The artist Jen Orpin captures moments, the ones you might imagine have left no impression, but, when glimpsed in the rear view mirror, can nonetheless bring you up short. Her motorway paintings freeze the frame on the drive from here to there, reminding you that, as you accelerate towards your destination, you are always leaving something else behind.
Although deep in preparation for her forthcoming solo show at Manchester’s Saul Hay Gallery, opening on March 4, 2023, Orpin set some time aside for an interview with Northern Soul – a curtain-raiser for what promises to be a captivating introduction to her newest work. She is, it turns out, an articulate and engaging interviewee, with a thoughtfulness and candour that echoes in words the expression of the same qualities in her paintings.
It seems natural to ask about the landscapes that make up much of her recent work, the clear motorways in which the infrastructure, devoid of human presence, nonetheless seems potent with emotion. Do any such landmarks have significance for Orpin, I wonder?
“Yes, definitely, one in particular,” she says. “It was the last bridge I drove under on the journey to see my father, following his stroke – the Lyne Railway Bridge that spans the M25 just before junction 12. That was my junction, and I knew that when I passed under it, I had ten minutes before I walked through the ICU doors, ten minutes to prepare myself.”
A sense of retrospective introspection, a sadness for what has been lost, often seems to pervade her pieces.
“I was dealing with the loss of my dad,” reflects Orpin, who is based in Manchester and is a Fine Art graduate from the city’s MMU. “Even though throughout those three months of travelling he was alive and in hospital, the stroke had taken him and I think that was so powerful, and evoked so many feelings on the journey – childhood memories, feelings of nostalgia, thoughts of things said and not said and time snatched away.”
Moreover, as Orpin affirms, the charge of his absence continues to inform her painting. “Often thinking about my dad when I’m at the easel creates and intensifies the emotional bridge to the work.”
It seems particularly important to her that this bridge extends outwards, to the audience responding to her art.
“It’s been amazing hearing about the stories and memories that come from people after they’ve seen the paintings. People from all over the world have contacted me to share their journeys of joy and heartache and making those connections has been such a lovely part of the process.”
The decision to strip away the human element from her compositions, which can, from a certain perspective, lend the pieces an almost hauntological eeriness, like scenes from the 1970s BBC children’s series The Changes, is a conscious artistic one.
“I guess the pandemic and lockdown cleared the roads, and at times they felt almost apocalyptic. For me, though, it’s all about inviting an intimacy between the painting and the viewer. The absence of human activity means the viewer connects with the painting on a more personal level, as they imagine only themselves on the journey.”
Beyond any personal connections, what draws her to a particular stretch of road?
“It’s about the structure, the curve of the bridge, the span of the road,” says Orpin. “If the bridge has writing, graffiti or interesting marks that make it stand out, this is very appealing to me. Sometimes the smallest or plainest of structures can have the greatest impact if they are covered in paint or writing, a little bit like a time stamp. It’s likely that the next time you drive under it, it may have been painted over or removed.”
On the cusp of unveiling it, my final question, of course, is one about Orpin’s new work. What can people expect at the show?
“I’m not planning to give up on the motorways. But you’ll see in the exhibition there’s some pieces where I’ve focused up close on the bridge structures and their supports which is creating a different kind of aesthetic. I’m drawn to the tension between light and dark, so I’d like to investigate these shadowy areas, and how they can affect the balance and mood of the work.”
It’s an intriguing prospect. As Orpin herself elaborates, “There are still many roads I’ve yet to travel, bridges to pass under, and journeys to make, so the thought of the undiscovered is exciting.”
To paraphrase Bette Davis in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be an enthralling night.”
Main image: Lurid Helch, oil on canvas, by Jen Orpin. Credit: Jen Orpin.
The Journey Continues, an exhibition of new paintings by Jen Orpin, opens at Manchester’s Saul Hay Gallery on March 4, 2023. For more information about Jen Orpin, her work, and where to view it click here.