbued the rising
generation of artists with a fresh confidence: "They felt that
they and Australian art in general were on the threshold of a new
start and a new adventure.
they certainly breached the dyke
wall and opened up the scene for the new generation of artists in
Alan Oldfield, who
was also included in the exhibition but was soon to return to figurative
painting, subsequently quipped that "The Field opened a Gallery
and closed a Style". He was correct that most of the participants
soon eased to other ways of painting. But not Jordan. For him, flat
colour was a consummately accommodating instrument, simultaneously
capable of unequivocal clarity and perplexing ambiguity, simultaneously
able to embrace lean austerity or baroque complexity. Jordan thought
Oldfield's bon mot was witty, but not altogether accurate. For Jordan,
as least as far as his own work was concerned, Melbourne's The Field
exhibition didn't close the Style, but rather endorsed it.
These two Melbourne-centred
factors - the encouragement that he received from John and Sunday
Reed, and the National Gallery of Victoria's stentorian institutional
acknowledgement of the significance of colour-field painting - were
important supports in the formative years of the career of Col Jordan.
Back: a career revisited
Col Jordan moved
to Wollongong in 1962 to take up an appointment as an English teacher
at Port Kembla High School. He was twenty-six.
family background nor his education had introduced him to the visual
arts (apart from a few art classes at William Balmain Teachers'
College), but with his evening university studies now completed,
he was keen to explore the practice of painting. He joined the Illawarra
Art Society, where he met David Aspden in about 1963. Aspden, too,
would participate in The Field exhibition, but at this time his
work was organic in form and muted in colour. More critical was
the firm friendship he forged at this time with the one contemporary
artist in Wollongong who already enjoyed a significant standing:
William (Bill) Peascod. Peascod had established a reputation as
one of the three key pioneers of matter painting in Sydney.
Jordan was coming
to painting without the background (or, to look at it another way,
without the encumbering baggage) of an art school training in life
drawing and representational painting skills. This left him free
to follow Peascod's example into abstraction and (initially, at
least) into explorations of surface and texture. However Jordan's
essays in texture painting differed in one crucial respect from
Peascod's. Peascod's textures frequently evoked the landscape, with
its torn, burnt and eroded surfaces. Jordan, on the other hand,
applied his sandy pastes and his monochromatic colours over firmly
predefined circles and squares. Texture may have been the superstructure
of these works, but their framework lay in crisp geometry.
then, were at the heart of Jordan's painting from the very beginning
of his painting practice. They still are.
In 1964, Jordan came
upon a magazine article about American painter Ellsworth Kelly.
Kelly's compositions were as spare as the texture paintings Jordan
was making at the time but, unlike the monkish restraint of Jordan's
palette, Kelly's paintings were blazing fields of flat, primary
colours. The strong impression that these reproductions left was
reinforced a few months later, when Jordan visited Contemporary
American Painting - a touring exhibition of American painting from
the late 1950s and early 1960s selected from the James A. Michener
Foundation Collection in the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania.
Jordan saw this exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales,
and it was a revelation. In the exhibition's meager four-page catalogue,
the Allentown Art Museum Director Richard Hirsch (perhaps a little
tactlessly) pointed to the new and powerful international influence
American art was exerting.
The fact remains that
American artists who, in the past,
have been so attached and perhaps hag-ridden by the schools of Europe,
have taken a lead, have shown a way, and have found that, in most
distant foreign areas, their gospel could be, would be and has been
Three of the participants
were the colour-field painters Kenneth Noland, Raymond Parker and
Ellsworth Kelly, and these painters were particularly cited by Elwyn
Lynn in his Art and Australia essay about the exhibition. He wrote
that their fascination for "purity of form and colour (made
their work) engaging and provoking (and) of most importance for
the future". Jordan was inclined to agree with both Hirsch
and Lynn, although for the moment he continued working on his geometric
variations of texture painting.
Against this background
of these events, which had the effect of alerting him to the achievements
of some of America's best abstract colour painting, Col Jordan's
decisive stylistic breakthrough came in 1965. That year, Jordan's
sister was staying in Long Island, New York, and she visited New
York's Museum of Modern Art. By chance, MOMA happened to be presenting
a major exhibition entitled The Responsive Eye. This most comprehensive
exhibition surveyed recent abstract paintings and constructions
which employed retinal and perceptual effects. Since these works
were essentially exploring optical effects, the movement had been
dubbed "op art".
