An 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 children’s' 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, kid—take 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” “Please”.
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 ROBOT—“his body divides into pieces to store money and he is usually worth between 7 - 10 million in travel mode”; GHOSTY THE RABBIT—“terrorizes gardens and supermarkets with powerful carrot storms and lettuce tornadoes”; THE UNPEACEFUL—“small and non-threatening in appearance this diminutive demon has wrecked many an evening”; THE LIVING LADDER—“a 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 TRAINWRECK—“the twisted remains of a wrecked train come to life”; CLACKA—“he dresses up garden weeds to look like beautiful flowers”; BACTOR—“the final element added to the Table of Elements discovered by a sick dog”; SHIELD OF THE UNHAPPY STAR—“presented by the United Nations to the losers of international conflicts”; CHARLES MALKON—“traded 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 BONES—“created 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—