These times insist upon a life lived at motorway speed, endlessly jostling to overtake, the impressions of only a minute ago a pinprick in the rear view mirror. Acceleration leaves memory a blur, surrendering experience to the urgency of now.
In common with her earlier series of works from the fast lanes of the nation’s M roads, this impressive fresh collection from Jen Orpin takes the brakes off in order to take things in, allowing the concrete of recollection the time in which to set.
While, in common with their predecessors, her new paintings remain devoid of the human presence, in some of them at least the natural world has been allowed to encroach. In Forton Flock, a not-quite-murmuration of indistinct birds wheel around the service station tower, like pen marks scratched into the dusk of an ink-blue sky. By way of contrast, in the Shadow Postcards sunlight itself is the pointillist painter, dappling the featureless canvas of concrete with the shifting shadow-work of trees.
The date-stamped traces of graffiti mark a different kind of encroachment, the artless tags seeming to force their way up through the cracks in the roadside infrastructure with the wilfulness of weeds. Like a diary written in cypher, they narrate a local history in telegraphic bursts fated to be painted over or faded by the weather. From a certain perspective, Lurid Helch is Shelley’s Ozymandias at the velocity of a 24-hour news cycle, the tagger’s impending obscurity every bit as certain as yesterday.
Orpin’s new works branch off from the trunk of their forebears, too, by focusing sometimes on the part, rather than the whole. The Shadow Postcards take this approach, as does the aptly-title Slice, affording an appreciation of why concrete has become a synonym for certainty by contrasting it with the more tentative grasses carpeting the bank leading up to it.
Although there is a continuity with older paintings in works such as Summer Snowhill, in which a bridge seems to take a scalpel to the sky, at times it feels as though she is challenging herself, as well as her viewer, to continue look at things anew. A tetraptych of landscapes in portrait orientation forces a new perspective on the geometries of the utilitarian, particularly the restrained elegance of the upwardly rising curve in Sky High. It’s a means, perhaps, to the end of avoiding complacency, resisting the tendency to ‘skim-read’ the works out of a false sense of over-familiarity.
Working on a smaller scale appears to afford Orpin the license to turn up the brightness, a liberty taken to great effect in her postcard series. Lit with the June glare of their conventional Bamforth counterparts, Postcards From The Dash are souvenir snaps of the prosaic, their structures lacking the charisma of the picturesque, but landmarks nonetheless in other people’s internal geographies. They hang, tongue-in-cheek above monochrome ephemera from the heyday of the service station, when the likes of the M6 were the country’s down-to-earth super highways, the kind of actual postcards that Martin Parr would curate as ‘boring’.
Although the navy blues of evening intrude from time to time, it seems as though, for now, Orpin’s night-driving paintings have been parked up on the hard shoulder. At the opening of the exhibition, at least, none of them had been hung. Perhaps they remain a journey to be taken at another time? It would be a shame to think they were a way whose closure is now permanent.
For now, however, the daylight reveals much worth stopping to admire. The barbed pop group Black Box Recorder once sang, with deadpan ambiguity, that “the English motorway system is beautiful and strange”. This new set of work from Orpin, and in particular the almost endless inventiveness of her approach, proves the assertion far truer, perhaps, than they intended.
Main image: Slice, oil on canvas, by Jen Orpin. Used with permission from the artist.
The Journey Continues by Jen Orpin is at Saul Hay Gallery in Manchester until March 26, 2023 For more information, please click here.
To read Desmond Bullen’s interview with Jen Orpin, please click here.