No Man is an Eyland: The Many Lives of Cliff Eyland
Introduction by Meeka Walsh
Our friend, guide, collaborator, supporter, astute and rigorous critic, most generous person, splendid artist and writer, Cliff Eyland died on May 16, 2020. Winnipeg claimed him as ours, so integral was he to this city and community of art makers but he actually moved from Halifax to Winnipeg with his partner Pam Perkins in 1994.
His mind and being were so capacious there was room for every idea to be considered and elaborated upon, extended and shared, room for everyone who wished to enter his circle of crazy, loopy so-very-good schemes and ideas and countless projects — all realized. He was prodigious in every sense and he leaves our world very much richer for his having abided, and passed through.
For a number of years Cliff had his large studio and “Library” gallery down the hall from the Border Crossings offices. We hung out a lot, exchanged ideas, news, reading lists, his scotch for my chocolate, and others often joined in. You don’t think of curiosity and warmth as a magnetic core but with Cliff we were like metal filings drawn to his centre. He was irresistible.
A number of years before he moved to his large Arthur Street studio and while he was still the Director of Gallery 1.1.1. at the University of Manitoba School of Art— bibliophile that he’d always been — he said to me something like: “Border Crossings is so great and it has looked at practically everybody (an exaggeration to which I demurred), wouldn’t it be terrific to get every copy in one room — but I guess that would take up too much space to be possible,” or something like that. So I thought about it and measured it out in my head and told Cliff that it would be entirely possible and quite compact and, working with architect and then BC Board Chair, Neil Minuk, and drawing on my admiration for Alexander Rodchenko’s Worker’s Club prototype from 1925, a proposal was made to Cliff. From this he sourced a grant and commissioned what would become The Border Crossings Study Centre. It launched in 2009 at Gallery 1.1.1. where it stayed for six months — the centrepiece of curated programming by Cliff. The Study Centre — tidy mobile archive that it was — headed out across Canada and to France and it will go on. Cliff said it was a favourite project. So like him. Not showy but very smart, ideas in the vanguard that the world would later catch up to. A broad legacy in all things.
There is no way to be summary about a life like Cliff’s. We thought one way to begin was to talk to some people in Winnipeg who worked with him in different capacities. What follows are remembrance by friends and colleagues as well as archival material from the pages of Border Crossings. We would like to thank William Eakin for his selection of photographs.
Robert Enright spoke with Winnipeg artist and writer Craig Love; artist and University of Manitoba professor Dominque Rey; Winnipeg artist and photographer William Eakin; psychoanalyst and writer Jeanne Randolph; art historian, curator and University of Manitoba professor Oliver Botar; Halifax-based artist and NSCAD professor Erica Mendritzki; and Vancouver-based independent curator and writer Robert Epp.
Steve Higgins had just hired Cliff to run Gallery 1.1.1. and I met him because he was on my thesis committee at the University of Manitoba. He was great in that role. I knew his work from site gallery but I didn’t know him personally. When we met I said, “You’re that guy who makes those little paintings” and we hit it off. This was 1998 – 99. I had found a studio on Albert Street and we saw each other in the Exchange District and at one point we had studios in the same building. He would stop for a rest on the way up to his studio and we would chat or he would sit and talk with me while I worked and then I would reciprocate. We always had good conversations.
I started working with him when he got the commission for the Millennium Library and because it was the first of his library projects, the paintings were already made. The paintings that didn’t have questionable content went to the library and the sexier or weird stuff and anything that had nudity was a perfect body of work to have a show on its own. Cliff was always looking for excuses to be generous and give people money, so he pretended that he wasn’t mechanically inclined and as a result I did a lot of work. I was happy to do it because we were hanging out anyway. At one point he said, “Craig, I’m applying for this thing and I’ll need you to help me out”. I don’t know why he thought I was capable of doing that because I hadn’t been doing installation work. In a way I ended up doing what I do now, through him.
Then we did two more library commissions, Edmonton and Halifax. Halifax was the most involved and the largest. By the third iteration he’d gotten more interested in how to do them but each one was different. I primed some 3 x 5″ blocks before the install in Edmonton and by the time the Halifax library came about Ray Fenwick and I were both doing work on the project. By then Cliff was in the Silpit Building and the operation grew as he got more space. He did all of Edmonton and I think he tasked Ray with doing some of the tape on the Leaning Bookshelf paintings in Halifax. One of the things I was doing for the Halifax project was scanning and printing old paintings or file cards. I would glue them to a panel and then paint out the backgrounds by hand and just leave the figures. He felt I was good at that.
We would make up titles and he would call me his Studio Manager but I never really took the title seriously. When we did the Millennium Library I was doing the install and some work affixing the pieces but a large part of what I did was crowd control. Even after the library was open he would go in and put up a hundred more paintings, or he would want to paint on the wall, or he would decide to do touch-ups. We would go early in the morning and my job was to get people to ignore this man behind the curtain. The public would always want to engage and while Cliff found that amusing, he didn’t always want to talk about what he was doing. He was non-confrontational and if there was some un-pleasantness I would deal with it. Or I’d have to get down to brass tacks with a contractor. The Edmonton library was the most straightforward. He and I drove out in a cargo van and we installed the piece in two days and drove back. The project was delayed and we had to get the art up when it was still a construction site. It turned out that the spot had changed and the wall we had was much smaller and, as a result, we only ended putting up half the paintings, maybe 800 or so. There was always new information that came to light at the last second, like you can’t put a nail in the wall. In Edmonton Cliff gave the boxes of the other paintings to the Arts Council person and just walked away.