Jordan's sister immediately
sent him the fifty-five page catalogue. It may have been the first
copy to reach Australia. William C. Seitz's catalogue essay honed
Jordan's understanding of the spirit and strategies of perceptual
abstraction. Seitz noted that "most often, areas of colour
or tone in perceptual abstraction are applied flat and hard edged;
reliefs and constructions are fabricated from cleanly cut wood,
glass, plastic or metal". Seitz proceeded to point to other
characteristics of perceptual art:
the observer is denied the security of a dominant central motif
which, according to what psychologists call "the law of simplicity",
the eye seeks;
the (artist's) establishment of situations that activate or frustrate
the mind's tendency to unify or tranquilize is a necessary condition
of perceptual art;
(the paintings may be marked by) bold
interactions of colour,
sensations of advancement or recession, lateral movement, (and)
The Responsive Eye
catalogue was richly illustrated, with colour reproductions of artists
including Richard Anuszkiewicz and Larry Poons (who both pitted
warm and cool colours against each other, making the picture surface
seem to surge and palpitate), Kenneth Noland (whose simple, L-shaped
stripes established a complicated and adversarial relationship with
the shape of the canvas), Josef Albers, Yaacov Gipstein Agam, Morris
Louis, Gene Davis (whose palisade of vertical stripes combined both
mellow, mid-toned colours and occasional clamorous high key tones)
and Victor Vasarely (whose painting turned on the vociferous antipathy
of blue and red). One work that strongly impacted upon Jordan was
a very recent Ellsworth Kelly painting of 1964, which floated two
capsule-shaped forms of blue and green on a red field - a lean ensemble
whose palette of contrasting, saturated colours caused edges to
shift and surfaces to pulsate.
Jordan analysed the
key characteristics of this new front of artists: large scale; flat
unmodulated colour; strident colour contrasts; serial reiteration
of geometric forms; and a preference for mathematical planning over
"touch" and expressiveness. Jordan was immediately converted
by the dynamism of this new convention, and fired by its possibilities.
Here was an authentically international style - artists from fifteen
countries were represented in The Responsive Eye exhibition. Moreover,
it was a style that was utterly contemporary, and was still unfolding.
At the same time, the Responsive Eye catalogue made it apparent
that this was a very broad stylistic church, able to accommodate
a wide array of formats and manoeuvring. Most importantly, it was
a tendency that chimed with Jordan's personal instincts for decisive
design and geometric structures.
his thirtieth year, had found what would serve as a fertile aesthetic
homeland for the next four decades.
Jordan's initial two essays in flat high key contrasting colour
employed keen hand-painted edges, but his third colour-field painting
used masking tape to obtain edges of fastidious and mechanistic
crispness. That year, 1965, Syd Ball won the Mirror-Waratah Invitation
Prize with two of his Canto Series paintings of stripes within a
circle. Ball had lived and worked in New York between 1963 and 1965,
and had had personal contact with a number of the American colour
painters. Jordan asked Ball how he obtained such surgically precise
circles using masking tape. "Lay the tape down and cut it with
a knife", Ball replied. Many of Jordan's subsequent compositions
turned on confrontations between curved and straight forms.
The earliest work
in this exhibition, Flash (1966), is three dimensional, marshalling
properties of both painting and sculpture. This work demonstrates
the unforced ease with which Jordan could transpose his pictorial
concerns to sculpture. His second solo exhibition at the Watters
Gallery in 1967 was entirely composed of large sculptures whose
striped and undulating surfaces pulsated under ultra-violet light.
These early paintings and sculptures used curved or straight stripes,
are they his most simple, rigid and severe works. Flash displays
much of that simplicity, although the uncompromising stripes are
undercut by the swelling voluptuousness of the curving sculptural
support. There is a paradox at play, in that the spatial relationships
that are asserted by the stripes are at variance with the rise and
fall of the sculpture's physical surface. Spatial paradox would
continue to be a recurrent and central characteristic in Jordan's
a straightforward format to explore stark colour relationships.
Stripes of divergent colours may seem to shift their position as
one's eye moves over the canvas. Edges, where one colour abuts another,
appear to tremble. Contrasting colours pulsate as they meet, or
shiver. The simplicity of Jordan's early stripe paintings did not
persist for long. Soon he came to engage a complication of form
and colour unmatched by any of The Field participants, with the
exception of Alun Leach-Jones. Indeed, Jordan's ability to stage-manage
a cacophony of diverse shapes and vividly assertive colours, while
retaining pictorial unity and resisting fragmentation, is one of
his particular strengths.
