A REASONED COMPULSION
[This interview with Cliff Eyland by Ray Cronin first appeared in Toronto's "C" magazine, May/August 1997, 22-26.]
[p.22:] Now based in Winnipeg, artist Cliff Eyland spent many formative and professional years in Halifax. He is also a freelance curator and writer and sees these activities as important extensions of his work as an artist. He returned to the Maritimes last year for a solo exhibition entitled "Wildlife at Gallery Connexion in Fredericton, where he was interviewed by Ray Cronin.
[p.24:] The works in "Wildlife" like all of Eyland's finished paintings are painted on three by five inch Masonite board (the size of a standard file card). Though media and content vary, Eyland has always shown his paintings (which he calls samples) in sets of twenty-eight related works. If hung traditionally, each set of "samples" is an exhibition in itself, but sets may also be incorporated in various wall configurations or group exhibitions.
The samples exhibited in "Wildlife" are systematic in their approach composing a conceptualist project made up of almost two thousand elements. This apparent contradiction lead to an exhibition that was engaging, funny and unorthodox.
[p.25:] Ray Cronin: Your paintings share strategies with early conceptualism, most notably rules-based practices, serial production and a formal uniformity in your case the file card. However the paintings themselves are hardly what one might expect from a conceptual artist. What is the relationship between conceptualism and painterly concerns for you?
Cliff Eyland: My introduction to conceptual art happened in 1970-71 when as a teenager I was introduced to NSCAD [Nova Scotia Çollege of Art & Design] through informal art lessons from a NSCAD-student named Suzanne Paquette. She also introduced me to her cool art school friends and let me paint in her NSCAD studio. At the time, I thought of conceptual art as local, Halifax art like folk art or marine painting, only much more interesting. As a kid I regarded conceptual art as a kind of philosophical practice which used materials as well as words. I have also thought of conceptual art as a kind of physics in which the cultural properties of things are discovered.
I read Joseph Kosuth's article, "Art after Philosophy" when I was very young, and it was completely disorienting. It was, of course, the writing of an ambitious young person--he bites off more than he can chew in it, but I managed to get something out of Kosuth, perhaps an orientation.
Painting in conceptual art usually follows a reductive logic. My attraction to conceptual art, however, had to do with its examination of the fundamentals of art not philosophy as some kind of motif, but art as a kind of fundamental research. The use of complex or charged imagery in my painting does not look fundamental but I think it is. Conceptual art has long since entered a postmodern discourse in which a flower or a robot painted on a file card is as "fundamental" an investigation as a Robert Ryman monochrome or a Sol LeWitt wall drawing. Many kinds of painting made within a conceptual art context are full of the static of representational images: this static is unavoidable like radio interference.
Ray: How do you reconcile the drawing and painting that you do within your conceptualist framework? Is there a conflict between the aesthetic concerns of individual works and the framework as a whole? The kind of automatic invention that you practice seems to share more with surrealism than with conceptualism. Is this a contradiction for you?
Cliff: It is a contradiction, surrealism and conceptual art. I could never ignore the implications of conceptual art, especially since I was exposed to it so early, and I know that much of my imagery would never be acceptable to some of my NSCAD teachers. The dichotomy aesthetic/conceptual that you suggest does not exist for me, but I think I know what you mean.
I studied with Eric Cameron at NSCAD, but more importantly, I studied him Cameron's thick paintings, which he had just begun, were the subject of my first art writing. He is a painter and a conceptual artist. Not a surrealist, of course, but the thick paintings are full of content that cannot be reduced to his painting system. I have always been as obsessive about drawing as Cameron is about making the thick paintings--we may share a neurotic need to paint and draw, but for an artist that need not be debilitating.
