Two 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."

Omborrin's survey 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.

Fifty 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 and 2013.

Both 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.

But 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.

William Yoeman writing in "The Weekend West" June 2, 2018


Circling back

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.


Circling back: Guildford.

In August-September 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.

Circling back: Melbourne

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.

Meanwhile, Jordan's 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 again.

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.

Patrick McCaughey 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 the 1970s."

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.


Circling 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.

Neither Jordan's 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.

Geometric structures, 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 adopted.

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) spatial radiation.

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.

Jordan, entering 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 painting.

Stripes provided 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 formats.

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 enterprise.

Peter Pinson
[ 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.
Now, almost 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 Parramatta River.
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.
Col 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 define”.

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. ]


Paint 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.
Jordan's 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.
"I want 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."
He says 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.

William Yeoman writing in "The Westralian" October 19, 2009.


Col's 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.
Each 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.
The 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.
Reminiscent 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.
Jordan's 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.



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