Flash was one of
Jordan's first sculptures. He may have been alerted to the possibilities
for formal colour abstraction to function successfully as sculpture
as well as painting, through The Responsive Eye catalogue, which
illustrated numerous sculptures and bas-reliefs. He continues to
return periodically to make sculptures, usually addressing the same
issues that he is addressing in his paintings, but which lend themselves
to three-dimensional expression.
Jordan worked through
more than a dozen series between 1966 and 2000, and these are summarized
in the publication Edge and Paradox: the Art of Col Jordan (1994).
Generally they are resolutely abstract, and they turn on colour
or spatial devices that engage formal ambiguity and visual uncertainty.
Only two series drew upon naturalistic sources, and even then they
did so obliquely: the Memories of Italy Series of the mid 1970s,
and the Stack Series of 1969-1972, of which Stack 6 (1970) is an
example. At this time, the Port Kembla coastline of Wollongong was
dominated by the steelworks. The area presented awesome and terrible
spectacle, especially in the evening. The twilight became ablaze
with flames. Rolling clouds of smoke trolled out towards the Tasman
Sea or wallowed west to engulf the nearby suburbs. Grit, like some
Pompeian ash, settled gently but insidiously over all. For all that,
the Stack paintings the paintings were not specifically portraying
these industrial scenes of Dantesque horror.
The series actually
derived from an episode in 1969, when Jordan was standing beside
the road in the Wollongong suburb of Unandella. A truck lumbered
by, loaded with large pipes. From Jordan's side-on perspective,
the pipes were rectangular in outline, and apparently extremely
heavy. As the truck turned, Jordan saw the pipes from a sequence
of other angles. They metamorphosed into hollow cylinders, and now
appeared comparatively light. It was the type of visual paradox
that had long been at the centre of his painting. Jordan promptly
began a body of paintings which set these monumental pipes against
feathery cloud-like shapes (which had appeared in his paintings
the year before). The pipe-forms were spray-painted, which enhanced
their solidity and contrasted with the flatness of the cloud-shapes.
Jordan noted James Gleeson's description of him as the Australian
"poet laureate of pollution", but as far as he was concerned,
these works stood or fell on their formal properties.
The Smoke Stack series
was not the only set of Jordan's paintings to indirectly reflect
on phenomena or circumstances in his lived world. In 1994, Jordan
retired from his position of Professor and Associate Dean at the
College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales. As a balm to
sooth the emotional wrench of his retirement, Col and Marie Jordan
purchased a river-side cottage at Lake Conjola, south of Sydney.
They visited the cottage about one week in three, "to escape
the predictabilities of Sydney" and to experience the surf,
the lake and the abundant wild-life. It was a bi-polar location.
During holiday periods, it became a boisterous circus of young evangelists,
young hedonists, bikies, surfers and toddlers. Out of season, calm
returned. Then it became time for the many retirees who were permanent
residents of Lake Conjola to repossess their village and, it seemed
to Jordan, to "reflect on the reliability of dreams".
Now residents had the opportunity to contemplate the surreal forms
of the marine life in the shallows, the lithe arrogance of kangaroos
which nosed around verandahs, and the diverse creatures of the bush.
Jordan titled the paintings he completed over his first couple of
years at Lake Conjola the Travelling South series. These paintings
are a long way from the dour and reductionist geometry that marked
the work of some of the participants in The Field. In works like
Curving Down 1996, forms gather, dwindle, and bustle with a restless
energy. Some shapes have limbs that flail or pitch about, as if
in the face of turbulent turning tides or Southerly Busters. For
all the sprightly colour and jazz-like rhythms, the ways shapes
lurch and reach towards one another reminds one that the water and
the bush are not just pleasure-grounds, they are also the domains
of the hunter and the game, the predator and the prey. Wit and gravity
are as equally measured in Jordan's Travelling South paintings as
they are in David Williamson's play Travelling North (1980), which
also explored some of the emotional pains, pleasures and discoveries
of coastal retirement.
The Travelling South
paintings deal with informality and fantastic imagery to an extent
unmatched in his career. Over the next decade, the pendulum would
swing gradually back towards symmetry and mathematical order.
