Photographs by Janieta Eyre- April 15 to May 13, 1999
Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, University of Ontario, Toronto.
I've always found the proposition "Life is a cabaret" wearying and vaguely threatening. Do I have to rehearse? What if I forget my lines? These questions plagued me throughout my (potato) salad years until a helpful drag queen explained to me the concept of "performativity."
Under this handy conceit, all of us are onstage all the time. Every gesture, every bit of clothing and every word is a choice -- one bit of business in the ongoing act of self-definition that makes up the larger "performance" of living our lives. In other words, it's all a kind of drag, a putting-on of costumes and guises. This explains why life is frequently dull -- you're hanging around backstage, waiting for your cue.
Two new exhibitions by Toronto-based photographer Janieta Eyre, Black Eye and Lady Lazarus, take this little nugget of psycho-deconstruction and run to the high, purple hills with its inherently flamboyant, theatrical implications. Comprised almost exclusively of self-portraits, the two shows find Eyre positioning herself as the central character in elaborate, audacious, Greenaway-esque fairy tales of desire, torment, idiosyncrasy and outright lunacy.
The resulting images are both spectacular and a spectacle. Eyre offers her viewers a fascinatingly hysterical look at the drama of self-awareness -- employing a high-pitched, demonically analytical gaze that functions as a delightfully crazed legitimization of every self-glamorizing tendency you've ever suppressed. Be as big a drama queen as you like, you'll still never even rustle the lowest fringe on Eyre's ballgown.
Lady Lazarus and Black Eye differ in one key choice: with the exception of two works, the photos in Lady Lazarus are printed in a luminous, spooky black-and-white, while the works in Black Eye are printed in toxic, crayon-bright color. I can't decide which I like best. Eyre's black-and-whites convey a pleasingly frozen, anachronistic tone, particularly in her use of inky, flawlessly faux-black backdrops. It's as if one were looking at movie stills from particularly violent German silent or Expressionist cinema. Meanwhile, Eyre's color photos are lavish circuses besotted with loud, primary colors that reinforce the carnivalesque sexuality of her subjects/ characters.
Take your pick, or see both. Either way, you'll be struck by the obsessional recurrence of certain tokens, totems and poses within Eyre's elaborately constructed postures and scenarios. Eyre doesn't so much photograph herself in various identities (ˆ la Cindy Sherman) as she creates for us a voyeuristic diorama of a rare species -- namely, the artist herself.
Crinolines and knee-high stockings, balaclava ski masks, heavy eye paint, peek-a-boo blindfolds, Edith Sitwell-style lampshade hats, cutouts from American Sign Language manuals and lifesize self-portraits, short skirts, nurse aprons and little-girl handbags all recur in the photographs, creating a secret language that vacillates between wanting to reveal its meanings and wanting to hold them close.
Laden with the props of archetypal little-girl role models -- nurse, bride, queen -- Eyre's photographs become the adult equivalent of playing dress-up. Yet, the creepy, Addams Family ghoulishness in Eyre's poses repositions the act of play as serious business, even when it is ostensibly comedic.
In a great number of Eyre's self-portraits, the artist could pass for a dressed-up corpse. Clearly, we are watching Eyre be Eyre being someone (or something) else. Rigid identity is figuratively dead.
Like an autobiography written by a hundred different authors, Eyre's work obscures as much as it animates. And that is its strength. In an age of tiresome, didactic identity-based art, Eyre's aggressive, very public puzzling out of the impossibilities of establishing a fixed identity, her psycho-graphic high-wire act, generates a wondrous, hypnotic tension.