He got really sick from the work in Edmonton and he did in Halifax as well. Driving to Edmonton we stopped at roadside motels which he loved, especially if they looked really seedy. One night he fell down and didn’t have his phone and he lay on the floor the entire night. I didn’t know and the next morning he said, “Thank god, you’re here, I’ve just gotten up”. I said we had to get breakfast and hit the road and then hours later he tells me the story that he literally had just gotten up. Early on he wasn’t always forthcoming about his physical difficulties or about how he was feeling. He was sick for the entire time that I knew him. I remember him telling me about his show at OCAD in the early 90s and he’d had an episode that ended up with him in the hospital. We all saw him go up and down until he had the transplant. I think he felt that complaining was boring. He didn’t want to bore you. You can think what you want about the work but it’s not boring. Like putting a piece of masking tape on one edge of a rectangle to make it look like a book. Those are amusing if you know his true feelings about Minimalism. He understood all these things, but I always felt he thought it could be doing more.
The hangover from the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design was still there. His generation at NSCAD went through all the dissuading and bullshit about painting and drawing and at one point he said, “You can’t stop me from doing this”, which of course was true. But he was really serious about it and he always found a way around prohibitions. Even as a professor, as someone who was supposed to be a teacher, he was into questioning what was going on. His attitude was if you want to be an artist, you already are one. One of the other things he used to say was that artists make art. If you’re not making anything, then maybe you’re not an artist.
He was always drawing. A lot of my time it was me, Bill Eakin and Cliff and those two guys were the Kings of Hanging Out. It was probably generational. He was a nexus of generosity and the number of people who met each other through his open-door policy was immense. He always had beer in the fridge. Whether he was actually drawing you or not, we were all his models; we were his muses. We amused him. He would be drawing or painting and you would start, too. Very often people would be hanging out and then everybody would be drawing. There were file cards and a bucket full of markers and things would get passed around. That was just the way it was.
He was Mr. Willpower. His sheer force of will, physically but also mentally, was astonishing. There was never an idle moment. If I think about it too much it is terrifying. I’d think, “What kind of a man are you really, why can’t you relax?” That drive was quite astounding. He was always doing multiple things at once. If he wasn’t painting or drawing, he would pick up his guitar. I feel like he structured his whole life so that he could always be working.
I was part of the Abzurbs. There were many iterations of that group. It was whoever showed up for the gig. It was fun until people wanted to make it a thing. Cliff had a showman’s side and he liked performing but he wasn’t always happy when people were seeking out opportunities to perform in a more calculated way. To my mind, the best gig that we ever played was after somebody saw us perform at a fundraiser for Platform in the Artspace lobby and they wanted us to play their husband’s 50th or 60th birthday party at a car wash in Headingly. That was the perfect Abzurbs gig. By the time we were through, people always regretted that we were there. They were asking, “When are they going to leave? When are they going to stop?”
There were many Cliffs, including the mischievous one. He was like Carolee Schneemann in his attitude, but that didn’t play out as well because he was a man. He had no shame, no inhibitions. He felt you had to strip all this stuff down and look at what it is. We should all be unafraid and do what we want to do. He really was into that kind of freedom.
He was a beautiful writer and that was a thing he did at home. It was something that came out of the ether. Cliff has a review in a magazine, or he has a catalogue essay. But given his personality I don’t think people thought about it. When he was at Gallery 1.1.1. that was his job. It was hard to know how he felt about writing. He didn’t seem to find it difficult and he always struck me as very clear in his position. They’re not robotic by any means but he wasn’t a personality in his own writing. It was a “just the facts type of thing,” seen through a set of eyes and a brain that was a little to the left.
When it came to money, he decided to utilize the position he had gained as a tenured professor so that everything went back into the community. The Library Gallery was like that. After he left Leo Kamen he didn’t have a gallery, so he decided to open his own and like everything else, there were no rules about who was shown, or how long things went on. If he didn’t want to show anyone, he didn’t have to.
A number of people were involved in his Archive Project. I think he wanted some semblance of order. As I think about it, he was doing more when he was feeling the shittiest after the transplant than he ever had. He was at the studio a lot and, as a way to consolidate more paintings, he started working on those big 30 x 50″ panels that have 3 x 5 on them. He had never worked that way before. It was almost like he was tying up loose ends.
I don’t ever remember him using the word autobiography. The work is personal but there is always that weird edge where it is not at all what it is. He said to both Bill Eakin and me separately, that there is no Cliff. I always thought it was some kind of Bob Dylan-y thing. He did this stuff that was so personal and specific but from the get-go, even with the 3 x 5s, he seems to have tried to drain the ego out of the work. I don’t really know how to work my way through that comment because obviously there is a Cliff. There were so many other Cliffs in addition to the one we all knew. Imagine, at one time he was in the Reserve and he had a moustache.
Was he different after the transplant? He worked differently but he was still organizing. He had got into that mode and there was a self-obsessive quality as opposed to his obsessive quality.
He did have a bee in his bonnet when anyone misrepresented him about monetary gain. The few times I remember him getting angry or miffed would be in relation to something like that. He tried to cultivate freedom in every facet of his life and having to relinquish any of that to the market would have been distasteful. He found his own ways to do it. When we did the Alt Hotel in Winnipeg, I took twenty banker’s boxes of paintings to the hotel and hung them up in a week. His instructions were to do a kind of cluster and all he did was come by and look at them. So configured on a wall in every room there are eight or nine Eylands.
