Jordan Marani 'Autobiography', catalogue essay by Laura Couttie
Jordan Marani is unabashed about mining his personal history and putting it on display as art. Throughout a practice that spans almost thirty years, Jordan has created his own visual language, with recurring characters, motifs and words. Taking inspiration from his experiences of suburban life and his family, as well as popular culture, cars, television, booze, football, politics and the art world, Jordan is known for making sincere and wryly cynical works that are wrapped in a good layer of Aussie larrikin humour. Kurt Vonnegut wrote in A Man Without Country (2005) that “Humor is a way of holding off how awful life can be, to protect yourself.” This may be true for Jordan, but in the new, intensely personal body of work featured in Autobiography, the humour takes a backseat to a more upfront exploration of self, family and loss.
Jordan proudly hails from the outer-suburbs of Melbourne; the youngest son of an Italian father and Australian mother. His parents owned the Hi-Way Snack Bar in Clayton North, located in front of the Atkinson Truck Yard, and the family lived above the store. Growing up in 1970s Australia, owning a car was a rite-of-passage into adulthood – an entrance into the sought after ‘Australian Dream’. Jordan notes that for first-generation Australians, the purchase of a car represented a proud migrant moment. The Ford and Holden car brands were quintessentially Australian, resonating with, and celebrating, the white working class. A 1970s ad for Holden cars aligned car ownership with Australian identity using the catchy jingle: “We love football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars”. For young men growing up in the suburbs, cars represented freedom and adulthood. Images of cars on the wide open road in films, TV, literature and advertisements romanticised the idea that a set of wheels was a marker of mobility and masculinity. A man’s car was an extension of him and integral to his identity and sense of self. It is interesting to note that Jordan didn’t get a driver’s licence until his 40s, but his older brothers kept a constantly revolving fleet of cars in the yard, in various states of (dis)repair, so cars have always played a significant role in his life.
Cars have been a recurring motif throughout Jordan’s practice, and in these works, specific vehicles function as memory triggers for pivotal moments in Jordan’s childhood and early adulthood. Members of his family are represented, depicted as television characters or more abstract motifs. Dogs also recur throughout Jordan’s work. As a child his family pet was a black dog called ‘Trigger’, a sardonic joke perhaps about the metaphor often used for depression. The ‘Old Hag’ appears in the form of a skull, a superstitious omen of death or evil presence. A house on fire was Jordan’s family home. The use of black and white is suggestive of memory, as though these moments are replaying on an old black and white television. But also the stripes, like bars in a jail cell, suggest that we are prisoners of our memory. Or they could be in reference to the Collingwood Magpies, the football team that Jordan’s mum followed. There are personal stories to each of these pieces. But like many of Jordan’s works, numerous and layered references exist, allowing interpretations and appreciation on various levels.
In the largest work in the exhibition, which also shares the title ‘Autobiography’ (2018), motor vehicles from Jordan’s life emerge as ghostly apparitions. An Atkinson truck from a childhood spent playing in the truckyards, and a fleet of cars belonging to his dad, brothers and girlfriends. Assembled in head-on formation, these vehicles are lined up chronologically from left to right, laying the framework for an account of Jordan’s life. You can almost hear the voice-over saying: “Jordan Marani, these are the cars of your life.” Jordan has made many self portraits over the years, including ‘Self-portrait (hanging around)’ (1989), ‘Self-portrait (night sky)’ (1989), ‘Sniffles’ (1990), ‘Self portrait as Stubby’ (1990), and ‘Self Portrait with Monobrow’ (2008). The most recent in this ongoing exploration, ‘Self Portrait, Jordan’ (2018), uses the letters from his name as the compositional background – continuing his play with text and lettering – and imagery which references some of his key memory triggers.
A residency in Leipzig, Germany in 2017 marked a shift in practice for Jordan. It was during this time that he started making a series of collages on board, which have become preparatory works for these large-scale paintings on poly-cotton. In a formal sense, the reduced palette of primary colours and use of two-dimensional geometric shapes is a way of simplifying and getting back to basics. A reference to childhood, but also to Malevich’s Suprematism movement, and to Cézanne’s approach to creating order in nature through envisaging forms in their simplest geometric state: the cylinder, sphere and cone. The process of wet on wet paint allows the images to bleed, symbolic of memory bleed and the way that our memories warp and change over time. Jordan embraces roughness and imperfection, following the wisdom that to err is human. In recent years Jordan has begun working with specialists, outsourcing labour for specific processes. He is enjoying the experience of working with others and the possibility for what he calls “happy mistakes”. This also coincides with a move towards works that are more ambitious in scale.
Although referencing universal themes, Jordan does not offer a critique nor a celebration. His work is instead a personal reflection and way of working through his own experiences – a form of therapy (without the high price tag). And while Jordan’s artwork has always been autobiographical, this latest body of work may be his most mature and revealing to date.