Messy Comedies: Janieta Eyre creates strange worlds of beauty and humour

Janieta Eyre: The Royal Hospital Staff (1998): Fibre-based triptych prints, 30 x 40 inches each. Images courtesy the artist,  Gallerie Samuel Lallouz, Montreal and Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects, Toronto.Janieta Eyre: The Royal Hospital Staff (1998): Fibre-based triptych prints, 30 x 40 inches each. Images courtesy the artist, Galerie Samuel Lallouz, Montreal and Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects, Toronto.

Interview by Krystina Mierins

Toronto-based Janieta Eyre uses photography and video to document meticulously assembled environments and performed moments that often feature herself as a model. Since the early 1990s, she has exhibited in Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia. In May, Magenta contributor Krystina Mierins interviewed Eyre at the University of Toronto Art Centre (UTAC) during the exhibition Constructing Mythologies, a survey of her work.

Krystina Mierins (KM): I was recently speaking with a sculptor who has a conflicted relationship with photography because the hand of the artist is often somewhat hidden in contrast to her medium. When she encountered The Mute Book, she was intrigued by the many roles you take on in the creation of costumes and sets. How do you view your role as maker?

Janieta Eyre (JE): That’s a good question. I like the camera, but it never interested me before I went to art school. I’m using it to document something so it’s part of the process. I’m not a photographer like Andrew, for instance. [Guelph-based Andrew Wright’s exhibition, Penumbra, was showing concurrently at UTAC]. I’m building these elaborate sets and sewing costumes and making an environment. I think photo-based artist sounds more accurate.

KM: You make myriad references to art history. How did your highly involved engagement with art history come about?

JE: I’ve always wanted to live inside of a painting. When I was a kid, I was lucky because my parents traveled quite a bit and we went to many art galleries, and I used to stare at those paintings and wish that I could climb into them. I know in some way I’ve carried that with me. Reading is a bit the same. You get to climb into a different world, and in writing and photography you get to make the world.

KM: While looking at this exhibition, I became keenly aware of the constructed spaces. In your process, how do you consider the settings?

Janieta Eyre, The Mute Book #2 (2009): 50 x 40 inches.Janieta Eyre, The Mute Book #2 (2009): 50 x 40 inches.JE: In some way, I think it is trying to create something that is lost because I came here as an immigrant and one of the bigger shocks to me was how far Canada is from Europe. Every summer, we used to go to Holland and it was a big part of my life. The buildings are different; it’s much smaller and compact. This country is wild and kind of naked and scary, but incredible in a different way. It’s almost like those things came together in my work over the years to make a new space. I always feel like I’m a foreigner now wherever I go. I’m feeling more Canadian as the years pass. It’s a funny feeling not to have a land or a people, so some of the work is about that. I think that’s why I feel such a strong sense of connection to painting because painting doesn’t have a country. The country is the artist’s imagination and I think that’s my country too. It’s my place of origin.

KM: Many of the works in Constructed Mythologies bring to mind the domestic realm represented in the work of the female impressionists, like Mary Cassatt.

JE: I know Mary Cassatt, but that kind of painting is alien to me. That life is very dear to me, the small things in life like sitting and drinking tea with your grandmother and the feeling of holding a baby. All those domestic things are beautiful and they are very much part of what I am trying to include in my environments. But, there is also an imaginary world that makes everything, when it is all mixed together, more crazy. To me, the psychology of that is more true, whereas it’s idealized images that Mary Cassatt made. They were probably true for her but, for me, they’re not.

KM: Do you see the spaces that you create as gendered in the way that we might think of Cassatt’s work in relation to the male Impressionists, who were working outside of the home in the streets and cafes?

JE: That’s a really interesting parallel. I never thought of that. You can see it even in these two spaces, inside outside [in reference to Wright’s show].

KM: This distinction of interior and exterior, male and female, spaces is also present in the video Natural History Museum.

JE: This is the story of twin pregnant taxidermists. I think it’s a bit about the male and female sensibility and the difference between the two, and how one is outside the other. And, for me, I understand the female world and the female sensibility and it’s full of colour and is more dramatic. The male world seems somewhat monochromatic in comparison.

KM: The only female represented in Constructing Mythologies who appears to be outside of the home is the Yes Queen from the "Lady Lazarus" series.