I met him in 1997 when I was an undergrad and he came as a visiting artist to Alison Norlen’s drawing class. He was a character and he had a lot of presence. He gave this incredible validation when he told me, “You’re going to be an artist, you’ve got the chops.” As a student that was a pretty wild and unforgettable thing to hear from a professional artist. After that our paths kept crossing. We had already become friends when he gave me a solo exhibition at Gallery 1.1.1. in 2001. He was pivotal in giving me lots of boosts early in my career. The “Young Winnipeg Artists” exhibition at Plug In in 2003 and the essay he’d written about my show at Gallery 1.1.1. were firsts for me. And my experience wasn’t singular in that regard; he played the same role in the lives of so many young artists. I often asked him for advice. I would say, “These are my aspirations, these are my dreams” and he never put any sticks in my wheel. He would say it was all possible.
I can’t imagine a world without him because he was such a bright star. He was brilliant and yet he had jaw-dropping curiosity about the world, about others, and an openness of spirit. It’s not that he wasn’t a critical person. He could see bullshit when it was there and nothing stopped him from calling it that, but at the same time he was really open to the Other and people felt accepted by him. Whatever strangeness you had going on, he was going to be the last person to judge you. That was how the Abzurbs was born. We were in the bar at the World Trade Center in New York in 2000. We were hanging out for a week and we were just so happy together. We were like two kids visiting New York; we went to visit the Statue of Liberty and we partied at Gavin Brown’s when Matthew Barney and Bjork were there. We had these amazing memories that are foundational to being artists in the mecca of the art world. It was wild then but now it feels like history.
At the time the idea of the Abzurbs was not a literal thing. It was more in the nature of how we were as friends and artists and so collaboration was inevitable. We were already making art, whether it was drawing, or the way we would talk about art, or laugh about the world. We were on the same wavelength. The first time we ever performed officially as the Abzurbs was at Ace Art during a performance festival. After that it was easier to imagine, although I don’t think we ever did imagine. We were in the same studio building and our friends would come and a lot of them were musicians, or were trained as clowns in Paris. There was a whole range of people from different disciplines, like Tannis Kohut and Bill Eakin and Craig Love. We were like kids in a sandbox making art together. There were no rules and we would just play.
Somehow people caught wind of how over-the-top we were and they wanted to see us live. Some people really loved us but we were a mixed bag. You couldn’t not have a position about the Abzurbs. When it was more musical there was a set list but how things actually happened was more like chaos. And there was always a performative element. I think one of our most memorable performances was at the Edge Gallery. We performed for eight hours, from seven at night until three in the morning, and it was total cacophony and ridiculousness. People in the crowd were acting because we had props and costumes in the crowd for them to wear. There was confusion as to who was actually in the band and nobody knew who was what. We loved that total merging of art and life and we all got so much out of this uncensored space of play that was free of judgment. It was okay if people hated us because we felt enough pressure in our professional lives. But when you were in the Abzurbs it didn’t matter, we could just be who we wanted to be and not worry about external judgments.
I don’t know what came first, my art or my performance, but I think the Abzurbs helped give me permission to embrace being more out there. When I started doing the solo performances for the “Erking” project it was clear to me that the grotesque, over-the-top burlesque and the in-your-face aesthetic that I had adopted joyfully, had been influenced by the Abzurbs. Cliff had this façade of a white guy, so you didn’t see the wildness coming and when it came, somehow it fit. It totally fit; there wasn’t a dark side to that. It was innocent. He obviously had a deep love of beauty and sexuality but it was all bound up in respect. You never felt uncomfortable around Cliff.
I was thinking about all the roles he played in my life. For many years in my career he had been a mentor. I could come to him with my art woes and he was always encouraging and his counsel was always sound. It was always, “Go for it, never say no, say yes to opportunities”. He was part of a paradigm that I don’t think exists so much anymore. He had this idea that you make art every day. You go to your studio and you’re creating as part of your everyday life. For artists today it is more strategic. But art was how he breathed. He always had his cluster of pencils and pens and index cards and he would show up at restaurants as this ridiculous phenomenon amidst the mundane and he would be drawing. All of us would invade the Palm Lounge in the Hotel Fort Garry in full Abzurb gear, and be boisterously drawing and drinking and eating. We lived it up together. He took life in big gulps and at the same time he had this grounding, this peaceful home with Pam, so he had that stability. But when he was healthy and out in the world he was just taking in as much life as he could with no regrets.
Making art was so much what he was that he decided whatever time he had left he was going to fill it making art. He figured this is something I can do and I’m not going to stop doing it. He was never a complainer. I remember performing with the Abzurbs at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and at night I could hear him in the room next to me coughing and coughing. Then the next day his coughing would be restrained because he was holding back. He would be in pain all day long but he would say to himself, “I’m going to put it to the side because this is so much more important to me. As long as I can move around and be out in the world, I’m going to do it.” I was looking at his bio on his website and he stops talking about his life around that time. After his operation it was an afterlife; it was all bonus.
He had a commercial career with Leo Kamen in Toronto. He saw the bullshit and he could tell the difference between someone who was making art like they need to breathe and someone who is a player and a great designer and who knows how to put their finger on the pulse at just the right moment. There is so much posing and performativity and not the kind that he liked. Maybe that’s why he ended up in place like Winnipeg because there is not a lot of posturing around here.
The Library Gallery was conceived in the same spirit as the Abzurbs and Gallery 1.1.1., where he did so many amazing things. He didn’t need to have somebody deciding what his life should look like. I take a lot from his sense of self-determination and freedom. We all need to decide what is our path and he decided to make up his own rules. Obviously, he had the expertise to do that. The guy was a walking encyclopedia, not just in history and contemporary art, but in world affairs and science as well. He read stuff and didn’t forget it. He knew so much but that didn’t bog him down because he had this curious attitude and an openness to learning more. He was literally like a kid and I don’t mean naïve. I’m spending a lot of time with kids right now and I see what it means to rediscover the world anew every day. That is the sign of a true artist. You always need to be looking with fresh eyes and for me Cliff had this Buddha-like quality. The guy was not perfect but he was getting pretty close to notions of enlightenment and self-liberation.
