Cliff Eyland found a use for library catalogue cards long before libraries replaced them with computers as a way for visitors to find books on the shelves.
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Cliff Eyland: Library of Babel — A Retrospective ● Winnipeg Art Gallery ● To May 15
For decades, the painter and sketch artist, who moved to Winnipeg in 1994 to work at the University of Manitoba’s School of Art, would transform three-inch-by-five-inch cards into portraits, landscapes and abstracts.
He created thousands of works out of those humble cards, which are about the size of a smartphone, and a small portion of them — about 1,000 — are part of Cliff Eyland: Library of Babel — A Retrospective, a new exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery that is on display until May 15.
Eyland was 65 when he died May 16, 2020, after several years of poor health. He received a double-lung transplant in 2016 but lived with sarcoidosis, a systemic inflammatory disease.
Eyland and Robert Epp, a guest curator for the exhibition and longtime friend of the artist, began working on the retrospective in 2017.
"He had organized a lot of pieces and had them packed up," says Epp, a museum consultant who worked with Eyland at the University of Manitoba School of Art’s Gallery One One One. "He’s talked about having as many as 28 different categories for his art. Everything from robots to clouds to portraits, landscapes. Practically anything you could put on a three-by-five card or board, he tried."
Library of Babel is similar to Eyland’s most visible permanent work in Winnipeg. Untitled, a collection of more than 1,000 of his three-by-five artworks made on wooden blocks, is at the main entrance of the Millennium Library. Even those walking by on the skywalk on their way to nearby Canada Life Centre where the Winnipeg Jets play have seen his display.
He also received commissions for similar eye-catching collages at libraries in Halifax — he first went to art school in the Nova Scotia capital — and Edmonton.
Eyland spent countless hours at the Millennium Library installing Untitled, and getting the WAG exhibition set up was no simple task for gallery staff.
"They used laser levels and it takes a lot of patience. You have to map everything out and pound all these little nails," Epp says.
Libraries were a source of inspiration for Eyland and his little paintings and sketches were his calling card. He would often create a work among the stacks and leave it behind in a book for someone to enjoy later on.
"It’s a practice he had been doing for many many years, practically right out of art school," Epp says. "He was very much interested in this nexus of the library and the art gallery. He was interested in bringing the library into the gallery and the gallery into the library."
Eyland placed dozens of art pieces among obscure dissertations at the Raymond Fogelman Library at the New School University in New York and thousands of his works are hidden treasures at the Millennium Library and the Cornish Library on West Gate.
"It’s a real exhibition on its own right there," the curator says.
Eyland’s sketches would crop up in the darnedest places.
"He would not only hide them in library books," Epp says. "I remember having a party at our place and he was there. The next day we’re cleaning up and lift up the rug and here’s some Cliff Eyland drawings he left behind, just as a gift."
Library of Babel holds up for repeated viewings in the same way Qaumajuq’s visible vault does for the thousands of Inuit art sculptures it holds. There are so many pieces of Eyland’s art to see that it’s easy to overlook one while gazing at another.
The exhibition isn’t all handheld-sized art though. It includes two video installations by Winnipeg filmmaker Adam Brooks, one of them a 2021 documentary, Cliff: A Portrait of an Artist, which follows Eyland at his studio and in the library, surreptitiously inserting his sketches into a book before putting it back in the stacks.
A video version of Status Update, a 2015 collaboration Eyland took part in with fellow University of Manitoba professor George Toles is also part of the exhibition.
Eyland would make a painting or sketch to go with the daily narratives Toles posted to Facebook; the combination eventually led to a book that came out in 2021.
"I know Cliff contributed about 1,700 images for George’s stories and that went on for at least three or four years," Epp says. "Every day, Cliff would have to come up with new artwork."
It is Airplane, a 1981 work by Winnipeg painter Wanda Koop gracing the eastern side of a billboard atop the Casa Loma Building at Portage Avenue and Sherbrook Street the Winnipeg Art Gallery uses to display works in its collection.
On the western side is a still life by 17th-century Dutch artist Balthasar van der Ast.
Stephen Borys, the gallery’s director and chief executive officer, chose the works for the billboard, which in 2018 was given permission by Sussex Realty to remain atop the building for eight years so the WAG could use it as a display space.