Janieta Eyre: The Mute Book #5 (2010): 50 x 40 inches.Janieta Eyre: The Mute Book #5 (2010): 50 x 40 inches.JE: I asked a friend who was painting backdrops for the CBC to paint me a couple of drops. I found photocopies of paintings and then put them together in a different way. It was interesting working with backdrops because I love painting but a lot of it’s not that intentional. I’ll make a sketch for an image and I’ll assemble it, but I think an image, since it’s not in words, is hard for me to put into words later on to make sense of it. I start with a picture and then when I’m building it more gets added or subtracted, and when I’m photographing, I see something else.

KM: This image conveys a great deal of repression mingled with hints of perceived freedom or power. Layered on this, the ‘yes’ on her forehead brings to mind the idea of women having to say yes to everything and take on all responsibilities.

JE: The 'yes' is a joke. It’s about the woman who can’t say no. She’s a Yes Queen and it is how, in this society, you’re pressured to say yes as a woman. It’s part of being a woman: "Yes, I can do that. And you need help? Yes, of course I’ll help.

KM: Images of your daughter convey a strong sense of innocence that is conflicted by certain details. How did the series “In the Scream of Things” develop?

JE: This was influenced by Neil Gaiman’s book Coraline. It’s a short book he wrote a number of years ago. In it there is a mother and then there’s the Other Mother. This child finds the Other Mother, I think, through a false wall in a cupboard and the Other Mother is soulless and she has buttons for eyes. She sucks the souls from her child victims. It is such a great story and I tried to read it to my daughter but she didn’t like it at all. That story really stayed with me so I wanted to do a series about that, and Balthus has done these images of children — girls — and I think they are so beautiful. He talks about them as prayers, and I know he is not that popular right now — he’s considered politically incorrect — but those paintings inspired this work, too. For me, Balthus is a great painter. I love his paintings. I don’t care what anyone says. I think it is our time. We’re in this very sensitive time and people judge very quickly.

KM: Do you feel that people are judging your work?

JE: I think it is more difficult to judge my work because it’s ambiguous. So, it’s harder for people to say. I don’t worry about it.

Janieta Eyre: The Mute Book #8 (2010): 72 x 33 inches.Janieta Eyre: The Mute Book #8 (2010): 72 x 33 inches.KM: What did your daughter think of the process?

JE: I wasn’t going to photograph her. She asked me at the age of seven, Why aren’t I in your photographs? And, I said, Well, do you want to be? and she said yes. I told her, If I do a series of photographs, it’s not going to be easy for you. They’re going to be uncomfortable, and difficult, unpleasant. Are you sure you want to do it? Yes. So, I actually did it because she was interested in participating.

KM: Occasionally, you have used other models. How does this change your process and way of thinking about your images?

JE: It was interesting. I wanted to work with other people. It was a totally different process. I still got to do imaginative work, but the environments were more simple, mainly by necessity because I had to focus on their costumes and poses.

KM: Would you work with models again?

JE: I’m doing a series of photographs with girls juxtaposed against landscapes. I wanted to photograph the outdoors, particularly rainy and stormy days. Then, I was really interested in girls at the age of eleven or twelve because they’re between adulthood and childhood. They have something very special and beautiful at that age.

Right now I’m painting on the photographs. It has taken me a year and a half to figure how to do it, trying all these different ways and every material possible, but I’ve found something I like.

KM: Do you know when you’ll be showing that work?

JE: I’m actually going to show them in September in Montreal so I have a tight deadline. It will be at Galerie Samuel Lallouz. He’s moving locations and he asked me if I wanted to open the space.

KM: In your text for The Mute Book, you write:

I … stumbled on an old black and white photograph of a person dressed half as a man and half as a woman. The clothes, makeup and hair had been carefully and beautifully divided. I had a powerful feeling of recognition, and this is what made me begin to take the photographs in this series.

The two halves in each of the works both appear very feminine, different from the traditional conception of the male-female dichotomy

JE: I did a picture called The Queen Mum. She is half in her dressing gown and pyjamas and a slipper on one foot, and the other side is dressed to go out. It was the middle of winter when I was working, and I was thinking about how it’s so difficult to go out and do anything. It’s feeling slightly depressed and it’s like being two people. One inside in pyjamas who doesn’t want to go out, and the other who has to dress up and put on this costume and go out and perform this role. Its that kind of splitting between who we are at home and who we are on the street. It was interesting to me particularly with someone like the Queen. Who is she at home? Does she even get to be anyone different?