Another group of
paintings that tangentially evokes the seen world is the South Series,
painted during the final few years Jordan lived in the southern
Sydney suburb of Oatley. In works like South 13 (2001), the dominant
forms curve and flow. The momentary insinuation of a geometric (perhaps
architectonic) element only serves to underscore the overall organic
nature of the forms. It is easy to sense the landscape in these
paintings: moist fens, lakes in spate, craggy mountain escarpments
or sleek scudding clouds. There is a sense of grandeur and sweep
in these similes; if abstraction can allude to the sublime in nature,
it is here.
In 2004, Col and
Marie Jordan moved to Newington, to a house designed to accommodate
athletes competing in the 2000 Olympics. The Newington Olympic estate
combines the elegant neo-cubist geometry of the architecture with
the informality of indigenous landscape plantings. The paintings
that coincide with this move, of which Newington 7 (2005) [illustration
?] is an example, similarly combine a small number of emphatic geometric
shapes, with a continuation of the flowing landscape qualities of
the South works.
In 2005, Col and
Marie Jordan revisited the United States. On this trip, Jordan's
put aside his interest in American Civil War battle-sites, and concentrated
on art museums. The climax of the trip came at the San Francisco
Museum of Modern Art. Here he saw a huge, horizontal Gene Davis
painting of vertical stripes in high key colours. Jordan found the
work commanding and dazzling. "It took me back to my roots,"
Jordan reflected. That is, it took him back to the Davis paintings
in The Responsive Eye catalogue and in the Michener Collection exhibition,
and it took him back to his own stripe paintings of 1966. Returning
to Australia, Jordan commenced a set of paintings which contained
seething compositions within sequences of vertical stripes. It was
as if larger paintings had been sliced into sections, which were
rejoined in new sequences, and misaligned, creating fresh and disjunctive
relationships. Of course, they did not remotely resemble, or incur
any debt to, the Davis painting which had indirectly triggered them.
Jordan called this set the Auburn Series, after the suburb in which
his then studio was located.
As already noted,
since mid 2006 Jordan's studio has been hung with a selection of
key works from the previous forty years. A number of these works
pointed to areas of unfinished business, where pictorial themes
or devices remained ripe for further elaboration and renewal. Framespace
5 (1969) [illustration ?] was one work that provoked a set of reprises.
The series of Framespace paintings of 1969 turned on spatial situations
of paradox and inconsistency, so it is natural that the series continued
to hold Jordan's interest. The Framespace Series employed either
shaped canvasses or square canvasses turned through 45 degrees into
a diamond format. Framespace Series' compositions typically took
a wide stripe or band and for a time allowed it to run in parallel
with the literal framing edge, echoing and reaffirming the picture
edge and being partly defined by it. Abruptly, the band would relinquish
its straight right-angled orientation and shift into a sweeping
arc. The arc would seem to pass behind, or in front of, the straight
band in a manner that seemed illogical. Drawing and colour were
at variance with the implied spatial manoeuvring. The canvas shape
was alternately acknowledged and subverted. These tactics were at
least partly recommissioned in the most recent Celtic Series of
paintings of 2007, including Celtic Space 13 and Celtic Space 14.
Jordan is not conscious
of possessing any Celtic ancestry, but he was intrigued by the
stylized representations of plait-like, endlessly interwoven cords,
known as "Celtic knots". These forms were basic to Celtic
design and ornamentation in illuminated manuscripts and decorative
arts. He admired Celtic design's strong abstract underpinnings.
He was drawn to its use of vigourous curves and rhythms. He was
especially interested in the way forms interwove. (This was a compositional
device that was to some extent paralleled in Jordan's Weaver Series
of the early 1980s). For Jordan, Celtic knots resembled visual puzzles;
they held the mysterious allure of labyrinths.
Jordan returned to
using shaped canvases for the Celtic Series, but in other respects
the new work struck out in new directions. The canvas shapes tended
to be more complex than the earlier Framespace supports, and ranged
from ziggurat-like to cruciform. They were aligned on a more conventional
vertical axis. The Framespace paintings' motif of a band slipping
behind itself was now heightened into a complicated Celtic knot
network of over-and-under interlacing. The Celtic paintings adopted
palettes quite different from the Framespace paintings, and they
adopted a symmetricalness that was quite different from the asymmetry
of the Framespace and Newington paintings. Jordan was extrapolating
from the earlier work, not continuing it.
In late 2007, Jordan
continues to work surrounded by key works from previous decades.
It remains to be seen whether there will be more "circling
back" - whether there will be more paintings to come which
seize upon and reinterpret earlier pictorial issues, and resolve
them in fresh contexts and unfamiliar guises.
