Portrait of the artist as a passionate monk

Robert Enright May 3 1982

Portrait of the artist as a passionate monk

Robert Enright May 3 1982

Portrait of the artist as a passionate monk


Robert Enright

One morning six years ago, Ivan Eyre was walking along Trappiste Street near his home in the picturesque countryside south of Winnipeg. In those days, a monastery stood close by. “There was a monk working in the field,” Eyre recalls, sitting in a paint-spattered chair in his spacious studio. “I suppose he thought I was one of them, because as I walked by he said, ‘Good morning, brother.’ ” The * thought of being mistaken for a monk still amuses Eyre, but the error was understandable.

One of Canada’s leading artists, Eyre is something of a recluse, with an approach to painting that is both devotional and obsessive.

In a way, he’s a passionate monk.

At 47, Eyre has reached a zenith in his career as a painter. He is represented in most of the country’s important public and private collections. A retrospective of his work opened at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris last month after a 17month Canadian tour. A sumptuous book on Eyre by George Woodcock was recently published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside. His panoramic landscapes are regarded by critic Michael Greenwood as “among the most significant achievements of landscape painting in Canada.”

Other top-ranking Canadian artists, such as Alex Colville or Christopher Pratt, may command higher prices, but in contrast to their limited output of two or three paintings a year, Eyre is prolific. In recent years, he has produced at least half a dozen large-scale canvases annually. The 140by 150-cm landscapes sell for $26,000; the drawings begin at $1,200. The owner of a Winnipeg trucking firm recently paid a

record $60,000 for a 165by 360-cm landscape. Eyre’s prosperity is evident in the large modern house with attached studio overlooking the La Salle River, the silver Mercedes-Benz and the apartment in New York City’s Greenwich Village to which he commutes every month.

Eyre is a jumble of contradictions. He is a spiritual painter and a relentless businessman; he is humble, even embarrassed when complimented about his work, but quick to place himself in a league with history’s greatest painters. “Hieronymous Bosch,” he says without a moment’s hesitation, “is a brother.” His contrariness crops up in the work itself. Viewers are never entirely comfortable with the multiple perspectives in his landscapes. “I am fascinated by paradoxes,” Eyre says, “I try to put everything into each piece.”

Eyre’s pursuit of what he calls his vision has been a painful and solitary journey. He has had his detractors from the time of his first show in a commercial gallery in Montreal in the early ’60s, when he sold only a single work. The reception was no warmer in Western Canada, his birthplace and home. Beginning with Clement Greenberg’s legendary workshop at Emma Lake in 1962, New York abstraction swept across the Prairies like a scrub fire. Held up against the clean, big attack of New York art, Eyre’s surrealistic canvases were regarded as curiosities. To this day, his recollections about the period retain the immediacy of a fresh wound: “Most of the ’60s art was silly, empty and boring. One color sitting on top of another isn’t a heck of a lot different from charts in a paint store where you say, ‘This will be good for the living room and this will be

good for the bathroom.’ ”

Yet Eyre was equally hard on himself. In 1965 he reviewed the paintings he had done over the previous three years and found that “they were not as sincere and intense as I would have wanted.”

Eyre’s criticism was irrevocable. He stacked 70 oil paintings in his backyard and staged a bonfire that sent large clouds of black smoke into the prairie sky. He now regards his painterly witchhunt as impulsive and silly: “I’d like to see them now. The errors are very important too, so now I keep everything.”

Never a follower of any modern school, Eyre insists that “it’s important to get into trouble, to be unconventional.” He has been true to his word; throughout his career he has continued to paint the disquieting, figure-inlandscape works, though they have never been as popular as the pure landscapes upon which his recent reputation is based. Ironically, the success of these big lyrical paintings, so well suited to corporate boardrooms, has exposed him to criticism of being deliberately decorative. Eyre shrugs his shoulders in response, insisting that the edge is still there in the landscapes: “The darkness has moved underground. Now I’m trying to paint terror beautifully.” In any event the distinction between landscape and the figurative works is lost on the artist, who considers all of his work abstract.

“People think I go outside and sit there with a pencil and make notes, or take my easel outside.

God forbid, a 12-foot canvas out in the wind.” He becomes emphatic. “There isn’t any of that.

It’s all done from memory and invention.”

His earliest memories reveal a double-edged romance with the Prairies. A grain elevator resembled a “great wooden castle with unknowable upper reaches”; danger was never far off—a grandfather drowning in a slough, his father breaking his ribs in a hay rake, the evidence of a grotesque suicide on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. His father was a schoolteacher, and the family’s early life was nomadic. Ivan, a withdrawn, sickly child, found his principal outlet in drawing,

but in later years he showed his fierce determination to overcome his weakness by becoming a hard-running fullback for a junior-league football team. John Hirsch, who attended the University of Manitoba with him, recalls that he “persistently and religiously followed his own bent. I could sense, even then, a conscious effort to isolate himself, to serve his own vision.”

Even today in Winnipeg, a city with a tradition of artist activism, Eyre’s need for isolation is accepted. Says sculptor Don Proch, a former student of Eyre’s

at the University of Manitoba: “If Ivan weren’t working away, a lot of us would have packed it in.” Eyre generates loyalty in his personal relationships. As a teacher he has communicated his rigorous commitment to painting as a way of life. Says Eleanor Hannan, a former drawing student: “He

taught you to love every line that you put down, every mark.”

Meditative by nature, Eyre has developed an almost hermetic relationship with his own art. He is a kind of artistic Robinson Crusoe, surrounded in his home by a one-man show of his own painting, drawing and sculpture. Everything he paints is generated out of this en£ closed world. Says Peter I Day, managing director of I the Mira Godard Gallery, “Eyre’s Toronto dealer: “Ivan’s painting feeds upon itself in a way that is almost Promethean.” Along with art, Eyre ranks his wife, Brenda, and their two teenage sons as his other obsession. His wife also acts as his manager, handling everything from pricing to correspondence to details about color separations. She is his temperamental opposite, outgoing and vivacious. Eyre admits that the New York apartment gives her more pleasure than it does him. He has converted a large bedroom with five-metre ceilings into a studio, where he prefers to cloister himself rather than go out. “If I go uptown, it’s a whole day. I get greedy with my time. I shouldn’t be, but I still feel as if I’m in a race.”

Shut away from the distractions of the outside world, Eyre broods over the images that have haunted him for a decade, the figures he calls “distant madnesses.” His most recent painting, Birdmen, is a brilliant catalogue of favorite images: hornblowers on factory ramparts, ghostly riders in the sky, a menacing band of men with bird-like helmets. In the foreground, two self-portraits with heads bound in bandage-like wrappings stare impassively, ignoring the alarms outside, their window. It is a portrait of the artist, surrounded by symbols of his power and his fear, a sort of esthetic brain scan. Or, as Eyre himself says, “My paintings are geographies of the spirit.” ;