I met him at a Marlene Creates exhibition opening at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in the early 90s. He and Pam had been here nearly two years at that time and he wasn’t yet in the art world. He was working at home and meeting Pam at a downtown coffee shop after she got off work at the University of Manitoba. At the WAG opening he started chatting with me and asked for my number and we got to know one another from there on. He was such a character. At the time, he carried his work in a big leather bag and he would pull out the actual paintings and there would be anywhere from 40 to 80 of them. His practice at the time was to mail an institution the show so that they would know what he was talking about. His paintings were on Masonite at the time, they weren’t yet on MDF, and there were enough of them that it was a task to carry this thing around. It was audacious, kind of endearing, and it was very effective because the works are miniatures and to see the actual thing is to really experience what he was talking about. I had a show up at the time, which he checked out. Then he phoned me and said how much he enjoyed the show and we began having coffee after that. We were aligned in our approach to art because we had gone through art school at relatively the same time; he was slightly behind me and he was on the East Coast and I was on the West Coast, but we were steeped in tradition and conceptualism.
He loved painting and he just outsmarted those guys who had announced the death of the medium. He took Borges’s library as a conceptual framework and put the 3 x 5″ library card around it. He stayed true to that conceptual underpinning but, number one, he loved to draw and number two, he loved to paint. He could draw like an angel and no one was going to stop that. Painting has always been important to me and I’ve looked at a lot of it and I liked how he approached the medium, so I found his paintings very satisfying.
I think I was the first Winnipeg artist that he met and I introduced him to the artist’s co-op at site gallery which was starting up at the time. I said, “We’re painting the space, do you want to come along and meet some people”. He did and he started meeting people and before long he had made Plug In connections and, through Diane Whitehouse and Steve Higgins, he had made his Art School connections at the University. So he very quickly infiltrated our art world. He showed at site and became a member. We had a collaborative show there where he captioned my photographs with his paintings. He would look at my photographic print and then would choose a painting which he would put under the painting to the right hand side where the label would go. It was a nice conceptual idea. We did a number of things over the years because we both liked the idea of expanding our own sense of things by working with others. He and Dominique and Tannis started the Abzurbs and they had a performance at Ace Art, which was their first appearance in Winnipeg, and he asked me and several other people to make some catcalls during the performance. He felt it would liven things up and put people on edge. You’re supposed to be polite and take these things in and they didn’t seem to be doing anything that was deserving of interference from the audience, so he was right.
He called it his band and I think it was but he realized immediately that they needed a recording artist as part of the show. He called me a “musician who played cameras” and that was very accurate. I was invited to participate in character and the visual recording was important because each of those artists in their own right used those pictures to further their own interests. It was very generous on his part. He was a very intelligent man.
That’s the thing; he was just so intelligent. The very first performance, Cliff claims, was at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York in the summer of 2003 when he was there for the summer. Dominique and Tannis and Cliff were hanging out and they decided that what we did was a thing and we should continue doing it. Each of the people they invited brought their own strengths to the project. It was a kind of theatre of the absurd. There may have been the vaguest notion of an outline but there was no script. We just worked off each other and the camera was a catalyst for that because they all had egos and if they weren’t getting enough camera time, they would work harder to get my attention, so I would be pulled away from the individual that I was engaged with. That’s how they grew. Cliff was like a rhythm guitar player; he kept everything moving and he would decide when something was going on too long and then he would change it. Sometimes that irritated the people who were going on too long but that was his role.
He was always curious. He loved to read, so he was always pursuing his interest at that moment. It was voracious and for me that was very stimulating. When we were hanging out it was real and stimulating, that was its nature. He and Pam didn’t have a vehicle by choice and I had a van, so we’d often get together for coffee and I’d ask if he needed to go to Artist’s Emporium to get supplies. We both liked to laugh and we could make each other laugh and that in itself was rewarding. As his lungs deteriorated he was in some pain and he would laugh and laugh and then he would say, “Don’t make me do that, it hurts.”
If someone did something that he didn’t approve of he would voice his displeasure. But at the physical level, he never complained. He was bigger than that. He and Pam came here because he had been diagnosed with sarcoidosis in the Maritimes and they were looking for a drier climate. Pam got work and so they moved. He suffered from it the first years and then the condition went into remission and he seemed quite good but it slowly crept back. It was something that he lived with. His relationship to the market was something that he learned at school from his Marxist professors. They held the position that the market was evil and he took that to heart but, again, he was much too smart. From the time I met him, and for well over ten years, he made the pricing of his work conceptual. A picture was $300, if he didn’t give it to you first. His generosity was astonishing. He had a giant heart, probably the biggest-hearted person I have even known.
Cliff never relaxed. He found many required situations tedious and boring and to survive them he would do file card drawings. If you added up the number of file card drawings, it would be hundreds of thousands. He had a whack of those cards and a pocketful of pencils and pens and, no matter where he was, he would draw. We would go to the movies and he would draw throughout the show. I thought it was odd but I came to understand that he could listen and follow the story and that was feeding what he would put out. If you are able to find a way to work every minute of your day, have that be a pleasure and not be tiring, then you’re going to be prodigiously productive.