Col Jordan was one
of the first Australian artists to be attracted to perceptual abstraction
or formal colour abstraction. He recognised quite quickly that it
was a manner that meshed seamlessly with his natural instincts for
calculation, clarity and geometry. He was drawn to its capacity
for impact and for splendor. He was attracted to its capacity to
deal with paradox and ambiguity and visual deceit. He recognised
its versatility, and used the key ingredients of flat and often
strident colour in an intelligent and rich variety of pictorial
It is not rare for
an artist to maintain stylistic consistency throughout a career.
But it is uncommon for an artist whose work has maintained stylistic
focus throughout a career, to have avoided periods of treading water
and beginning to quote himself. Jordan did not fall into that perilous
trap. His work has continued to explore fresh facets of its focused
trajectory. This is one of Col Jordan's achievements, and this is
why "circling back" to re-examine his career is a rewarding
[ Emeritus Professor Peter Pinson is an artist & author of three
books, numerous monographs & essays on the visual arts.
He is the President of the Watercolour Institute of Australia. ]
In 1968, the National Gallery of Victoria
celebrated its move to new premises by mounting an important exhibition
that surveyed Australia’s newly emerged formal colour abstractionists.
The exhibition, titled “The Field”, included the work of forty painters
and sculptors. Col Jordan, then thirty-two years old, was one of
those forty exhibitors.
four decades later, most of those artists have evolved to new manners
of working. Many have moved to more expressionist styles, and some
have shifted to figurative objectives. Col Jordan is one of very
few of “The Field” participants who have continued to work in a
manner marked by crisp calculation and a concentration on the spatial
and pictorial impact of colour. Jordan has demonstrated that formality
and colour remain fertile fields to explore, and on which to play
diverse, imaginative and ingenious variations.
Col Jordan’s two most recent groups of works
are the “Newington Series” and the “Auburn Series”, both clusters
of paintings being completed in 2004 – 2005. “Newington” alludes
to his relocation, in December 2003, to the stylish housing estate
built in 1999/2000 as Sydney’s Olympic Village. The suburb is now
called Newington. The buildings are neo-cubist in their use of texture
and colour, and in their angularity. Their geometric formalism is
offset by the extensive plantings of indigenous flora, and by the
serpentine walking trails and the languid arabesques of the nearby
The “Newington Series” paintings similarly
combine elements of strict geometry with forms that weave and flow.
Typically, seven or eight divergent and bold shapes are overlapped,
and each shape is emblazoned with stripes or, more usually,curving
ribbons of immaculately painted flat colour. Sometimes the colours
are bright, with an almost industrial stridency; sometimes they
reflect the colours of nature, especially the crisp and unadulterated
colours to be found in clear alpine air. At times, Jordan juxtaposes
areas of contrasting colours, making their meeting edges vibrate
and pulsate. At times, adjacent areas ease from high to low tonal
key, or glissade suavely from one colour to another.
These are unequivocally
abstract paintings, and one should be cautious about over-eagerly
searching for naturalistic analogies in them. Nevertheless, some
forms may remind the viewer of banking clouds, of rolling grassy
downs, and of stratas of parched oxide-stained soils. Some may see
these paintings as abstract parallels of the epic landscapes of
William Robinson. Certainly the “Newington Series” paintings possess
a comparable sense of scale and grandeur to Robinson’s landscapes.
One is reminded that in 1993 Jordan once wrote a catalogue essay
on the theme of late 20thC painters who were interested in contemporary
representations of the notion of the sublime. The “Newington Series”
paintings suggest forces of such sweep, such unfathomable complexity
and such indomitability that they too invite comparison with the
significant painters of the sublime.
Jordan’s “Auburn Series” is named after the inner West Sydney suburb
of Auburn, where Jordan has his studio. This series was obliquely
triggered by some grand striped colour paintings by Gene Davis that
Jordan admired at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, during
his 2004 travels in the United States
In the “Auburn Series”, Jordan
takes a sequence of parallel bands, sometimes vertical, sometimes
diagonal, and paints each band in a manner that is at variance to
its neighbour. There is a sense of fragmentation; one is given a
glimpse of a pattern or a part of a letter, but not sufficient to
decipher the whole. There is no vagueness here – the opulent colours
are painted with razor-sharp definition – but there is concealment
and mystery. Are the patterns referring to the decorative arts of
another period, such as Art Deco furniture or 1950s fabrics? Are
they referring to the patterns to be found on ancient coats of arms,
which in turn allude to alliances, high station, and to arranged
marriages of State? Are forms actually portions of letters,and if
so, what words or meanings are being hinted at?
