Certain artists work steadily toward the centre of their darkest fascinations. The poet Sylvia Plath, for example, set her observational powers on her own mental breakdown. Though it made her feel perverse, photographer Diane Arbus focused on what she called “freaks” – people with physical differences. Erica Eyres, who lives in Glasgow, has something of the same resolve. Using video, ceramics or drawing, she targets what most of us try to avoid: social awkwardness, dysfunction, egotism, failure.
For a time in the 1970s, Eyres’ father was a studio portrait photographer. In a recent suite of drawings, Eyres recreated many of his photographs in graphite, imbuing them with a strangely fixating power. Meeting the gaze of Eyres’ teenage loners or older women trying to look sexy is an encounter with loneliness. There can be terrible gaps, after all, between how we wish to be perceived and what people see. Thankfully, Eyres employs humour as a release valve. Young Man sports a feather-soft mullet that undermines his set jaw and flinty stare. Sandra, Sue and Janey each have impressive hair, tragically backcombed.
Erica Eyres, "Young Man", 2013
Erica Eyres, "Young Man", 2013, pencil on paper, 33.5” x 47.2”
Eyres’ drawings frequently employ pathos, hinting at terrible neuroses. But it’s in her performative videos that she is most explorative. Many borrow from shallow forms of popular culture: dating shows, soap operas and low-budget reality TV. Her characters wear schlocky makeup and bad wigs, and live in a world of cheap glam and trailer trash. While the Internet too uses such ‘lowlife’ fodder to generate tropes and memes (remember the popularity of Awkward Family Photos?), Eyres’ work is subtler, exposing our deepest and most unrelenting psychological drives. Her videos can be perversely comedic, but may also twinge a sensitive nerve.
Argos Hand, a six-minute video collaboration with friend and fellow artist Sigga Bjorg Sigurdardottir, is a masterpiece of synecdoche, a literary device in which a part is used to represent a whole. The video shows only the hairy, scaly fingers of a monster flipping slowly through the pages of a mail-order jewelry catalogue. We can’t see her face, but we can detect a powerful vulnerability in the way she pores over each heart shaped pendant. And, in a sleight of hand with point of view, Eyres puts us in the monster’s chair. We can’t see the beast because we are the beast, hideous, yet yearning for impossible beauty.
Eyres was born in 1980, and earned a BFA at the University of Manitoba before moving to Scotland for her Master’s degree at the Glasgow School of Art. She has exhibited widely, with solo exhibitions at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow and the Kunsthaus in Erfurt, Germany. This fall, she returns to her native Winnipeg for her show, Holidays in the Future, at Lisa Kehler Art and Projects from Sept. 5 to Oct. 10, where she will show a new video, Clay Head.
It again depicts a pair of hands, well manicured this time, pushing wet clay onto a Styrofoam mannequin head. As the clay is sculpted into a large nose, the narrator shares a memory. She was a child actor given a coveted role for her ability to endure the arduous application of make-up and prosthetics. “My head was completely mummified,” she recalls. “I sat motionless for hours, engulfed in darkness and silence.” In a harrowing scene, eyeholes are gouged out of the foam and glass eyes are pushed in. The narrator intones: “Because of my age, I was handled with great delicacy.”
By the end, it’s hard to be sure what is real. A child, cast in the re-make of an original show, is grotesquely fictionalized. Her story though, is undone by a trajectory that moves in the opposite direction; an artifice is given life. Disguise, charade and behind-the-scenes confessionals converge into a heartbreaking and convoluted psychodrama.
Essentially, Eyres’ work tackles pretense and the myriad of ‘selves,’ both public and private, that we, in our media-obsessed culture, constantly subject to surveillance and scrutiny. She claims her practice is not intentionally influenced by ideology. Her work is not overt enough to be read purely as cultural critique. It wouldn’t get under the skin the way it does if it was. Rather, it’s almost like contemporary fairy tales, where menace and threat lurk inside a pathetic anti-hero – natural territory, perhaps, for an artist whose mother is a psychiatric nurse and whose father was a child psychologist.
Eyres is one of Winnipeg’s most interesting exports. Her latest drawings, also part of the show, are based on images from 1970’s men’s magazines. They are more spare and refined than her portraits. There’s Mike, a bit of a nerd, who appeared in a magazine section called “One for the Ladies.” He reclines, spread-eagled, his genitals flopped to one side. The two young friends in Women were copied from a nudist magazine of the same era. Their bright smiles betray not a hint of embarrassment over the fact that their downy pubic hair is on display for all to see. In another drawing, a group of flabby middle-agers prove that nude bowling is quite possible, although shoes, of course, are necessary. “The drawings depict people doing very mundane activities, as if they want to show off how normal they are despite being naked,” Eyres says.
Erica Eyres, "Bowling", 2015,
Erica Eyres, "Bowling", 2015, pencil on paper 11.4" x 16.5"
Eyres is interested in photographs from the pre-digital era. “They have a distinct awkwardness,” she says, “but simultaneously lack the self-conscious, staged quality of the modern selfie.” These new drawings have a distinct lack of guise, and since some of the source material is actually soft porn, an ironic innocence. They may not possess the same weird appeal of her earlier portraits, but are intriguing in their own right. They feel weightless, freed from the layers of pretense we are used to seeing in glossy images. Contoured with a minimum of lines, Eyres’ nudists would float off the page if they weren’t so well anchored by their skilfully drawn idiosyncrasies and the small dark forests between their legs.
But her drawings are not so quirky or light-hearted when you understand their darker context. Such innocence is no longer possible. We are too busy posing for the mirrored camera, putting our best face forward while repeatedly deleting our worst, caught in our own painfully self-conscious pathologies.
By Sarah Swan