Erica Eyres

There is something amiss in the work of Erica Eyres. The Winnipeg-born artist has long been drawn to the uncanny and uncomfortable, often depicting—through paintings, ceramics and single-channel videos— states of in-between to which it is difficult to assign language.

Based in Glasgow, UK, for over two decades, Eyres returned to Winnipeg, her hometown, to mount “Dancing for Dummies” at the Centre for Cultural and Artistic Practices (C’cap).

Erica Eyres, installation, “Dancing for Dummies,” 2023, Centre for Cultural and Artistic Practices, Winnipeg. Courtesy Centre for Cultural and Artistic Practices, Winnipeg. Left to right: Stack of For Dummies Books, 2022, glazed stoneware and resin. Toni, 2023, oil on linen, 30 × 30 centimetres. Box of Matches, 2023, glazed stoneware.

Entering the exhibition space, the viewer is met with a long shelf winding around the walls and strewn with books, half-eaten food and ephemera reminiscent of youth in the ’80s and ’90s, all rendered in glazed stoneware. The height of the shelf echoes that of a mantelpiece and gives the disconcerting feeling that you have walked into a memory of someone’s childhood home. A lone ham sandwich half rests clammy and anaemic on a shelf and the dregs of a bowl of Cheerios sit milk-logged and soggy; who knows how long they’ve been sitting out. The food is unappetizing, nothing you would want to eat even if it weren’t apparent someone else already had been, but appealing in its surreal mimicry. To one side of the room lies a stack of books from the “For Dummies” self-help series, ubiquitous in the middle-class homes of the ’90s and early aughts and, in this case, providing instruction in subjects ranging from poetry to accounting to confidence building. These nostalgic how-to manuals are immediately recognizable, though perhaps more as props than as reading material. Ceramic copies of the soapy teen series Sweet Valley High also lie intermittently on the shelves, their unattainably beautiful and affluent twin heroines setting lofty standards for which young readers might strive. Down the shelf, a generic floral birthday card signed “Happy 18th, Love Dad” sits next to an ashtray filled with lipstick-smudged cigarette butts. Eyres leaves these objects unexplained, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions, create their own narratives. The cigarettes could be the remains of a party or perhaps evidence of awkward adolescent attempts to perfect a new vice.

Five paintings populate the walls, all tightly framed close-up portraits of women and girls. Each is based on “before” photos from beauty manuals and images from dated handbooks for teens struggling with difficulties such as bullying or parental discord. Some stare right through viewers with glazed eyes and a grimace while others are preoccupied, in their own worlds. A girl in On the Phone, 2023, gazes wistfully out of frame, shoulder cocked to secure a coil-corded telephone, while Laura sits head-in-hand on a plush pink bed, brow furrowed.

The drone of a television drifts up a stairwell from the basement, strains of what sounds at first like motivational speaking. Down the stairs to a dim room beneath the gallery, a video projected onto the wall plays before a haphazard collection of pillows on wooden pallets, reminiscent of a movie night in the unfinished basement of a middle-school friend. The video, titled Learning to Dance, follows a class of women (each played by Eyres wearing various combinations of wigs, prosthetic noses and false teeth) who are learning to “heal themselves through dance.” Like much of her earlier video work, it explores feelings of unattractiveness and inadequacy, hinging on the sharply comic dissonance between how one desires to be perceived and how one truly is, resulting in a desperation too uncomfortable to look at but too transfixing to look away from.

Erica Eyres, Learning to Dance, 2023, single-channel video. Courtesy Centre for Cultural and Artistic Practices, Winnipeg.

Despite similarities in theme and presentation, Learning to Dance embodies a shift in tone from many of Eyres’s earlier films. This is made apparent by the presentation of a selection of her video work spanning 2003 to 2007, hosted by C’cap and the Winnipeg Film Group midway through the exhibition’s run. In contrast with works such as Destiny Green, 2006, in which a young pageant queen chooses to have her face removed, declaring, “Everybody has a face; that’s what will make me different,” Learning to Dance leans away from the macabre, the naïve awkwardness of its characters more optimistic than jarring or disturbing. The video and “Dancing for Dummies” as a whole take a subtler and more tender approach to their subject matter but do not suffer for it. The tone remains earnest and matter-of-fact as Eyres explores adolescent self-discovery with affection, playing with a sense of nostalgia while carefully avoiding wistful sentimentality.

“Dancing for Dummies” captures well the uncanny nature of self-improvement regardless of age, the angst of attempting to become a changed or other version of oneself in an effort to fit in or meet societal standards. The ceramics in the exhibition are, in a sense, improved versions of the items they represent (the food will not spoil nor will the cigarettes burn), but in this improvement they have become useless, unable to nourish or satisfy, hinting at the potential consequences of meeting certain ideals.

Regardless of medium, each piece comes across as deeply personal, reinforcing the impression of visiting a private space. These glimpses into memory are presented with a gentle sincerity, informing viewers’ approach to the work and to their own exploration of the liminal nature of teenage girlhood and the questions of identity and self that extend well beyond. In “Dancing for Dummies,” Eyres is at home in these states of uncertainty, defying precise categorization, neither one thing nor the other and undeniably off, delicately and delightfully so. ❚

“Dancing for Dummies” was exhibited at Centre for Cultural and Artistic Practices, Winnipeg, from August 26, 2023, to October 7, 2023.

Mielen Remmert is a writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Treaty 1 Territory.

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