Cliff Eyland

In the spirit of transparency, I acknowledge that I was a friend of Cliff, as well as a sometime assistant. I have also contributed an essay to the upcoming publication for the exhibition“Cliff Eyland: Library of Babel,” guest curated by Robert Epp, himself a long-time colleague of Eyland’s. I also suggest that Eyland’s presence in Winnipeg looms large for a certain generation of cultural folk, and this show is perhaps best viewed as a testament to a figure whose influence and endeavour brought many individuals together.

Cliff Eyland, installation view, “Library of Babel—A Retrospective,” 2022, WAG-Qaumajuq, Winnipeg. Photos: Serge Gumenyuk. Images courtesy WAGQaumajuq.

Coming up through what was once dubbed “postmodernism,” Eyland exemplified an unstoppable drive that seemed to hitch a ride on Warhol’s oft-quoted methodology: “Don’t think about art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” Of course, this is only partially true because Cliff did think about art and had an unquenchable desire to know what was going on in art and culture and to respond to it with his own critical twist, in the form of writing criticism and catalogue articles, in his curating, and of course in his own artistic output.

Two rooms of the Winnipeg Art Gallery are devoted to paintings, drawings and printed works, alongside videos documenting commissioned projects. A substantial amount of archival odds and ends grace the walls that may seem to focus too largely on Eyland’s polymathic generosity as a writer/ curator/gallerist and as conspirator with performance band the Abzurds, but Epp proposes that all these facets of Cliff’s output are of import and make even more explicit his punky DIY side.

Eyland extended a variety of strategies of polite and congenial critique towards more staid conventions within the art world; he didn’t shy away from regular exhibitions but always thought there could be more opportunities artists could make for themselves. An additional highlight of the show is a 49-minute short that filmmaker Adam Brooks made in the year leading up to Cliff’s passing, in the spring of 2020. It is full of insights into the mind of this artist, but perhaps one of my favourite takeaways is a moment where Eyland, in front of his first public library commission of a thousandplus paintings, at the Millennium Library (Winnipeg Public Library main branch), muses about his desire for creative opportunism, saying, with humour, “I don’t care if people say their kid could do that. I just wish they would!”

It is important to note that a great deal of the work in the exhibition is later than you might expect, in large part because much of the earlier work is permanently installed in public libraries across Canada. Three large library commissions hold huge numbers of Eyland’s file card-sized paintings. Not just another way of sneaking past the bouncer of artistic posterity, the works operate and emulate the variety and depth of knowledge that libraries hold and that he was always inspired by.

The Library of Babel, if indeed it did exist, would be an infinite labyrinthine space of boundless freedom, much like the space Eyland created for himself within his practice: the room to operate in whatever way he pleased. Once the parameters were set, 3 x 5 inches, he could go in any direction he liked using whatever material he liked, manipulated by any process/procedure he liked. Eyland was predisposed to all things painted and drawn but was not beholden to either in taking a stand on ceremony or tradition. As you move through the galleries, you can see the diverse approaches he took up throughout his career. In fact, the range of invention and imagination is as impressive as it is understated, at times even invisible— Xeroxed, or later digitally printed, as well as drawings then adhered to panel, then painted. Sometimes this palimpsestic manoeuvring seems like an attempt to put all his procedural tricks in one work. These procedures are not to be fetishized or overly theorized. If something is collaged, it is not some deep critique of collage; it was just the utilization of a technique pre-approved for art usage. Cliff was curious to work in all techniques, finding their very existence enough reason to take them for a spin. In the spirit that is everywhere in the show, more is actually more. As may be expected, titles are important, designated for the purposes of general categorization (Smartphone), metaphoric or allusive succinctness (Treaty Landscape) and then acute specificity (Pam Perkins smoking a cigarette). When there are important things that need to be said, they are said clearly. Cliff uses humour to talk about serious things, from figures engaged in taboo activities to the overabundant morass of paint itself being celebrated for all its dumb materiality.

Cliff Eyland, Librarians, Books and Clouds, 2014–2016, 300 paintings: acrylic on MDF board, acrylic on inkjet print on MDF board. Collection of the artist’s estate.

At other times he seems to say, “Art doesn’t always have to be complicated.” For example, the digitally printed works of bookshelves bearing the names of friends, colleagues, historically famous writers, etc., are direct and realized immediately in a more classical conceptual art sense. And the means by which he realized these pieces is not complicated, either. Simple computer graphics: no muss no fuss, print it or post it.

Against preciousness, he placed his art in places or situations that he found of interest: libraries, archives, nestled in books, hotel rooms and galleries. Eyland’s works were always accessible, hidden in books for the taking, often given away outright if you were lucky enough to encounter him or cross his path via admiration.

Anyone who is interested should read Eyland’s own 50-plus-page biographical timeline on his own website; it is a must-read for those curious about what a life in the arts could look like if you have both energy and willpower. Have some fun, it’s a mess, clear your own corner. Writing about himself, Eyland had already concluded back in the mid-seventies “much like Joseph Kosuth, that art had extinguished itself into philosophy, but,” Eyland continues, speaking of himself, “he continued to draw and paint, consistent with his odd but longstanding notion that he was destined to become either a folk artist or a conceptual artist.” Though he was never a moralist, dare I say, still, that the work is humanistic? Where does the art stop and the life begin? ❚

“Cliff Eyland: Library of Babel” was exhibited at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, from January 22, 2022, to May 15, 2022.

Craig Love is an artist who sometimes writes. He lives in Winnipeg.