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Well, this is awkward

Winnipeg-born artist's new work as odd as always, but she makes 'otherness' relatable

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/10/2015 (691 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Since visiting Holidays in the Future, Erica Eyres' exhibition of new drawings and video at Lisa Kehler Art and Projects, I've been having an uncomfortable change of heart about her work. Since awkward transitions are her stock-in-trade -- generational divides, the indignities of adolescence and aging, distortions in narrative that arise through retelling and re-adaptation -- I guess this means it's working as intended.

Born in Winnipeg but based for more than a decade in Glasgow, Scotland, Eyres makes cable-access-style narrative videos, gawky ballpoint-pen and pencil caricatures and, most recently, small ceramic objects. Beyond low-budget production values and a preponderance of feathered bangs, the work shares common themes of uncertain self-presentation and an ambiguous tone. I've never really liked it.

Scenes from Erica Eyres' video Clay Head.

Scenes from Erica Eyres' video Clay Head.

Eyres is known for her drawings in pencil and ballpoint pen, often scenes from the pages of Health and Efficiency magazine.

Eyres is known for her drawings in pencil and ballpoint pen, often scenes from the pages of Health and Efficiency magazine.

Eyres' video Pam's Dream, an absurd, scene-for-scene re-enactment of the prime-time soap opera Dallas played by cheaply bewigged Scottish schoolchildren, could be used to extract confessions from terror suspects (it screened here a few years back), but it's the drawings that have always rubbed me the wrong way.

Eyres finds her subjects in anonymous studio portraits, 1970s amateur porn and back issues of a leading "naturist" magazine. She reproduces these images in a fastidious but stilted hand, a style she fully owns and which suits her needs. Removing all but the barest background details, she leaves her characters stranded, stark naked in empty space.

The drawings fixate on markers of difference, exaggerating oddly proportioned features and lingering on dated hairstyles. These distance us from the figures in time, opening space for either reflection or mocking, but they could just as easily read as markers of class, an unintentional but unpleasant ambiguity. With so much taken away, I've struggled see what Eyres was adding beyond scrutiny and scorn.

So why the change of heart?

In an interview accompanying the current show, Eyres jokingly concedes that the distortions in her drawings have grown less pronounced in part because she got better at drawing. There really is a newfound sensitivity in the most recent portraits, though: what read before as generic indications of "otherness" (or just ugliness) now seem like signs of individual character. It helps, too, that Holidays shies away from the boudoir photos that Eyres favours, with their more complicated, prurient gaze, focusing instead on scenes from the pages of Health and Efficiency -- naked people cheerfully going about their days, getting their hair done, bowling, feeding cheetahs and so on.

For me, however, the show's real eye-opener is Clay Head. Eyres never appears directly in the new video; instead, we watch her manicured hands purposefully sculpt a clay bust in the manner of a forensic reconstruction artist.

As features coalesce, she narrates the fictional recollections of a child actor on an unnamed horror program. Gouging out sockets and fitting them with glass eyes, she muses on the disconnect between the action on set and the image onscreen -- between performance and perception -- and the thrill of being transformed through makeup. When she tells us she lost the part because she didn't grow enough one summer, she crams a set of slightly outsized porcelain teeth in place, leaving the finished bust to stare pathetically in our direction.

The video is irreverent and odd, but it's also tender, touching on anxieties around self-image that child actors, horny housewives and geriatric nudists all experience equally. It helps clarify the tone of Eyres' practice, which I may have been misreading all this time. That puts me in an awkward position, but I think that means it's working.


Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

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