Cameron once wrote an article about Jerry Ferguson called "System and Sensibility" which sums up in three words I'd like to emphasize the word sensibility why conceptual art can even produce surrealist painting. Still, I can't take surrealism seriously as a movement in painting, of course--who could I do like the idea of splicing whole art movements together the way one would have done collage in the old days. But, surrealist conceptual art? It doesn't sound right. Also, the surrealist-looking stuff is only one type of painting I do. It happens because I often work the way an unfashionable artist like Picasso worked in his later years: I make everything up and watch the painting form before my eyes. The difference and of course many differences between me and Picasso cannot be exaggerated! is in my attitude to what I am. Picasso wouldn't think of himself as being "socially constructed," but I do, and so when I paint I know that I am projecting something into a surface which will not only reflect the type of person I am, but also the so-called 'inner lives' of other people like me--I mean this in a very literal way.
Ray: Conceptualism has become a tool for many younger artists, where it was an end for its originators. The image is back, it's no longer bad; yet there still has to be some sort of conceptual underpinning to its use. Why not just play?
Cliff: The whole tradition of trying to make the last possible painting thrived when I was a kid; but that tradition is dead now. Nobody today would have such pretensions. Instead we have other pretensions. One of them involves making work that marks itself off as being professional art through various semiotic devices. Museum scale is one way to do this a big painting asserts itself as serious art. Another way to mark oneself as being professional like a professional soldier who shoots when commanded is to use a conceptual art strategy to make the work. If one of my paintings is shown singly somewhere, it could easily look as if any number of artists could have made it I find that amusing. It is not as if I refuse to make huge scale paintings in order to prove that a small painting can be taken seriously I do not to get anxious if someone does not grasp the bigger project, which involves hundreds of paintings the same size, but instead dismisses the painting as being too small. I have enough distance on my work to realize, however, that insiders do not confuse my painting with, say, outsider-art because they can easily see the system and the sensibility in it.
You say the image is back, but you know and I know [C magazine's p.26 begins here:] that the image never left.
Ray: Do the images in your painting matter?
Cliff: The images that matter for me lately are ones that I create myself without appropriating material or even using models. When I was at NSCAD the idea that you might want to make everything up in a representational painting was considered by many to be a waste of time inefficient. Why not borrow an image from mass culture or from another artist instead? There are so many.
After I graduated from NSCAD I worked in an architecture school for nine years and I became fascinated with the differences between, say, representing a chair in a picture and designing a chair out of thin air, but also, in a sense, designing an imaginary chair. This attitude struck me forcefully as I watched architecture students work at TUNS [The Technical University of Nova Scotia is now called "Daltech"].
Ray: How does your activity as a curator and writer factor in to your project as a painter? You almost seem to curate your own work, for instance
Cliff: I do curate my own work, but as a curator I also make art. As a curator I sometimes push artists until they resist as a way of testing their art. If the art fails it may become totally absorbed into a curatorial idea, but if it is successful, no curatorial idea can contain it. As for my art-writing, I think of those things as letters about art to friends.
When I do a show of my own painting I either work with a curator who writes about the stuff, or I make everything myself. It's just easier for galleries to deal with. I write an essay, number and frame the works, make a file card-sized catalogue which looks as if it were run off by the thousands but is actually a hand-made unnumbered and unsigned limited edition which is given away or sold for one or two dollars and I send the gallery the entire package.
Ray: In your talk at the Gallery Connexion you mentioned starting the file card paintings at a time when painting was not in vogue at NSCAD. You (facetiously I thought) called it painting that you could do in secret. Isn't that what you're still doing?
Cliff: I began to make 3"x5" paintings in 1981 and let me tell you painting was definitely back at NSCAD. But critiques of painting were also at their apex. Benjamin Buchloh, one of my teachers, published his essay "Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression" in October magazine And that essay remains the most scathing critique of the return to painting, as NSCAD and the art world were doing in the late seventies and early eighties. Lots of people were painting at the time and there were strong instructors like Ron Shuebrook, John Clarke and Judith Mann but Buchloh said things like "painting is totally irrelevant." So that got my attention.
A prominent visitor to the College, Peter Fuller, met with me and called my paintings "concessions to conceptualism," but I am sure most of my fellow Buchloh classmates would have characterized them as concessions to painting.
I put paintings and other works in the book pockets of library books that's the secret work. But most contemporary artists probably think they make art in secret. I am always reminded of the obscurity of most contemporary art when I talk to people who are not artists even academics in other fields. Even famous visual artists are unknown to most people.