I don’t think anyone has an accurate sense of what he has left behind. I photographed all his things until this last retrospective project and there are thousands and thousands and thousands of works. It was important to him that there be a clarity to his catalogue, so I think his archive is quite complete. The archive was one of the conceptual underpinnings of his initiative, so it was part of the work. One night on a napkin he sketched out what his conceptual framework was: the library, the repository, the archive. So the archive he left behind wasn’t about housekeeping; it was a creative act.
He was confident of his intelligence and his abilities but he wasn’t anyone who would trade on the idea of ego. In the best way, he seemed not to care. He had a weird relationship to food. I don’t think he liked food, really. I don’t think he like the idea of it. We had a lot of meals together, so nine times out of ten I would order something and then the waiting person would turn to him and he would say, “I’m having what he’s having.” It was just another conceptual conceit. He didn’t care but he would eat it. He trusted me. Pam fed him very well and she was very health conscious and she knew it was important for him to eat. He was lucky to have her cooking lentils for him but he had a secret eating life outside. If we were in a food court, he would start thinking about Kentucky Fried Chicken and he’d say, “Look Bill, this will be our little secret” and we’d get fried chicken.
I met his mom and she is an extraordinary woman and his dad sounded like a real mensch. He was an air force brat and they moved around a lot. I think a way to survive that is to take what you can. In other words, you don’t have the kind of continuity that others have. He was exposed to a lot during his formative years and maybe in part that set him up. He just wouldn’t be bored or complacent. He moved more and more online and it will be interesting in the future to study him that way. More than for most people, his world was a virtual one and his production was virtual. He was into it early on. He had cared for his shut-in grandmother and he was tasked with looking after her. He knew what being a shut in was and he knew what were the requisite moves. So as his body failed, it didn’t bother him to live and produce virtually. In a way, I think he really celebrated it because he met a hundred times more people than one would bumping along out here. He was an early and enthusiastic adopter of binary code and digital technologies, electronics, the iPhone. It allowed him to be more fully himself and he was agile enough to manage a number of worlds.
My relationship to him was brotherly and we loved each other. It could be prickly but what brotherly relationship isn’t?
I first met him about 20 years ago. I was introduced because we both attended a symposium in Halifax about art criticism. What struck me was how playful he was. His writing reflected his intellect and his curiosity. It wasn’t ficto-criticism because he was an art historian and he was in the scholarly tradition. But he had absolute undaunted curiosity and it led him everywhere.
We did a preliminary version of the Road Show called Art School Anatomy at the University of Manitoba. It was intended to be a vivisection of how art schools work. I did a performance and the idea was to talk about the underlying methods and assumptions, even philosophical ones, of why a school would teach people how to make art. The performances were satirical. I was just looking at a photograph that he took of me where I crept under a table and lay on my back. I was demonstrating a point, which I’m sure was a metaphor about submitting to dogma.
From that we decided to do an intervention called “Your Own Grad School” and we applied to artist’s run centres. The first one that answered the call was Modern Fuel in Kingston. The idea was the gallery would close for a month for exhibitions, open its spaces to as many artists as could fit into the space to work, particularly artists who didn’t have an adequate studio. Then in the final week Cliff and I would arrive like carpetbaggers, get to know the artists, have informal discussions and critiques, and talk about the issues in choosing to go to art school. This was when a Doctorate in Studio Art was starting to become fashionable and both Cliff and I thought it was a preposterous idea. There was nothing formal about it but if they said, “Cliff, tell us what it is to be an artist”, he would sit down and talk. The beer was always flowing.
He was always making two points; one was about finances, which he was very much into. He would tell people that they could do something better with their money, or their parent’s money. “Rent a space and spend all your parent’s money on making art in that space, otherwise it’s a bad investment.” The second thing was that the best way to learn was to keep making art until you collapsed. He said one of the key aspects of becoming an artist was to be obsessed. When someone would ask, “What can I do to be an artist?” he would ask them, “Are you obsessed?”
We wouldn’t take an artist’s fee because we wanted to make it clear that this was not a performance. We gave the money back to the artists instead of taking a fee ourselves. His idea was when you talk, particularly about a PhD, (the insinuation was also there for a master’s degree), the big question is, “How does one develop as an artist?” and that means reflecting on your working method. When artists are starting out there is no talk of a working method and yet the core of creativity is to have one that suits your idiosyncratic, crazy personality.
Everything was hard on him physically but I never heard him complain, ever. The last place we went was St. John’s, Newfoundland. We had taken the train to Kingston, which was very hard on Cliff, and he and Pam took the plane but that was worse than the train. I would carry his baggage and sing to him, “I’m Cliff’s mule, I’m Cliff’s mule”. It was called Your Own Grad School and he wanted to do it again here in Winnipeg but other crises, other joys, other busyness intervened.
He didn’t like to talk about himself, he would talk about art history, philosophy, astrophysics – I would listen when he talked about astrophysics – but he never talked about his own existential crises or major decisions. He shared with Bernie Miller the idea that art was not confession.
He was driven by his joie de vivre. He was an imp. Everybody has a different Cliff that they cherish and have lost. What made the Abzurbs so fascinating and so much fun for him was the fact that you couldn’t explain them. It would take place spontaneously, even intrusively, and there was no point to it. The members of the Abzurbs were exploring how you represent something that is incomprehensible. When you think of the rigour that he went through at NSCAD being able to demonstrate or act out or enact what is outside of theory would be jolly good fun.
The Library Gallery was a product of his curiosity and his generosity. Anything that is of a utilitarian purpose didn’t fit with his ethos of generosity and horizontality and mutuality of relationships. Hierarchy I think, disgusted him. His curiosity was boundless and his love of learning was irrepressible.
