Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/1/2015 (950 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Less than six months after opening, Actual Gallery is "under reconstruction" following the departure of founding director Lisa Kehler and most of the gallery's artists late last year. In a well-advised and welcome move, Actual is hosting an exhibition by Winnipeg mainstay Cliff Eyland while some of the dust settles. Helpfully, he always seems to have a few hundred new paintings lying around.
Eyland is known for his small-scale works on panel, his staggering output, and his love of libraries. The three-by-five-inch format that he's used for decades recalls old-school catalogue cards, and he's been known to "install" index-card-sized artworks between the pages of circulating volumes. Ten years ago he made more than a thousand paintings for a permanent installation at Millennium Library, and he just installed 5,000 more at the central branch in Halifax.
By comparison, the aptly-titled Five Hundred and One Paintings at Actual is a concise, browse-able collection. It neatly lays out some of the threads running through Eyland's practice at any given moment without distracting from the inventiveness and individual character of each painting.
Most of the time, Eyland draws from his prodigious imagination for subject matter. In row after row of pastel-hued, collaged and painted panels, seemingly off-hand scribbles provide the basis for marvellously expressive, cartoonish and sometimes highly abstract figures. Now and then, the parade of caricatures and chimeras gives way to the odd tornado or explosion, a drippy curtain, or a field of razzle-dazzle starbursts.
A panoramic grid of minimal, miniature landscapes, each an exercise in economy, unfolds across another wall. Spindly conifers pierce scraps of coloured sky; scattered brushstrokes loosely suggest abstract sculptures and busted-down farm equipment lurching on the horizon. Nearby, a solitary portrait (the 501st painting) occupies a wall to herself.
Eyland's creative energy seems to thrive on self-imposed limitations, so it's not surprising that his most formally restrained paintings are, in their own way, as playful as any of the others. A hundred or so identically-composed panels mimic a long shelf of tiny hardcover volumes, textured rectangles standing in for marbled paper and leather-bound covers, a solid vertical stripe for each binding.
Practically sculptures, they cheekily reduce painting to a kind of surface decoration or faux finish. On closer look, however, each is untitled book is unique and uniquely considered, mischievously teasing contents we'll never be able to read.
Though his heart is clearly in older, paper-based information technology, Eyland's penchant for hyper-production and bite-sized packaging feels distinctly of-the-moment, with parallels in new forms of art production emerging on platforms like Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook. (Naturally, Eyland has experimented with all three, and he's made paintings based on smartphone screens).
At the same time, even the lowest-tech offerings here convey Eyland's hallmark sense of abundance. In Actual's back gallery, his Buildings forgo even painting (the original Graphics Interchange Format), comprising simple arrangements of still-blank, three-by-five-inch MDF panels. Stacked up like toy blocks, they resemble Modernist courtyards or rows of library shelves and clusters of study carrels. They're a reminder that even limited forms -- a block, a book, a painting -- possess unlimited potential, and they're a tacit promise of new things still to come.
Actual Gallery's new roster of artists and exhibition schedule has yet to be announced, but 501 Paintings and Buildings will remain up through February. A celebration at the gallery is planned for Valentine's Day.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator.