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Striving for the Divine

March, 2014 for Artvoices

And how would such incomparable beauty not move us, seeing its beautiful face like unto perfect glass through which rays of Divinity were shining?-Sor Juana de la Cruz, Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Reply to Sister Philotea)

What is holy? And how do you express it? For thousands of years there has been an irreparable connection between art and religion. Lou Jordan, a lay member of the Dominican order and a dedicated artist, paints expressions of her spirituality and love for the world in large, abstract paintings. Her work, while being an expression of her spirituality, is also a document of a lifetime of thought on religion. The evolution of her work exemplifies the struggle to express the divine.

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Lou JordanLou Jordan was born in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1938. As many women of that era, Jordan put her artistic career on hold when she married her high school sweetheart and raised four children. While Jordan knew her whole life she was an artist, she found herself having to feed four mouths on $9,000 a year after divorcing in 1976. “I wasn’t really waiting until later to pursue an art career — there were things that had to be taken care of first,” she said. “My art was waiting for me!”

Jordan moved to New Orleans, Louisiana in 1995 and there, with all her children grown and a new marriage, started painting full time. It was also in New Orleans that Jordan completed her five years of training in the Dominican order to become a lay member. During this training, one must study, contemplate, and then preach.

“This was what drew me to the Dominicans,” she says. “And this is what I feel is my life — the fruits of my contemplation are my paintings.”

Jordan is trained as a watercolorist. Her early work is a series of landscapes, lush with color. Many of these scenes are painted outside, on the bayou, near Jordan’s home. These landscapes look like images from a postcard; the trees droop sleepily and the water reflects perfectly. For what could be a greater appreciation of god than capturing the beauty of the natural world?

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Lou JordanHowever, in 2005, the natural world turned wicked, and Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the environment she loved. It was at this moment that a spiritual evolution in Jordan’s work emerges. Her paintings turn abstract and watery. Colors grow dense and ecstatic. Jordan says her large paintings depict “semi-abstractions of memories and metaphors: bridges, cities, the cracks between dimensions, towers, a sense of space and timelessness, and that which is beyond.” Each abstract pulses like a heartbeat. Recalling Vija Celmins’s work, Jordan’s acrylic on yupo suggest a much bigger whole, by seeing grandeur in the span of a small space.

In Jordan’s most recent series, Inspired Reveries; alcohol inks on Yupo, one can see that she maintains a rigorous formality while being quietly transcendental and materially sumptuous. In Rocks #1, swaths of starry skies seem to have fallen to earth to live among the red, red rock of the Southwest desert. Heaven and earth seem to mingle for one explosive moment. The organic lines lean toward each other, suggesting a gathering pressure or explosive moment. Jordan is the first to say that composition is the skeleton of her work: “If you try to do a good painting, and to create something that resonates, you have to have a wonderful composition.”

In Tidepool 1, liquid layers converge into veils of swelling colors, spotted and marked with small details that suggest atoms or stars colliding. Up close they have luscious, satiny surfaces that pull the viewer in and out like undulating waves. Colors expand and detract tonally like the Pillars of Creation, the famous photo taken by NASA of the Eagle Nebula. These works live five thousand miles away from earth, far from the destruction of earth.

The only drawback to Jordan’s work is that it does feel like it’s made five thousand miles from earth. Jordan lacks the material and professional ambitions that many other professional artists have. And while that is refreshing, it also leaves one wanting a greater ambition in scale. If Jordan showed in galleries that challenged her work, her paintings would expand into something sublime.

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Lou JordanWhen asked what excites her, Jordan replied: “I’m absolutely blown away by the beauty of the world. And I’m a very spiritual person, so to me, its an expression of the love of god. And it is the most fun thing I can imagine, to work with color, line, and shape, and to bring something forth that would delight someone and that would open up new ways of looking at the world.”

Jordan’s lifetime of work is enthralling. It embodies the poetics of existence — the progression of time, a lifetime of wars, family, destruction, god, and creation are all a part of it. To strive for the divine is an admirable and foolish thing. In the end, we are humans, full of blunder and error. Jordan navigates this path humbly. Perhaps, in the end, the greatest act of beauty and piety is to live a life of beautiful creation.

 

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