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Ivan Eyre, "Bearded Man," 1971, acrylic on canvas.
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Ivan Eyre, "Amber Rows," 1997, acrylic.
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Ivan Eyre, "Bearded Man," 1971, acrylic on canvas.
IVAN EYRE: A curator’s-eye view of this major retrospective at the WAG.
By Amy Karlinsky
Eyre is thief, inventor and bricoleur, combining the intensely observed with the wondrously imaginative...
figure ground: paintings and drawings of Ivan Eyre at The Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) surveys 50 years of the artist’s work. It features 40 paintings, over 80 drawings and prints, and a collection of still life constructions. The work has been drawn from over 25 private and public collections across Canada, including Western Canadian public collections such as the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, the University of Lethbridge Art Collection, the Edmonton Art Gallery, the Mackenzie Art Gallery, Gallery One One One, Pavilion Gallery Museum, the WAG collection and the Government of Manitoba art collection.
Ivan Eyre was born in Tullymet, Saskatchewan, in 1935. His early art teachers included Wynona Mulcaster, George Swinton, Ernest Lindner and Eli Bornstein, names familiar on the prairie scene. Eyre moved to Winnipeg, completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Manitoba, and married fellow art student Brenda Fenske in 1957. After post-graduate work in North Dakota, he returned to Canada to teach, becoming a full professor in 1976. Eyre taught for more than 30 years, influencing hundreds of students. Eyre’s talents as an image maker were recognized and championed early on. While a student, he exhibited at the WAG’s famous Winnipeg Shows. Since that time, Eyre has exhibited his work across North America and Europe, and has been included in significant Canadian collections. David Loch of Loch Gallery is his commercial dealer.
Given the number of publications, exhibition catalogues, and articles on Eyre, and the exuberant development of his imagery, the WAG exhibition has been a challenging show to put together. How best to represent half a century of an artist’s oeuvre? There have been exhibitions on Eyre’s figurative paintings, and exhibitions devoted to his drawings. Others have celebrated the acquisition of Eyre works into a specific collection. The last major exhibition on Eyre, curated by former WAG director and freelance curator Terrence Heath, traveled around the country in the late 1980s, becoming the first solo contemporary show to open at the new National Gallery in Ottawa. The current WAG show is the first survey to include drawing, painting, prints and still life constructions from 50 years of studio practice. The important role of drawing, in particular, has been emphasized. The artist has used drawings as a means of developing ideas and compositions for subsequent paintings. He has worked in drawing directly as a means to a final form. Earlier in his career he undertook a series of intuitive drawings that combine watercolour and graphite. The exhibition features these detailed and intimate drawings as well as large panoramic paintings.
Adding to the complexity of organizing an exhibition that spans 50 years is that Eyre’s work, unlike that of many other artists with a long studio practice, is dispersed across the country in private homes and galleries. Several works were not available to travel; some collectors could not part with their cherished pieces.
Needless to say, there have been various versions of the exhibition on the drawing table. Collaboration with the artist, the in-house expertise at the WAG, and the lenders was essential. The show began as a painting exhibition but quickly evolved to include drawing. The WAG’s new Curator of Contemporary Art and Photography, Mary Reid, managed the complexities behind the scenes. Such an exhibition presents the myriad sides of Eyre and will provide the viewer with an opportunity to make judgments about the scope of Eyre’s development. Survey shows are important records which can bring to light little known works or highlight certain relationships. Favourite works from the grey period of the late 1960s and surprising forays into photo-realism have been included.
The catalogue is a parallel creative endeavour. Mary Reid has written an essay on Eyre’s self portraits. Prairie poet and English professor Dennis Cooley, also born in Saskatchewan, was commissioned to write original poetry, while the curatorial essay covers the development of his work over time. The goal behind the catalogue’s structure was to open the work up for interpretation rather than reduce it through limiting categories.
Eyre’s sketches from the early 1960s show his careful observation and study after nature, a trait in evidence throughout the exhibition. Introduced to modernist concepts as a student, Eyre tried a diverse visual vocabulary that drew upon European and American models including Max Beckmann, Arshile Gorky, Pablo Picasso and others. His confident line and sense of composition are evident in his student work, at a time when abstraction attracted many local practitioners. Eyre examined the School of Paris, the morbidity of German expressionism and the bravado of the Abstract Expressionists. Yet, his iconography and sense of invention owes something to the rich prairie landscape and his singular insistence at following his creative imagination.
In this exhibition, luscious oils of the 1960s give way to large-scale acrylic paintings, including landscapes and figurative works. The exhibition allows the viewer to trace Eyre’s movement and maturation — introducing, to a new generation, the panoramic landscapes, the urban dystopias, and the joyous elaborations of dancers and nudes. Eyre is thief, inventor and bricoleur, combining the intensely observed with the wondrously imaginative, using whatever technical means or stylistic currency necessary. Pop, photo-realism, surrealism and the hyper-imaginary all make appearances. Straddling the modernist/postmodernist divide, style in Eyre’s work is not a dogma, but a solution to formal and conceptual problems.
Eyre’s exploration of the visual tradition of Western painting and drawing, characterized by the modern-day history painting, portraiture, landscape, still life, and the nude is highly original. What is exceptional is the centrality and insistence of those themes that once made art the repository for our deepest sensibilities — themes like love and beauty, sex and death, war, existence and meaning. Such high seriousness, underpinned by the virtuosity that comes with half a century of sustained studio practice is tempered, too, by a magnifico’s tomfoolery. Ivan Eyre at 70 is a master, one perhaps, with more interrogations than answers.
Amy Karlinsky is freelance curator of the Ivan Eyre exhibition.