The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Col Jordan: A Play on White at Mossenson Galleries in Melbourne from 5-31 October 2010.
I was only a small boy when I first visited St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived, and the fading winter light did little to break through the cold Byzantine depths of the cavernous basilica. Near the altar, a lone curate was busily engaged in preparing the evening service. Noticing us enter the transept, he gestured enthusiastically towards the heavens, before scurrying out of sight. All of a sudden, the building was lit up – the darkness expelled by the glittering brilliance of the basilica’s golden ceilings. Above our heads, Adam and Eve circled in an endless repetition of humanity’s Fall, while higher still, a bearded Heavenly Father separated the heavens from the earth, the land from the sea, and the darkness from the light. It was like a divine evocation of the curate’s act in switching on the electric lights. With our mouths agape, we became one with the million shimmering tesserae, subsumed into the vision unfolding above us – like each tile, we gave up our individuality to partake of the majestic unity of the divine order.
Col Jordan refers to his latest series of paintings as ‘The Mosaic Paintings’, but they are not mosaics in any traditional sense. Over the past four decades, Jordan has established himself as one of Australia’s foremost practitioners of hard-edge, optical abstraction, finding in it an unceasingly fertile ground for artistic experimentation and conceptual exploration. In his latest works, an overlapping selection of geometric shapes jostle for position across the white ground of the canvas, fragmented and unified by the interplay of different patterns. Jordan is a master of visual impact; high-keyed colours are offset against a ground of crisp white, giving the works an impressive bombast similar to the ceilings of St Mark’s.
However, Jordan is not a religious man, and his Mosaic Paintings must be seen in a very different conceptual light to those of his religious precursors. In the mosaics of St Mark’s, the individuality of each tessera is willingly conceded to the whole – a metaphor for the believer’s role in the divine hierarchy – but Jordan’s works have none of this spiritual certainty. In fact, throughout his entire career, Jordan has relentlessly explored the boundaries of paradox, ambiguity and uncertainty. In the dynamic tensions of the picture plane, Jordan draws attention to the entirely subjective nature of vision. His paintings are, in his own words, “celebrations of the infinite variability and unpredictability of the human condition”. This exploration of paradox has reached a new zenith in Jordan’s Mosaic Paintings.
In order to understand the height of this achievement, however, it is worth returning to a work he completed in 1968, Daedalus Series 6, which was exhibited in the landmark exhibition The Field and is now held in the National Gallery of Australia. In 1971, Bernard Smith praised the visual tension of the work, noting that “the tyranny of the frame as structural determinant is challenged increasingly the greater the distance from the edge, as forms and shapes arise which assert a kind of plastic freedom.” Arriving in the late 1960s, when Australian society was being reconfigured as a multicultural panoply, this conscious evocation of visual subjectivity seemed a perfect metaphor for the new, postmodern subject, which was constructed, as Chantal Mouffe has suggested, “at the point of intersection of a multiplicity of subject positions”. Indeed, in 1969, Jordan confirmed the suggestion, drawing a link between pictorial complexity and this changing sense of society and selfhood:
My paintings are about paradox. Visual embodiments of literal impossibility. A work is good to the extent that it reconciles irreconcilables. Daedalus is about directions, tied down and boxed by the stripes of its own identity.
In these stripe paintings of the 1960s and 70s, Jordan set up a tension between the unifying factor of the frame and the individuality of the coloured lines. In a sense, this is the exact opposite to the unifying of tesserae into a single image that occurs in traditional mosaics. And yet, both conceptually and visually, this strategy has its limitations. For Jordan’s paintings are not simply celebrations of unfettered individualism – rather, at their heart they recognise the need to create a “unified visual statement.” They should be seen as explorations of the delicate balance of individuality and community needed to create a democracy of vision.
In this sense, Jordan’s paintings must be considered as paintings of their time. For if, on first viewing, the Mosaic Paintings appear to present a cacophony of individual voices – each shape jostling for dominance – slowly, under Jordan’s skilful hand, they unite beautifully. The artist presents the cacophony of community: a dynamic harmony forged from many voices, as in musical counterpoint. Unlike the Daedalus series, where individuality was bound by the tyranny of the frame, in the Mosaic paintings the picture plane is burst open, threatening the unity of the image. However, under Jordan’s direction, a profuse joy emerges from this confusion. From the many unfettered voices comes a vision not of tyrannically bound unity, but of participatory community.
Jordan’s Mosaic Paintings are extraordinarily complex works, and they do not attempt to suggest that this sense of unity is easily achieved. In a world in which ethnic tensions and religious extremism threaten the stability of communities around the world, these paintings recognise the grand complexity of our epoch. Jordan’s paintings ask us to visualise the hardest paradox of all: how a seemingly chaotic jumble of individual entities can combine to make a world of poetry and beauty.