During the period of lockdown, we became acquainted with a world that could easily appear alien to us. Desolate, isolated, quiet and calm. Where once was an abundance of life now lay dormant. It was ghostly, surreal and imbued every trip out of the house with a sense of impending apocalyptic doom. Jen Orpin perfectly encapsulates these feelings in her paintings.
Graduating from Manchester Metropolitan in 1996, Orpin has since become a significant figure in the city’s thriving art scene, her paintings all tinted with a northern perspective. A bit of gloom, a slightly overcast sky. All very concrete, glass and urban. That is life in Manchester, a city that has largely defied the trends of globalisations homogenising tendrils by digging its heels in and saying ,’nah, not here, mate’.
There are, of course, signs of change. The motorways and the high-rise buildings are all symptomatic of a world rapidly in flux - where people are packed into offices and cars drive bumper to bumper to get there on time. A contemporary landscape painter, Orpin has concerned herself with the philosophical and almost spiritual relevance of these places - so endowed with great meaning in our lives as to have replaced religion in most places.
Urban existence is rife for capture, but it can just as easily be overcooked, hamming up the grimness of it all a bit too much. Orpin kind of swerves the trap and instead adds a melancholic romance to the streets that she captures. There is a sense of duality there. The roughness of the canvas shines through her delicate oil strokes, creating a sort of dissonance between the objective and subjective notions of beauty in unexpected places.
When we think of oil paintings, especially within landscape, our minds almost always default to the pastoral and natural. Rarely do we think of the exceptions to the rule like fellow Mancunian L. S. Lowry or his American contemporary Edward Hopper. Still, these artists, like Orpin, faithfully reproduced the world that they knew.
One of the most striking aspects of her work is the emptiness. She is very much painting the landscape in the same way that one would in nature, without anyone or anything around. Only, these aren’t bushy forested walkways, but motorway bridges and dual carriageways, completely devoid of life beyond that which she offers the painting through her artistic interpretation.
Due to the pandemic, her paintings have now become recognisable, something that we can oddly relate to. Large empty places that before, were inconceivable to have ever been seen in that way. As broad and accessible as Orpin’s source material is, it has a deeply symbolic and personal meaning for her. The roads are ones she has travelled well, visiting her father in a Surrey hospital. Perhaps if there’s anything we should take from these images, it’s that all roads have a story and that they all lead somewhere.
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