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Nancy Tousley

Ivan Eyre
Mira Godard Gallery, Calgary, October 26 - November 17 1979

artscanada #232 / 233, December 1979 / January 1980.
[ 863 words ]


One of the most striking aspects of Ivan Eyre's paintings is the feeling they transmit of containment and control. All of Eyre's subjects are inward — rather than outward — looking. His colour, although often intense, is kept in a low key. The only movement in the paintings is the slow, paced movement of large compositional forms. Every element in Eyre's compositions seems deliberately placed and ordered to omit the spontaneous gesture.

Eyre's introspective vision captures the microcosm he has fashioned in a moment of suspended animation. Winter, or the edge of winter, seems a constant season; the air cold and clear under a grayed sky. The stillness of the environment is like that of a body holding its breath. Under the surface lies a tension awaiting release. This atmosphere, felt as an inner condition, seems to express the sensibility of a northern country.

Eyre's new paintings divide as before into two kinds: tapestry-like landscapes and more abstracted paintings that can be read as interiors with still-life elements. In the latter, flat contoured planes of colour are opened to reveal a landscape beyond. If we read the interiors as indicators of a private interior vision, then we must also read the exterior tapestry-like landscape as a version of reality filtered through personal sensibilities.

For Eyre, there is no one objective reality. To him, all of his work is abstraction. Its ambiguous tensions are deliberate: 'I control the whole thing but I don't let myself absolutely know it. Mystery is still put in, invited into it. I play down certain things to maintain mystery.'

His landscapes are Eyre's most authoritative expression of this ambiguity. Reflections of memory rather than specific places, they are tightly composed and drawn. The basic structures are large, simple, interlocking coloured shapes over which a multitude of detail is applied. As much a draftsman as a painter, Eyre accumulates the small shaped marks that define leaves, tree trunks, branches, deadfall, grasses or rippled water in a kind of coloured drawing. Each mark is attentive to outline and specific shape. No area is overlooked; the surface is dense with visual incident. Colour broken into particles falls into overall patterns across the canvas.

Space in the landscapes is compressed, pushing against the frontal plane of the canvas. The landscape recedes in a series of layered steps in contrasting colour and zigzagging diagonals that lead back by moving up the surface of the canvas. The most distant point in the landscape is that closest to the top. The horizon and the band of sky at the top contain this upward pressure and the foreground, often treated as a band at the bottom of the canvas, anchors the composition.

No single point of view dominates Eyre's landscapes: multiple viewpoints orchestrate the surface as the eye moves across the canvas, creating subtle disjunctions of space. Every part of the surface is treated with the same degree of detail and delineation. There is no illusion of deep or atmospheric space. Light is evenly revealing but colour activates volume, modulation and contrast. The end result is a kind of landscape painting that is subtly disturbing for the ways in which it differs from nature. It looks familiar, but it is a different place from the one we think we know.

While Eyre's landscapes have a built-in intensity that seems to emanate from each facet of their manufacture, there is something synthetic in the forms of the interiors that is not as convincing. These paintings have the staginess of studio still lifes, and seem self-conscious in the search for form and colour expressive of an inner state. Formal invention and precise drawing, both of which inform the landscapes in a number of interesting ways, seem here to go lax and to lapse into a decorative and elegant series of gestures. This elegance of line and form, and surfaces like suede, counteract the tensions that give the landscapes their strength.

Eyre's Calgary exhibition includes the large painting, Long Grass (1976), shown last year in Toronto and a group of drawings of the artist with his head wrapped in a miscellany of soft materials: cloth, strips of material, and what appears to be a garter. These wrappings become an infinitely variable costume of forms. Eyre's drawing medium, red Conté crayon, immediately calls to mind Old Master drawings. The various configurations taken by the outlandish headgear have reverberations of portraits and self-portraits from other periods in art history.

In earlier drawings from the Wrapped Head series, the wrappings seemed like the bandages of a wounded man. In the latest drawings (1978 - S79), several seem to be allusions to Flemish painting, another an allusion to the early Italian Renaissance, still another a head of Christ. If these allusions are indeed present, Eyre, who often breaks long periods of painting with sustained drawing activity, says they were not intended. He began to draw himself with his head wrapped in a mood of playfulness. The seriocomic tone in which Eyre scrutinizes his own countenance, and his nimble draftsmanship, make these drawings compelling.


artscanada #232 / 233, December 1979 / January 1980.


Text: © Nancy Tousley. All rights reserved.

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