ROYAL ART LODGE STRIKES AGAIN
ongoing show at the Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica highlights
the latest output of Neil Farber, a crony of Canada's other imps of the
art world, Marcel Dzama and Drue Langlois, leading lights of Manitoba's
seven-member Royal Art Lodge. Reprising his 1999 Stinky Stew extravaganza,
which also convened at the Heller Gallery, Farber comes on strong with
his usual cast of hinky, non-contextual cartoon characters peripherally
aligned with the caricaturist tradition. Tracing his lineage from remote
antecedents like Daumier and Hogarth via the anthropomorphized animals
of Grandville and John Tenniel, original illustrator of Alice in Wonderland,
down through imagery associated with such contemporary influences as Hanna/Barbera
and DC Comics, Farber delivers up a vision of the world as a sordidly
skewed Sesame Street, where the lesson of the day is how to give Big Bird
an enema, and Wynken, Blynken, and Nod have overdosed on cough syrup.
Like doodles spilling from the margins of a school notebook and springing
to life, Farber's fanciful creations run riot in the classroom the minute
the teacher steps outside. Related to the figments of nonsense literature,
and to some of the more high-flown inventions of childrens' book
illustration, Farber's drawings impart quaint, indeterminate narratives
with dark humor, antic wit and a wry sense of mischief.
In Farberdom, there is nothing surprising about a skeletal hand reaching
up from inside a darkened vat to electrocute itself by inserting its fingers
in an empty light socket. Disregard of scientific propriety, moreover,
allows elephants to roam in desertscapes with cactus.
Signature motifs such as potted pansies, butterflies, forts and doghouses
made of stacked bricks or building blocks, totem poles, waste baskets,
skulls and skeletons, rats and black plague references, signage in Roman
numerals, and helmeted, rifle-lugging soldiers ranged in seriatim are
often reiterated. Snakes show up in snake rooms and snake
forests, deformed animals such as three-headed reindeer and reindeer
with preposterously elongated antlers scamper about, and a Pooh
bear framed by stars and crescent moons crops up again and again.
One of Farber's major iconographic subgroups is the kitty
cat. There is a cat rigged with electric switches and wiring, a cat with
internal Venetian landscape, a cat with plant roots for paws, an electric
kitty steam iron, a cat with a city on its back, a cat who has swallowed
a battle tank, a Godzilla-sized cat prowling among houses and child spectators,
and a kitty hypnotized by rug. Some of the kitties
are translucent, like x-rays: their innards consist of fantasized guts,
abstract symbols, pictograms, signs, playground slides, colored balloons,
fish-head kites flown by children, and desertscapes.
The feline piece de resistance is the KITTY TEST CHART, a dated sheet
of graph paper whose squares are filled with scribbled notes. In this
mockery of a laboratory test chart, we witness the progressive stages
in a curious experiment: I. Cat/children discover stomach snakes III.
Cats lure the snake away from children through sneakery. IV. Test cat
A absorbs a snake IX. Test cat B/A steals stomach snake by using advanced
absorption XIV. Test cat b finds head of snake escaped from cat B/A; they
conspire to escape XXVII. Test cat b steals stomach snake by using hyper
absorption while leaving snake decoy XXVIII. Test cat b/a absorbs snake
decoy XXIX. Test cat b rejects snake XXX. Test cat a absorbs snake.
Another diagrammatic piece is a morality tale split into a pair of panels
posed side by side. On the left, bloom healthy pansies and a healthy child:
this is titled TODAY; on the right, the skeletal kid and drooping pansies
of the panel titled TOMORROW.
Among the oddest of Farber's oddities are the nose-people: little mole-men
with saw-toothed proboscises projecting snoutlike from elongated craniums.
In one instance, a questionable Samaritan says to one of them, Go
on, kidtake the money. You earned it. You're the ugliest thing I've
ever seen. Another Samaritan advises a mole-child to, Slow
down there little guy or you'll walk into a busy intersection, to
which an interlocutor retorts, You'd better let him go, Sir. He's
due back at the hospital for a diaper change. In yet another, a
large roulette wheel has been divided into a pie chart inscribed with
the names of the siblings Jill, Bob Jr., and Jeffrey (the nose-person).