I first met him in the late 1990s and I was struck, as was everybody, by how handsome and charismatic he was. I got to know him better after he was hired as a professor. What was most extraordinary was what he did with Gallery 1.1.1. when he took over as Director. He had a one-third appointment; Dale Amundson saved the gallery and Cliff created a Golden Age for the gallery ex nihilo with barely any budget and without a single full-time position. Robert Epp was part time. Cliff had this idea that you don’t have to produce print catalogues because you can produce CD ROMS. I remember saying to him those platforms will change and no one will be able to play them back but it turned out he was right because he managed to produce all these catalogues and all these exhibitions, one more interesting than the next, out of nothing. He was also one of the first galleries in Canada to have an active website that he would update constantly. He was a committed archivist and the online archives for Gallery 1.1.1. are amazing. He started doing that before most galleries had an online presence. In addition to being a curator, a very inspiring teacher, and a mentor to so many people at the University, I think it was Derek Brueckner who used the term kingmaker. He had an innate ability to recognize talent but what was most extraordinary was how he recognized curatorial and artistic talent. For example, he hired Sigrid Dahle to do that amazing series of exhibitions in the late 90s early 2000s. Over a year she changed the installation, sometimes every week. That kind of innovative curatorial project wouldn’t have been possible with a ‘regular’ gallery director. He allowed those things to happen, like the Border Crossings Study Centre.
When it came to curatorship he was very open and creative. I learned a lot from him and from the people that he gave these commissions to. He was fearless. He was a kind of natural or native Buddhist. He was a person who was constantly engaged in a process of creation and destruction, of building up and tearing down, of positivity and subversion. The two were always present in everything he did. If he praised you, there was always a little bit of teasing involved.
I’ll talk about the University because that is where I knew him best. He was our Senate representative for many years, selflessly going to every Senate meeting. He told me how intrigued he was by the way things worked but he also found it appalling. In one breath he was talking about how fascinating the University bureaucracy was but he was also thinking about how that system could be subverted, and how damaging that system was, as well. It’s almost as if he had a kind of intellectual ADHD. He always saw the opposite of everything that he himself said or did.
It was the same thing with his painting. His entire project as an artist was to dismantle the myths around painting and, in that regard, he was a consummate postmodernist. But at the same time there’s no doubt that he was one of the best painters in Canada. Also, his drawings were technically very beautiful. The only way that I could get his goat, although he would never admit it, was to remind him what an excellent painter he was. Of course, he was always trying to subvert the idea of art but at the same time he was subverting that subversion by consistently producing gorgeous paintings. He even subverted his own system by only painting on file card size supports, which ended up being very close to the iPhone format. Then he would subvert that by including a couple of larger-sized paintings. I looked at one of them and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was; it was a digital print onto which he had added globs of paint and the subject was like two sumo lesbians engaging in a sex act. I said, “Cliff this is the most fucked-up thing I have ever seen” and he said, “I know, right”. His other subversion was directed at the market. I feel sorry for his dealers because he would give everything away. I tried to buy paintings from him twice; once through a gallery which he must have paid the gallery for because he just gave it to me.
His generosity was absolutely extraordinary. He had a life force and it was what gave him his charisma. That life force is the libidinous aspect of his erotic work. That endless creativity was at the same time tied up with his destructive subversion. This is why I think of him as a natural Buddhist. He was a person who knew what the world was like in an intuitive way and he reflected that in his behaviour, so this creation/destruction element and the element of his personality that built up subversion shone through everything. It tells us something very profound about the nature of reality and the world.
His curiosity was astonishing. It was difficult to have a conversation with him because on the one hand he was constantly reading, including the most difficult theoretical texts, and anything to do with contemporary art, and also art history and intellectual history. So you’d sit down with him and he would want to have a conversation about these things but he would always get distracted. He was this brilliant intellectual and he didn’t even have an MFA. He was fascinated by the working contradictions of the world. He was such an amazing and generous teacher and so wonderful with his students.
The Library Gallery was one of the best examples of his generous reaching out because it gave opportunities to deserving people whom he felt had been overlooked. The Library was an extension of Gallery 1.1.1. because he needed a platform through which he could promote others and not himself. Just like his giving away the money that he earned. He thought of ways to support artists by giving things away, the way he would give away his own art. He would sit through School of Art Council meetings which are often deadening and turgid and filled with people who have a healthy sense of self-importance. All the way through he would sketch dozens of drawings and on the surface, he would be taking everything seriously. At the same time, you couldn’t help feeling that sketching these bizarre, often sexually explicit drawings through these meetings, was also an inherent subversion and criticism and would put people a little bit off-kilter. At the end, he would give away the drawings to anyone who wanted them.
He inherently recognized that everything bad has something good in it and vice versa, and that everything that comes into being has to pass away, like he had to in the end. Most of us who knew him never quite believed that he would ever die. We always believed that he was a cat with at least nine lives. Every time he got close to death he would recover and one of the reasons we are all so shell-shocked is because I don’t think we believed it would happen.
His basic understanding of the world was why he never ever complained about his bad luck in having a congenital lung condition. He never felt sorry for himself and he was positive to the end because he understood that the end of everything is contained within its very gestation. As an art historian I try to recover what has been lost. In the early 20s, Dadaism and Constructivism made this exact Janus-faced conjunction of creation and destruction. Cliff understood that inherently and absolutely and it was one of the reasons I loved him. I called him the Human Roto-Tiller because he would churn everything up and that churning was aeration, a kind of fertilization and creation. He had this joie de vivre and child-like innocence, which he coupled with a savvy knowledge of the world.
In 2012, fresh out of grad school, I had the great good fortune of being hired to team-teach a course at the University of Manitoba with Cliff Eyland.
It wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, to say that Cliff became mentor to me. He was wise and kind and generous. He helped me to navigate that first semester and the eight years of teaching that followed; he gave me my first show in Winnipeg; he recommended me for my current job. Certainly, those sound like the kinds of things a mentor would do. But somehow, the term “mentor” doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it’s because the word suggests a hierarchical relationship—and one of the very best things about Cliff was how little he respected hierarchy.
Cliff did teach me a lot, but rarely did his lessons come directly. Instead, I learned by observing him. I saw how welcoming he was, how quick to smile and laugh. I noticed how lightly he wore his experience and knowledge of the art world. He never pretended to know less than he did, but he also never acted like there was nothing I (or you, or anyone) could teach him. He was so curious, and so willing to hear our students out. He knew, deeply, that one of the great privileges of teaching at an art school is that you can be among the first to see the rough shapes of what’s coming next—if you’re humble enough to pay attention. Cliff was beautifully humble in that way, always ready and willing to be impressed. And he was confident enough in his own work not to get insecure around young talent. Instead, he’d smile, crack a joke, and get out of the way.
It’s very tempting to interfere with students; to try to force them to make their work more tasteful, or more like your own. But Cliff knew that artists do their best work when they do their own work, however weird or clumsy or unfashionable that work might be. In critiques, both his sharpest criticism and his most fulsome praise was delivered in an off-hand, casual kind of way, and in this, too, there were lessons: don’t take yourself too seriously; don’t humiliate anyone unnecessarily; don’t depend too much on the approval of others.
Cliff gave me a show at his gallery because I asked him to. I had the courage to ask him because I was pretty sure he’d say yes. He gave so many people their first shows, or their first show in a while. Cliff was a champion of the underdog, of the unknown, of the unseen. He understood that not everyone comes from money. The art world likes to think of itself as a risk-taking, creative meritocracy; instead, it’s often a hegemonic, self-conscious, dollar-driven network that privileges the well-off and the already-successful. Cliff had no time for that bullshit. Because why not give someone not-yet-successful a show? The worst that can happen is that their show will be bad! So what?! Even a bad show can be a good party.
Cliff always said yes. He said yes because he was generous, but also because he drank deeply from life, and he wanted whatever weirdness was coming his way. He understood that if we don’t make space for chance and failure, we will smother ourselves with our own good taste. The art world needs diversity in its ecosystem in order to flourish, and artists need space to experiment, and improvise, and mess around. Cliff provided that space.
Cliff did everything with a light touch and minimal fuss, so I think it’s easy to underestimate the impact he’s had on the Canadian art world. But, just like the drawings he used to slip into library books, his hidden influence is everywhere. He’s helped to make the art world more just and generous, more experimental and diverse, more mischievous and full of joy.
We will always miss him; he will always be with us.
Thank you, Cliff, for everything.
The first time we had a conversation was over a coffee in the Giardini at the 2001 Venice Biennale. He was immediately charming and entertaining and we spent the rest of the afternoon visiting various pavilions. His knowledge of art and art history was impressive. One of the things I admired as we moved through the different pavilions was the way he was able to make connections. His passion for art was his whole being so it was delightful to be there with him.
When I came back from Italy in August I knew that Gallery 1.1.1. was looking for someone to fill the position of Gallery Manager and Cliff told me to apply. By the end of the month I was already working with him at the Gallery. It was very quick. He certainly deliberated on some things but he had this creative spontaneous combustion about him where he would say, ”Let’s make this happen” and it would. He really had a vision for the exhibition programming at the Gallery. It was driven to a large extent by the mandate of the School of Art which was to exhibit the alumni. An exhibition at Gallery 1.1.1. was often the first one an artist would have listed on their resume and Cliff was very proud to give artists that opportunity. He was a one-man band; he wrote the grants, did the interviews with the artists, wrote the texts, and learned the code to design the website. I handled the administration and looked after logistics, installing the shows and the collection. A big part of what I did was looking after the collection.
When I started I was only working three days a week. We didn’t get a lot of core funding from the University of Manitoba for programming, so Cliff had to raise the entire budget for exhibitions through grants from the Manitoba Arts Council and the Canada Council. If he didn’t raise the money, nothing would happen. He was a gifted and very successful grant writer.
He was also a walking contradiction. He could go off in any direction at a moment’s notice but that didn’t mean his thinking or his organizational sense were scattered. He was a highly organized individual. His comprehensive website is testimony to that. He had to function that way to make the gallery work. Part of his decision to do catalogues online was taken out of necessity but another part of it was his interest in grabbing the newest technology. He could see the potential for creating a whole new outreach for dissemination of knowledge about artists. Gallery 1.1.1. was the first gallery to shift to fully online publications. The essay would be published online and then we would produce CD ROMS. At one point we went to a museum conference and Cliff was talking about this approach and it was a hard sell. Our colleagues couldn’t quite abandon the print catalogue. A couple of years after I started, I got to work full time and being able to run full speed changed what we could do. Oliver Botar also played a major role in developing the gallery’s permanent collection, so it was the three of us working collaboratively from 2007 through 2009. I left in 2010 after nine years when I was headhunted to do a gallery renovation in Singapore.
