The next time you take a look at one of Jeff Lyons's quirky paintings in a Calgary coffeehouse, don't be surprised if the artist is looking back.
"I like to watch people watching my paintings, so that I can get a genuine reaction," explains the 34-year-old self-taught artist. "If they stare at one for an extended period of time then I'll introduce myself."
Lyons estimates he's shown his work at over 30 coffeehouses and other places in the city (currently some of his paintings are on display at Bean There on 17th Avenue). He's even exhibited a few paintings in a hair salon, although he was asked to remove them after certain clients said they were offensive. Lyons suspects it was because some of the imagery in his paintings resemble vulvic or phallic shapes.
It's not surprising that Lyons's surrealistic portraits caused a stir. The Calgary artist's brightly coloured oil paintings offer a curious sensuous mix of eyeballs, ears, teeth, corseted thighs, bristling hairs, buildings, potatoes, corn cobs, or anything else that strikes his fancy.
It's sort of like the '60s underground cartoonist Robert Crumb meets Guiseppe Arcimboldo - the 16th century court painter who depicted people as arrangements of fruits and vegetables - with a dash of Japanimation, pop art and 1930s surrealism thrown in for good measure.
Indeed, prominently displayed in Lyons's funky Bankview studio apartment you'll find a stylishly mounted reprint of Hieronymus Bosch's triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. "I always admire an artist whose work just doesn't fit in with the times - the outsiders," he comments.
Born in Edmonton, Lyons grew up in Okotoks where he drew cartoons for his high school yearbook and the local paper. He notes he doesn't come from a particularly artistic family, however, his great uncle is Gyo-Zo Ron Spickett, the veteran Calgary abstractionist being featured at the Triangle Gallery during Art Week.
Lyons moved to Calgary 12 years ago and proudly points out he's lived in the inner city ever since. He's worked in the pizza and printing industries, and for the past eight years has been employed as a picture framer with Rocky Mountain Art Gallery.
Lyons says he fell in love with painting at age 23 when a friend gave him some paints to play with, but after being rejected by The Alberta College of Art and Design three years in a row, he decided to strike out on his own. At first he tried mimicking Impressionist paintings, however, he turned to surrealism as a means of visually replicating the quirky musical compositions he was creating on his electronic keyboard.
Lyons admits his early attempts at surrealism were chaotic, but eventually his paintings became more structured, partly, he believes, because of his interest in architecture. Nevertheless, he purposefully makes his paintings ambiguous in order to keep viewers guessing. "I like it when one person sees it one way and somebody else sees it another way. Some people are scared by this stuff and others just get a laugh out of it.
In a typical Lyons painting, a wiry hook shape can represent an eyebrow but also a claw, hair or ear, while a samurai's grim visage can turn into a clownish face and a sausage-like form manages to be a leg, nose and mouth all at the same time.
The strength of these paintings lies in their compelling interlocking symmetrical designs, which also hold up well as black-and-white prints, drawings or on a computer monitor. In fact, it would be terrific to see them reproduced as a 17 Avenue SW mural or gargantuan plastic and metal sculpture on Stephen Avenue Walk.
On the one hand, you want Lyons to sharpen up his painting skills - so that his brushwork becomes smoother, the colours more vibrant - but, then you realize that if he did attend art school his paintings would probably lose their individuality.
Even in the new realist series he's been experimenting with, which involves an enlarged representation of an old-fashioned doll's head, it's the bizarre nature of his painting, the creepy squished-in appearance of the doll's compressed features, that captures our attention.
Lyons admits that at times he becomes frustrated because his artworks haven't been taken on by a gallery. It's one of the reasons why he set up his own Web site replete with a portfolio of 36 images, an artist's statement outlining his Disney-Dali approach to surrealism, and a gallery open to other like-minded artists.
No matter how he exhibits his work, though, the affable painter says that his philosophy towards artmaking will remain the same.
"These days, there aren't a lot of people who are interested in art or think about it. But everyone wants to be entertained. I thought I would turn up the decibel level a bit. I didn't just want to make quiet little paintings. I'm a showman at heart. I like to create art that may have a surrealistic bent but will also make people smile.