Jordan Clark: The painter’s spaces, inside and out

A new set of paintings by Jordan Clark reflect the painter's deep sense of space

By PAUL MAZIAR

There are eight new Jordan Clark paintings in oil and flashe on view at Stumptown on Southeast Belmont. The exhibition, titled abridge, a breeze, comprises all abstract works — seven on paper and one on unprimed canvas. All of Clark’s pictures are full of life—especially this show of new, brightly-colored work—but they don’t bear any of the typical realism that you might expect from something inspired by life.

Jordan Clark, “breeze”,
16×20”, acrylic, flashe, spray paint on paper

I talked with Jordan about his artistic practice and some of his affinities over a couple of pints at a local watering hole. The conversation lasted a couple of hours and, after being transcribed, took up nine typewritten pages. You could say our meeting was congenial, a good time. Having talked with Jordan, it seems clear that despite the supreme effort it apparently takes an artist to cultivate and keep up such prolific work, these things are a byproduct of lived experience. They occur in a continuously balanced cycle of work and play, thought and action, solitude and interaction.

First meeting

The first Clark painting I ever saw, if I remember it right, was actually his entire studio (employed as canvas) during his last year of the MFA program at Portland State University. He was the teaching assistant for a drawing concepts class that I took during my senior year at PSU, and he’d invited the class to his workspace to show us his thesis project.

I remember that some of the colors in that room were ones I’d never seen before, and that the entire room was captivating, overwhelming, crawling with art that hung from every surface of the studio—no, the whole space was the art itself. All kinds of things—stacked frames, roller pins, books, lamps, balls, tubes, tarps, buckets and ropes, all manner of ephemera—were painted or drawn on and imaginatively arranged. It was just fun, free, restlessly creative, no feeling of hierarchy whatever.

Jordan Clark, the studio as a painting

Until that point, Jordan had scarcely said a single word in class, but would rush up to each of us and help mixing paint. He’d come up with these marvelous hues for everyone and hop around the room that way, in quiet thrill, lending insight here and there. During that visit, he shared pages from his drafting notebook. One in particular was the fragment of a scene that he told us was made while riding the bus; it was the curvature of the bus driver’s shoulder and steering wheel framed by the large front bus window. But the way that he rendered and recontextualized it, the original scene was nowhere to be found but in his memory—and then in our imaginations.

Logic logic

When I mention that his artful odds-and-ends were “arranged,” up there, I don’t mean “designed” at all. Although he’s had his training, Clark opts most often for a lack of control. “Have you ever tried painting, drawing with your left hand or with a stick or a big, blunt object?” he asked me. “Like Matisse, when he was really old he would draw with these huge, five-foot long dowels. I think there’s something to that intervention, having a lack of control. I have no interest in knowing exactly how it’s going to turn out.”

On the other hand, he’s not one-note when it comes to these things. “Charlene von Heyl, an abstract painter, says something to the effect that ‘painting and design are so close, but painting goes just beyond.’ And I don’t know if that’s about finding a place where you lose yourself, or lose that logic logic.”

Clark’s abridge, a breeze paintings at Stumptown attract as flat things—objects nailed upon the cafe wall. Then again, awareness turns back to one’s own physicality, standing in front of patrons and craning to get a better look at the paintings. This Stumptown location is small, bustling, and five of its tables line the wall on which many of the paintings hang.

Looking closely at Clark’s paintings is in order, as ever. From afar or at a glance, they’re readily pleasing enough (while avoiding the “décor” stamp), but examination reveals the paintings’ intricacies, connections, Clark’s own attentions. The fact of this apparently wild paint applied to taut planes is enough to stir imagination. In Jordan’s case, the marks are intentional, in part, but are from a situation of strained poise and theoretical depth, so they emerge convulsively, on-the-spot.

Madden

In this, they’re in response to what’s happening to him physically, often spatially. His work is made by way of deliberate positions and rigorous movements that he performs in order to invent new situations, contexts, perspectives in his paintings. Some of his sources turn out to be video games (old Nintendo Madden), sports (soccer, mainly), and public transit (buses, trains, and his own cross-country jaunt on Amtrak).

Jordan Clark, “counter/meeting”,
16×20”, oil, acrylic, flashe on paper

New experience

“I think all different ways to physically interact are important: standing above or walking all around a painting, then seeing it on the wall. Changing my relation to the composition is a big part of my practice. Sometimes when I’m painting, I’m in a crouched position that’s actually painful. But I enjoy what it makes my body do. I’ll be in some cramped position and will have to force a line in agony, and I enjoy that; it feels like I’m creating some type of new experience. Sometimes I’m responding to something but not knowing why, and that’s also very generative to me.”

He explained his attraction to “things that you can’t always predict,” and his interest in trajectories, and the path something—a ball, a bullet, or, say, water from a squirtgun—will take from A to B. “I think about the zig and zag, the dotted line of the pass; where the players are going in relation to the ball and where they’ll meet, where they won’t. It’s kinda like seeing something before it happens, but there’s only chance and then consequence.”

Material interaction

Clark’s notion that we’re not dealing with good old “illusionistic perspectival space” rings true, and he develops this suggestive claim throughout our talk. But, as it turns out, his work’s also really not as simple as that. He described to me his ongoing intention to create “a different type of material space that can happen when combining a wider range of mark-making,” explaining that “something happens to a matte finish in comparison to a glossy one, and then compared to a wash—new relationships are developed. Now those marks, sitting on a flat plane, aren’t trying to fool anyone into looking into a window. It is what it is. The materials are there, on this flat plane. I try to distinguish a material interaction with this kind of space.”

