In Memoriam: Enn Erisalu

In 1990, Enn Erisalu had a solo exhibition at the 49th Parallel Gallery in New York City. I wrote the essay for the catalogue that accompanied that show, and opened it with "Enn Erisalu is an artist of unusual and enduring probity." Probity, I remind myself now, denotes honesty, integrity, and sincerity, moral traits that translate into intellectual and aesthetic traits in Erisalu's art. The word also connotes, for me, the way he invested forms with meanings beyond the merely visual.

One of Vancouver's most thoughtful, erudite, and accomplished painters, Enn Erisalu died suddenly, of a massive infection, on May 29. He was 61 years old and his notebooks were filled with ideas for new paintings. Born in Haapsalu, Estonia, in 1943, he immigrated with his family to Canada in 1951, settling in Vancouver. In 1963, he won a scholarship to the Art Center College of Design near Los Angeles, from which he graduated with honours in 1967. He furthered his art studies during two years in Europe, returning to Vancouver in 1969 to devote himself to painting.

Although he possessed immense virtuosity in his chosen medium, Erisalu underplayed it through consecutive series of austere and self-contained abstractions and text works. Through the last three decades, he worked in a manner that both deconstructed painting and reaffirmed what it is. Depicting a succession of forms-including subtly modulated rectangles stacked up like sheet metal in shallow space, impossibilist cubes, and Platonic solids against a partitioned ground-he investigated that persistent conundrum, the flatness of the picture plane versus the painter's ability to create the illusion of depth. More importantly, he asked his viewers to consider the complex mechanisms of perception and cognition, and how we make sense of visual experience.

About 15 years ago, Erisalu shifted his perceptual experiment to language paintings, laying words, numbers, and chemical formulas onto washy grounds and alluding to both product and process within each painting itself, transliterating but also disrupting references to its pigments, dimensions, and strategies. Again, this work is the stage for larger considerations about the ways in which we assemble chaotic fragments into a coherent whole, finding order, creating meaning.

For reasons I can only guess at-the dominance of photo-based practice in this city, perhaps, or the subtlety and understatement of his art-Erisalu's paintings have been sadly overlooked by local institutions. Although his work has been exhibited in Toronto, Seattle, and New York, and collected in Europe, the United States, and across Canada, his reception in his hometown has been inadequate.

"I don't want to blame anybody," says Willard Holmes, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, former director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, and a long-time admirer of Erisalu's work. "But he could only really be ignored in a place where taste has replaced judgment." Still, Holmes adds, "Enn was somebody who believed so completely in what he did that it did sustain him." Dear Enn, loveliest of men, I hope that's true.

A memorial service for Enn Erisalu takes place at 1:30 p.m. on Monday (June 13) in the Floral Hall at Van-Dusen Botanical Garden.