I saw Cliff every day and installing shows with him was always fun. He was very relaxed but on the ball and he had a very good eye. For me one of the highlights was organizing the Gordon Lebredt exhibition, “By the Numbers”, in 2005. I was the curator and Cliff supported me throughout the project. We did a lot of research and we brought in Gordon and developed the collection out of that whole project. I think the KC Adams show was another important exhibition. Cliff paid a lot of attention to First Nation’s art and he was certainly aware of the marginalization of Indigenous people. Something that changed over the years was that he brought gender balance to the exhibition programming. He was also very sensitive to the marginalization of women artists in the art world. It wasn’t clear to me at first how important the archive was to him. When you were around Cliff he would make art constantly and you felt he was focused on being in the moment and that he didn’t care about the accumulation of his work. But as I got to know him, I realized there was a whole archival impulse that was supported by his process of being exponentially prolific. If you’re going to keep all those pieces you have to come up with some sort of organizational structure that can keep track of them.
His generosity is an emotional question for me. I have to say, and this is no exaggeration, that for the nine years that I worked with him not once would he let me buy him lunch. I tried and I pushed but he would never let me. He wouldn’t even let me buy him a coffee. His generosity to artists and his patience was incredible. He would encourage people to develop and grow. I think they felt like he was an equal with them; he was somebody who would share his own experiences with them. He was quite personal in that respect.
There was also his sense of humour and the way he would come at you with that grin. He did not take himself seriously. He would make something but there was never a big ego involved. Over the years, I tried to pin him down on titles. He titled work in the old-fashioned way and he would never give me a straight answer on where or how or why he came up with his titles. At a time when the bigger the statement the better the statement, he is making small paintings. He wanted to go in exactly the opposite direction and he liked to go against the grain. In that respect he was iconoclastic. His energy was incredible. It was a time when he was quite involved with Plug In and the gallery and writing and curating and all these other projects. What I was amazed by was that his lung disease was still quite prominent and there was a lot of coughing when it was cold in the winter. He had this ability to just ignore his health while we were all thinking, “Why don’t you take a break”. But he never complained about it. He was the hardest working man in the art world at the time, all the while dragging around this illness. He was very impressive.
I was living in Germany until 2017 and when we came back home we moved to Vancouver. I had been away and had lost touch with what was happening in Canada. I was looking for different projects and one day I wondered if anyone was doing a retrospective of Cliff’s work. I felt he was long overdue for a show and so I gave him a call and he said no one was planning a show of that kind but I’d be the perfect person to do it. So that was decided in the fall of 2017.
We had been working for 2 ½ years to put the show together and it has been an interesting reversal of roles. Sometimes I wonder is Cliff curating the show or am I curating it because he has such great curatorial ability. I’ve lost track how many times I have been back to do research with Cliff in the studio. The show will not only cover his artistic production but I want to bring in the other creative endeavours that were part of his life in Winnipeg, as a curator and teacher and writer. So I’ve gone to the University of Manitoba archives to guide me to some of his earlier materials, a number of sketchbooks and things like that. But I’m also bringing into the exhibition examples of his writing and writing about his work, as well as documentation of the Gallery 1.1.1. years.
If they have been to the Millennium Library in Winnipeg or the Halifax Central Library, people will have seen his large installations, so they would be well aware of him as an artist but they might not know him as a writer for Border Crossings and other magazines. He was also an excellent curator in the 80s in Halifax even before he came to Winnipeg. And there was his teaching. I’ll be including video of the Abzurbs and their performances. His creative being just keeps going on. There are the ID paintings done with Polaroids and the works made from cellphones. So it’s those dimensions as well as his art-making that I want to bring to “The Library of Babel” exhibition. The title is straight from Borges. Cliff was inspired by that story and he talked a lot about Borges. The frame actually creates a large container for me to put in a lot of things. Of course, Borges’s conception is the universe. I was surprised to learn that Cliff was a big fan of the Impressionists because I thought he was driven by a conceptual frame of reference. But the more I looked into the work what really stood out was his attraction to colour and to the materiality of paint. He really loved the aesthetic aspect of painting. There was a systematic conceptual underpinning to his library installations, but in a lot of ways he was a traditional painter in that he loved abstraction and formalism. At the same time, he is putting things together and sticking them onto a 3 x 5″ card and then lathering it with paint. It was a very visceral approach to painting and it was brilliant. As a bricoleur he was not the kind of artist who left behind a way of working and then moved on to something else. I find this idea of collage, this bricoleur way of making, shows up in the more recent work as well as in work from the late 80s and 90s.
He was interested in the idea of the accumulation of knowledge. His obsession with the library was by extension an obsession with learning, knowledge and accumulation. And it was wrapped up with the idea of the infinite. It was as if his overproduction of work, producing as much as he possibly could, was Cliff striving for the infinite. If you look at an installation of his work, like at the Millennium Library, there is no beginning or end to it and your eye keeps moving around. You have this feeling that you don’t know what you’re seeing and you keep looking and you keep looking. So there is an experience of infinity. I think that was an aspect of Borges to which Cliff was attracted. In early days I think he was interested in interfering or interrupting the taxonomy of the library and its tendency to catalogue knowledge. So he surreptitiously put his own drawings in library books around the world. That was an early investigation but he was also quite fascinated with the library as a democratic institution. He really liked that part of it. You can see a major retrospective of Cliff’s work on the walls of the Halifax Central Library because there are thousands of his paintings. Anyone can walk in and see them and I think that meant a lot to Cliff. “Cliff Eyland: The Library of Babel” will run from July through November of 2021 at The Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Cliff Eyland appears in the following issues of Border Crossings:
Vol 22 No 4 Issue 88 | Interview
Sexy Boy: The Art of Cliff Eyland (read in full)
Vol 34 No 3 Issue 135 | Article by Cliff Eyland
Letter to a Young Artist (read in full)
Vol 29 No 4 Issue 116 | Borderview
Wordlessly, Bookishly: Guy Maddin & Cliff Eyland (read in full)