Interview with Erica Eyres
By John Beagles
John Beagles: Over the last couple of years you’ve gradually shifted away from using yourself as the principle actor in your films, Clay Head continues this. What were the reasons for this?
Erica Eyres: I felt that I had exhausted my own performances, and wanted to render myself completely unrecognizable. After considering taking a course to make more elaborate prosthetics, I realized I could ask other people to play the roles. I employed untrained actors in a few projects, but possess few skills as a director. Trying to organize all those children in Pam’s Dream was like herding cats.
I recently attempted a return to performance, but my heart was no longer in it. Clay Head has a performative element that is established through the use of my own (slightly altered) voice and hands. However, the modeled head becomes a kind of stand in for my own face, as well as the narrator.
JB: The shift in the videos has been matched by changes in the drawings. Unlike some of the earlier works, the new drawings show an unsettling, uncanny tone that is achieved through a more restrained use of distortion. You joked that this was because you had simply gotten better at drawing (!), but I wondered if it was also a consequence of appreciating the ordinary extraordinary nature of the original source material? I remarked to you that the old hairstyles in the nudist drawings had been rendered almost sublime by time - clearly you didn’t need to do quite so much with hair like that! Do you think you’ve become better at selecting stronger images to transform, or is it a case of knowing how much more economical you can be with your changes of scale and selection.
EE: Yes, the source material is now more interesting, and it becomes easier to identify images that best serve my purposes. I suppose the more restrained rendering also makes sense with these images because the subjects try to portray themselves as normal by engaging in mundane activities, despite their very obvious eccentricity of being naked all the time.
JB: The issue of selection seems central to your work, from your earlier videos onwards, your ear and eye for detail have been exceptional. How do you find the source material for the basis of your drawings and videos? At the start of Clay Head, the off-screen narrator remarks, “it is fun to look back. There are things that now appear very dated, and do not stand the test of time.” Are you fuelled by a similar relationship with artifacts of the past?
EE: I obsessively collect a lot of material, then edit down by singling out images, and emphasizing particular elements. I’ve tried working from images online, but cannot find the same connection that I do with hard copies. I briefly wanted to exploit contemporary material, but prefer to work with artifacts; I enjoy the process of discovering something, picking through and evaluating each image, then throwing away what doesn’t seem necessary. A couple of years ago, I had to go organize a huge amount of stuff that I had stored on my family’s farm. This was a similar process of shifting through everything, finding each item highly significant and emotive, then slowly boiling down to a small pile of the most important items.
JB: How would you describe your feelings towards the people who inhabit your drawings and videos? It would be easy to adopt a slightly sneering, mocking tone towards the naturalists for example, but your work always seems filled with a real sense of empathy and compassion.
EE: My selection of images and characters is often based on my identification with people who appear odd but perceive themselves as ‘normal’. My parents both worked in psychiatry, so I have an interest in psychology and the factors that contribute towards extreme personalities.
JB: A sense of being dislocated, either geographically or culturally is often cited as being key in the development of a humorist perspective. Do you think moving to Scotland was key in tilting your perception and understanding of the culture you’d grown up in? The unrepeatable stories about Canada you told me, had a Lynchean surrealism to them, but did it all become clearer once you landed here?
EE: Each time I go to Winnipeg I have a lot of mixed feelings as I reconnect with aspects of the city and the people, as well as a déjà vu experience that brings old narratives to the surface. So I have developed a vantage point from which I view the culture that is both distant and familiar. I enjoy the act of retelling stories that become more surreal and funny each time.
JB: In your earlier video work you memorably excelled at inhabiting ‘others’ through your performance. I’ve always thought this extended to your work in pencil. Your drawing style exemplifies what was once described to me as sixth form shading expert style, the kind of obsessive drawing style, dedicated to the capturing of ‘reality’ pioneered and perfected by nervous hormonally imbalanced teenage boys. Mike Kelley once remarked that being an adolescent was, contrary to the modernist celebration of the child, the only state an artist should aspire to – for Kelley being caught between the world of the adult and the child in a kind of limbo was the preferred state – do you think that’s why you are attracted to that kind of drawing style?
EE: It’s not that I aspire to any form of drawing, that’s just what seems easy to me. So I would interpret the Mike Kelly statement as meaning that an artist should do whatever comes naturally. Drawing is something I’ve always done obsessively, so much that I feel guilty about it. My favorite thing to do is to draw and watch TV, which I’ve done since I was a child.
JB: In his book on awkwardness Adam Kotsko talks about awkwardness as a feeling that is oddly inclusive – an emotion that spreads and deepens feelings of empathy through an acknowledgement of our folly -- a knowledge of our shared wretchedness is our greatness. Is it fair to say that that’s a response you hope to generate in your viewers?
EE: I tend to have an excess of empathy, so perhaps that comes through. I never try to make something awkward -- that ‘low budget’ TV aesthetic is just the best I can do (ha ha). But I would agree that awkwardness has an inclusive quality, that everyone experiences this on a daily basis. It’s just that some people are better at hiding their awkwardness than others.
JB: How would you describe the kind of humor you employ in your work? To me while it can occasionally be laugh out loud in its absurdism, your more recent work seems especially shot through with a really plaintive kind of melancholia –heart aching at times in its tragic-comedy.
EE: I’m interested in laughing that feels ‘wrong’ or inappropriate, and jokes that dissolve before the punch line. I think I am someone who is predisposed to being melancholy, but am constantly embarrassed by this, so I use humour to counter those feelings. Comedy makes tragedy easier to live with.
John Beagles is an artist and writer who lives in Glasgow, Scotland. He currently divides his time between undergraduate work in the department of Visual and Cultural Studies and studio teaching in the MFA program. He has also taught MFA courses at Glasgow School of Art in the MFA course, and at Chelsea College of Art.