When all of this is achieved, as it turns out in abridge, a breeze, what’s optical leads to correspondences between forms and spaces that tell a different kind of story. To me, that story is full of the things with which the painter is concerned.

Fragments

On the surfaces of Jordan’s finished paintings, juxtapositions are made between the materials upon the surfaces, and to the surfaces themselves. His handling of paint moves between shiny and matte; it’s often stacked and mingled in layers, near to other areas that are spacious, more isolated due in part to a chosen wash. Despite intention, the abstract painting doesn’t always look flat. In some of Jordan’s pictures, flat “plane” actually appears also like an aerial view of a field, a topsy-turvy landscape.

I don’t know if this impression is due to my own foreknowledge of Clark’s interest in sports, but it seems to have led to some truth (more below). But the forms are still tenuous, abstract—again, fragments re-imagined of things he’s seen—set along lines that sometimes sprint or else have a trajectory, or don’t. It’s hard for me to decipher how all this happens; I’m not a painter. But to my mind, Jordan makes specifically physical, spatial associations as opposed to cosmetic ones, and in this his paintings resonate in surprising ways.

Jordan Clark, “pyramid/myriad”,
16×20”, acrylic, flashe on paper


Shape,space

As far as re-contextualizing goes, Jordan explained to me, “I don’t think I’m doing that as deliberately [as before]. I’m still drawing things from the bus and places like that, but I’m letting things manifest instead of trying to control so much. The process changed sometime last year but I still draw these forms. For instance, while on the bus I draw those rounded window corners or the organic contour of someone’s sweatshirt, or the body language of someone being slumped over. Shape.
I try to find some muscle memory to return to, bringing that into the studio. I’m always examining architectural spaces: there are all these squares in front of squares, and then there are planes with rectangles in the middle. I’m always finding shapes.”

We talked about the way that, in skateboarding, you evaluate a landscape as one bigger thing that has all these constituent parts in proximity. And in Clark’s case, it’s often forms and spaces relative to the game of soccer. The fact that Jordan is often on a field (his routine involves regular soccer games and practices), there’s a clear sense of those spaces and actions in his paintings: “Spatial awareness. My work is about spaces closing in and spaces opening up, and what that does [to me]. You’ve seen static on a television, well there’s something about that that intrigues me. What type of space is that?”

Games

“There’s a relationship to soccer and playing these smaller games on smaller fields; you have less time to react, people are closing in on you compared to having a large field and having more time and space to deal with the ball or the defender or whatever. It’s so much easier, more manageable when the anxiety of having people in your face is gone. I compare it to being in Downtown Portland or Southeast instead of far North, where you have more space to breathe.”

Letting it all out

When the subject of art and politics came up, he told me that during his last semester of his MFA studies, “we talked about what we should do. What should you do as an artist during this time? In the studio, I’ve been letting it all come out. Now, I think it’s important to be an artist. Art in a way, from certain people, has great monetary value, but by not completely buying into the capitalist machine, by not actively participating in it, you can be just as powerful. It’s a protest. And with art, just like protesting, you’re not going to get the immediate effect.”

Jordan Clark, “commute”,
16×20”, oil, acrylic, flashe on paper

Unexpected

We talked a little about Matisse and the trend in contemporary art to latch onto the artist’s more decorative tropes (my criticism) in terms of thinking critically about your work and the others around you. Jordan talked about his affinity for “the unexpected” in Matisse’s less conventional work. He told me he’s “into the kind of painting that assesses ‘what are we looking at?’ instead of ‘oh yeah, that’s an odalisque reclining’,” and he went on to add that, “going from the observed, and breaking from the past, I try to think about the painting on its own terms instead of what it should be. Maybe that’s where painting goes beyond design [returning to von Hayle’s idea].”

Inside and outside

When Jordan talked about artists that he admires, it was without the gold-standard hyperbole, as if they’re geniuses that are going to change the world. Rather, he talked about them as part of lineages. For Clark, they’re actual people doing good work that responds, in one way or another, to the world, bringing to light realities within. When he talked about spaces, it was with a similar keenness to his formal insights and theoretical epiphanies. His memories of moving from the Midwest to Portland on the train were particularly remarkable.

“Madison, Wisconsin. That’s the type of space that gets me. Point A to Point B, you know? There’s the functional aspect; you have a place to rest your head and there’s a luxury in having all those giant windows to look out of. That trip was very inspirational to me; I had never traveled on the ground across America like that. The way the horizon changes, the different foliage and plants, the type of culture going from the Midwest to these desolate places with ranchers and abandoned ghost towns in South Dakota and Montana. In Montana the sky does just open up and become HUGE. I always heard people talk about Big Sky and all that and I didn’t know what they meant. And I don’t know how that happens. Maybe it’s not having references, like the forest. As the horizon line extends, the sky grows larger, becomes more than just the atmosphere above you.”

NOTES

Jordan Clark is from Madison, Wisconsin. He got his BFA at University of Wisconsin-Stout, before coming to Portland via Amtrak on a cross-country move to undergo the MFA in Portland State University’s Art Practices program, which he completed in 2017. Soccer, moving in transit, and the hazy Northwest landscape are among some of the things that inform his thinking and his work of late. abridge, a breeze is on view through September 27 at Stumptown, 3356 Southeast Belmont in Portland.

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