Locations of Estrangement
Eithne Jordan and Colin Martin at LAF 2020
Traditional genres of observational painting—portrait, landscape, still life, interior—represented the world in order to traffic in big ideas—social hierarchy, the Sublime, Manifest Destiny, memento mori—but also to assuage the viewer with access. Paintings allowed viewers to imaginatively enter the topography of a place, to take in the atmosphere of a room, to assess the psychology of a sitter, all the better to assert some sort of control, whether real or Illusory. But what happens to painting when the world itself no longer assuages, when we can no longer assert control, when atmosphere, topography, and psychology transmogrify under the onslaught of environmental catastrophe, the surveillance state, and scientific and technological developments that seek to remake the human into something other? What happens to painting when the world alienates us from the certainties of the past?
Eithne Jordan’s gouaches picture historic interiors: anatomy rooms, city halls, foyers, museums, and salons, as her terse titles tell us. Few of them are instantly recognizable, save, perhaps for the distinctive Victorian gallery of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, with William Wetmore Story’s marble figure of Semiramis front and center. These largely eighteenth and nineteenth-century rooms served the causes of science, government, aristocracy, and culture, and many of them still do. Yet the artist notes our distance from the moment of their establishment by including signs of their current use, including stanchions with velvet ropes, folding tables covered in cheap cloths, museological labels and placards, and a glowing tablet presumably loaded with interactive didactics. We are no longer connected to these lovely, if forebodingly unpopulated spaces, where even the combination of copious daylight and incandescence cannot wash away the darker feeling that they have been gelled in aspic, preserved like tombs. Jordan’s almost guileless documents of visited sites, like photography in Roland Barthes’s telling, subtly imply an uncanny disconnection, and unbridgeable finality of pastness.
Colin Martin, too, paints disaffecting interiors, such as the ominously bland bureaucratic offices of the Stasi Museum in Berlin or the generic chromed shelving units stacked with vintage and obsolescent PCs in Computer Museum II. But alongside these scenes of memorials to the failed utopias and dystopias of the second half of the twentieth century, he depicts more up-to-the-minute locations of estrangement: the interior that houses the Panoptic Studio at Carnegie Mellon University, a geodesic dome outfitted with cameras for the 3-D motion capture of what its website describes as “a group of people engaged in a social interaction” (sounding like a somewhat sinister variant of Relational Aesthetics), and portraits of a child actor and a dog covered in motion-capture sensors, possibly for CGI. In this body of work, past blurs with present, the totalitarian state’s banal apparatus of control of with universities and corporations’ high-tech gizmos of simulation. Deadpan representations of the society of the spectacle’s infrastructure, Martin’s canvases envision a world meant not to empower people, but, as Richard Serra observed of television, to deliver them.
Joseph R. Wolin