When the head of the household sets an indicator like a minute hand on
the dial of a clock and announces, O.K., kids, I've decided to quit
my job so I'm gonna ask one of you to move out so I'll just spin the wheel
and we'll see who it's gonna be, the indicator falls on Jeffrey's
name, since his slice occupies 90% of the chart.
Some Farberisms take the form of simple linear progressions, like his
pictorial equation: spotted turtle + dog = spotted dog turtle; or the
ark holding animals, plants, pole lamps, t.v. sets, piles of bricks, potted
cacti, and a beach ball, pulled along nonchalantly by a child as if it
were a wagon filled with toys. Related to these are the huge, imaginary
animal herds and the Dracula and the ghoul who clutch one another in fright
as they are menaced by a swarm of butterflies. In a segmented signage
piece, each of several figures, consumed by flames, carries one word of
a composite banner reading: We Need Water
Another kind of grouping of which Farber is fond is the award ceremony;
this predilection is given expression in the Annual Dead or Dying
Elephants Awards, the Congratulations party for an ax
murderer, and the Comedian Convention, in which all the contestants
wear bunny ears. Then there is the untitled everything-but-the-kitchen-sink
melange of ghosts, goblins, moles and men which is Farber's Inferno cum
GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS. The purpose of this tour de force seems to
be, at one and the same time, to illustrate the cosmos as an orderly system,
and to defy interpretation and dethrone reason.
An interesting recurring Farberian theme is that of gullibility, exemplified
by his Hey Kid suite, which consists of a series of vignettes
illustrating such monologues as Hey kid, watch my suitcase I'll
be back in 13 hours; Hey kid, can you do a guy a favor and
run out and buy me some piano wire?; and Hey kid, run and
find yourself a shovel there's plenty of digging to go around.
SCHOOL DAYS forms another familiar Farber motif. In PROJECT ROOM, two
supine children are collapsed atop a table and on the floor, respectively.
Standing are two other children, one of whom wears a Red Cross jersey.
A skull and crossbones has been sketched on the wall. A vat of poison
rests in a corner, and snakes, a pick ax, and a rat litter the area. Another
manifestation of the oops! ethic finds expression in a series
of prepubescent poison bibbers, each of whose eyes, after imbibing some
mystery toxin, is now a spiral or an X.
Like fellow-Imp Drue Langlois, Farber is big on pseudo-superheroes who
bear descriptive mottoes: RICH ROBOThis body divides into
pieces to store money and he is usually worth between 7 - 10 million in
travel mode; GHOSTY THE RABBITterrorizes gardens and
supermarkets with powerful carrot storms and lettuce tornadoes;
THE UNPEACEFULsmall and non-threatening in appearance this
diminutive demon has wrecked many an evening; THE LIVING LADDERa
man was so in love with his ladder that he poured a bottle of magic juice
on it so that it would follow him around but it just ran away; THE
LIVING TRAINWRECKthe twisted remains of a wrecked train come
to life; CLACKAhe dresses up garden weeds to look like
beautiful flowers; BACTORthe final element added to
the Table of Elements discovered by a sick dog; SHIELD OF THE UNHAPPY
STARpresented by the United Nations to the losers of international
conflicts; CHARLES MALKONtraded his head for a spider
during a drinking binge four years ago and is still too stubborn to admit
he's made a mistake; and HAMBURGER BONEScreated in a
laboratory and released in a back alley as food for stray dogs.
In addition to his drawings, Farber offers up mock, non-functional kites
and gouged-out linoleum blocks, whose colored grooves depict x-ray animals
and atomic blasts.
Like his equally prolific Imp School confederates, Farber
cranks out work at a torrid pace - a one-man production line for fleets
and flights of Art Lodge toys poised to overrun the planet