Paradox and ambiguity are characteristics
at play in both these series, as they have been in Jordan’s paintings
of the last forty years. In his paintings, Col Jordan conjures with
the viewer’s perception of space and form like an illusionist: nothing
is fixed, nothing is certain.
In 1966, Jordan was awarded the H. C. Richards
Memorial Prize by the Hal Missingham, Director of the Art Gallery
of New South Wales. Missingham spoke enthusiastically of Jordan’s
work: “There is a marvelous discipline and a certain magic I cannot
These are characteristics that continue
to mark the work of Col Jordan.
Peter Pinson [ Emeritus Professor Peter
Pinson is an artist & writer of three books, numerous monographs
& essays on the visual arts. He is the President of the Watercolour
Institute of Australia. ]
by Numbers Adds up for Artist.
Trying to find the
giant numerals hiding among Col Jordan's playful arrangement of
colour, shape and pattern is enough to drive you crazy.
"You look at something but it bleeds away and something else emerges,"
said the Sydney artist whose new exhibition, Numbers and Other Spaces,
is at Mossenson Galleries in Subiaco.
hard-edged optical art gives a whole new meaning to painting by
numbers. Take a large square or circle and place any digit from
zero to nine in the centre. Next, draw a series of overlapping shapes
on top and fill each space with pattern and colour. Far from being
a static geometrical exercise in design, the result is a dancing,
highly organic celebration of life in all its mystery.
movement, colour and paradox," said Jordan." But I can't anticipate
what each shape is going to be. The paintings look like they're
planned, but they're not." Jordan said sometimes things didn't work
out. "If a painting fails it has to be put down like a sick animal,
and that's hard to do," he said.
Above all, Jordan seeks to please himself. "You can't anticipate
what other people might like," he said. "You can only do what delights
you and hope it delights other people as well."
the sculptures are very much the children of his paintings. "They're
also a way of coming to terms with my frustrated ambition to become
an architect," he said. Jordan was born in 1935 and studied at Balmain
Teachers' College and the University of Sydney before becoming one
of a handful of artists to introduce hard-edge optical painting
to Australia in the 1960s. His work is represented in public and
private collections throughout Australia.
writing in "The Westralian" October 19, 2009.
Colour works the eye.
Two new exhibitions mark continuing journeys of exploration
for the artists.
Numbers and Other
Spaces, currently running at Mossenson Galleries, continues Col
Jordan's four-decade inquiry into how the eye perceives colour and
form. Jordan has been hugely influential in Australian abstract
painting and the original stimulus of hard-edge abstraction and
op-art can still be seen as he surreptitiously plays with signs
of all kinds, entangling and opening spaces, driven by a sensibility
for moving the viewer's eye around.
painting contains the central but enmeshed, motif of a number [with
which the works are titled] which is sliced and spliced by angled
planes, spheres, stars and other angle and protrusions.
overall semiotic message is one of the construct of space through
human frameworks, but the shapes diagonals and other architectural
references give way quickly to the wonderful and bold use of colour.
Primarily these are exercises in colour interpretation and Jordan's
work has always fully fleshed out the possibilities of hue and tone.
Numbers and other Spaces is no exception.
of Charles Demuth's Number 5 or Stuart Davis' jazzy compositions
of the 1920s and 30s, this series of works goes back to the roots
of early modernist abstraction and its relationship with Art Deco
and the internationalist style. Read as a series, Numbers and Other
Spaces is an enjoyable Narrative on the possibility of engaging
information and communication systems, such as numeracy, art and
architecture, and redefining them as exquisite paintings.
work is paradoxical in the sense that both his paintings and the
patterns and systems outside that they refer to are self-referential;
this creates a kind of end game but the skill required in this type
of painting is to then take the viewer's eye, and the mind away
from this implosion of subject matter toward the construction of
the painting, allowing the mind's eye to wander in sheer enjoyment.
In the hands of an artist like Jordan, this almost seems effortless.
This is also addressed in his three dimensional architectural forms
which, like Trevor Richard's recent works at the Turner Galleries,
allow the vision of the artist to be walked around- and made me
question why we don't live in public spaces like this.
Ric Spencer writing
in "The Westralian" October 23, 2009.