Janieta Eyre: The Yes Queen (2009): Fibre-based print, 30 x 40 inches.Janieta Eyre: The Yes Queen (2009): Fibre-based print, 30 x 40 inches.KM: How do you feel about your work being described or understood in relation to identity politics, similar to that explored by Cindy Sherman and Suzy Lake?

JE: I don’t really think much about the politics of what I’m doing, and I don’t really think about the politics of what other artists are doing, either. I’m usually more interested in the aesthetics. The Suzy Lake works that I love are the ones where she is sweeping. For me, it’s very beautiful. I feel seduced by it. And Cindy Sherman... I like the Film Stills because they’re a world that you can go into, so I connect with them in those ways.

KM: Are there other contemporary artists who you view as more connected to your practice?

JE: I have a much stronger connection with writers than I do with artists. I don’t feel like I can inhabit their work the same way that I can inhabit a writer’s work. When I was younger, I was really influenced by Violette Leduc and the writings of Colette. They’re very personal, autobiographical, crazy descriptions of things, honest and raw. There is a kind of blurring of life and art, and there is an open-heartedness towards life that I thought was incredible.

KM: Does beauty enter into the choices you make?

JE: I think it does because usually I am trying to make something pleasing to me and it doesn’t necessarily succeed in being pleasing for anyone else. But, the colours are something that I’m working to bring together to create something that is peaceful to me, satisfying to me. In that sense, I would say beauty is of interest, but no one has ever called my work beautiful.

KM: You create highly provocative and evocative images. What do you seek to provoke?

JE: I’m usually completely blind and oblivious to what other people’s responses are. Usually, I’m completely wrong about what people will like and I get the opposite reaction. So, when I’m making, I have no idea. I can’t intentionally provoke; I don’t think I’m capable of that. I’m making it for one viewer and that’s me, and I’m not thinking about anyone else. I think if I did start to do that, I would make something different, and I also think I’d find it inhibiting because I would be trying to guess what would provoke. I do have humour when I’m making the work. Sometimes I think people miss the humour and they think it’s provocation instead, but some of it is silliness and humour. Not many artists work with that in the art world, or you start being silly or using humour and it’s not considered art anymore.

KM: What are some examples of humour in your work?

Janieta Eyre: Untitled #10, from the series In the Scream of Things (2007)Janieta Eyre: Untitled #10, from the series In the Scream of Things (2007)JE: I did a piece with the Royal Hospital Staff where they’re all asleep on the job. Then, The Day my Eye Laid an Egg is about the messiness and craziness of being a mother, just being completely overwhelmed. But, it’s also a humourous look at always having to be available to this other little being. In some ways it’s a comedy, too, a messy comedy.

KM: Do you have other upcoming projects scheduled?

JE: The photographs I did of the girls are going to be shown as part of Art in Transit. I gave the organizers the material, but I’m not sure where they are going to put it. I was told they’d go in shopping malls. I’m excited about it because it’s so different from the gallery. I’ve been thinking of different ways to get out of the gallery and to be in a more public space because sometimes it seems a little sad to me that it’s a bit academic. People are frightened of galleries. They’ll walk by them, but they won’t go in them.

KM: Do you have any other ideas as to how you might reach a broader audience?

JE: I like billboards and I’ve proposed to do a CONTACT Photography Festival subway project. My dream is to have a retrospective in one of the subway stations. They want something more conservative, I think, but I will continue to try and I hope one day they will say yes. I think that would be the height of fun, connecting with people who would never otherwise walk into a gallery.

Constructing Mythologies appeared at the University of Toronto Art Centre from April 30 to June 28, 2013. The Mute Book appeared at Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects in Toronto from May 16 to June 9, 2013. Eyre’s exhibition of new work, I Should Have Begun With This, opens at Galerie Samuel Lallouz in Montreal on September 15, 2013.

Krystina Mierins completed her MA in Art History before working in the architecture department at the Carnegie Museum of Art. She has also worked at the Carleton University Art Gallery and the McMaster Museum of Art. She is now an independent writer based in Toronto, and her writing has appeared in publications such as Border Crossings, Artillery and Ornamentum.