- figure ground: paintings and drawings of Ivan Eyre
figure ground is a slim coffee-table volume too wide to read on public transit (unless the seat beside you is empty). It offers the casual, comfortably seated reader three different speeds of study: fast, medium, and slow. A quick scan reveals many colour reproductions divided into 'paintings' and 'works on paper,' organized chronologically to provide a very satisfying [End Page 597] overview of Eyre's artistic evolution. The artist turned a full circle from the heavy quixotic narratives of his early work, through a landscape calm of his most signature prairie paintings, to his recent psychoanalytic explorations of identity in space and time. The catalogue successfully recaptures the exhibition's retrospective intent: we see Eyre's breadth and depth of visual exploration.
A few extra minutes of perusal inevitably leads to the poems by Dennis Cooley juxtaposed with selected images drawn from various periods of Eyre's career. The poems invite extended musing over the form and content of Eyre's compositions. Visual art and poetry are here well matched if frustratingly unexplained: the poems are undated and Cooley remains a mystery (a quick Google search revealed he is a professor of English at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg). The pairing of Eyre and Cooley begs discussion somewhere – if only in the acknowledgments.
Finally, we are left with the catalogue essays. Here's where Amy Karlinsky (the guest curator of the exhibition) and Mary Reid (the Winnipeg Art Gallery's curator of contemporary art) faced their greatest challenge. Public art galleries in Canada troubleshoot the balance of the local, national, and international interests (in terms of whose art they exhibit and whom they attract as visitors) in distinct ways. The Winnipeg Art Gallery should be applauded for their loyalty to local talent and, by extension, their local audience, but they risk repetition in this exhibition. As stated in the preface, '[t]he Winnipeg Art Gallery has featured the art of Ivan Eyre at every stage of his career,' including four solo exhibitions organized between 1964 and 1988. In 2005, what's left to say about Eyre's work?
A quick library search turns up at least five relatively substantial books and catalogues on Ivan Eyre. In 1981 the poet and literary critic George Woodcock (himself born in Winnipeg) focused on the artist's work of the 1970s – the decade during which Eyre's place in the canon of Canadian art was cemented. Woodcock sets Eyre apart as an artistic island (à la Emily Carr and David Milne) whose autobiographical visual poetry spans the 'epic to elegiac.' He credits Joan Murray for her apt description of the artist (in a 1980 exhibition) as a 'visual philosopher.'
Terrence Heath's catalogue, Personal Mythologies/Images of the Milieu. Ivan Eyre. Figurative Paintings, 1957–1988 (1988), brackets Eyre's painting of the 1970s with work of the 1960s and 1980s. The focus is the artist's idiosyncratic preoccupation with his own psyche. 'He speaks,' writes Heath – who was the director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery from 1983 to 1985 – 'in a visual mythic language which the verbal can only circle and allude to.' Heath's visual analyses are detailed as he attempts to relate form (that is compositional design) to the mythic content of Eyre's artistic 'reconciliation between reality and men.'
Eyre's 'preternatural' yet mnemonic images of place are repeatedly described in the literature as poetic autobiography. In Masks and Shadows: [End Page 598] The Art of Ivan Eyre (1996), James D. Campbell boldly reiterates: 'Eyre has sought to construct out of his own embodied imagination an epic mythology of the life-world.' Neither Amy Karlinsky nor Mary Reid disturbs these sacrosanct parameters of discussion, but they do demystify Eyre's discourse by focusing on the basic question of a play (both formal and thematic) between figure and ground. Eyre's work, we discover, is most potent when the figure threatens to become ground, 'imbricated together like form and content, two sides of the same coin.' We...