Life After Winnipeg’s The Royal Art Lodge

A man sits on a chair in an empty room, a sock puppet extended from his left hand. The caption reads: “He would win back the children.” Elsewhere, a bearded man stands beside a black box propped up on a tripod. “It just has to look like a camera and they will take their clothes off.” There’s humour, but there’s also what seems like a sincere desire to depict the sort of pathos I have the pretentious and annoying habit of referring to as existential.

This is the work of Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber. At times, their art is dark and alienated, though often there’s a cleverly absurd juxtaposition of text and image that makes you wonder whether you’ve stumbled upon some long lost pages of an impossible children’s book collaboration between William Blake and Luis Bunuel, perhaps created while listening to copious amounts of Captain Beefheart.

I often show the work of Dumontier and Farber to friends. It’s the sort of stuff that people either really dig or politely reply with, “Well, I can see why you’d like it.” In these latter circumstances, which are rare, I offer a hug or handshake and say, “Well, sorry, friend, we can’t all be fans of Thomas Kinkade.” Then, in that somber embrace, we agree that we just won’t understand each other: I’ll never understand the appeal of the saccharine Christmas scenes that made Kinkade millions, and my friend will never appreciate the sight of a young girl in a red sweater crafting a “Fuck Off” poster.

Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber began their artistic collaboration in The Royal Art Lodge, an art group founded at the University of Manitoba in 1996, which ran as a collective with various members until 2008. I guess you could say it was a little like the Group of Seven, except with significantly less focus on painting rocks and trees. During its last few years, The Royal Art Lodge consisted solely of Dumontier, Farber and Marcel Dzama — the most recognized line-up.

Today, while Marcel Dzama has hit the big time in New York, Dumontier and Farber remain in Winnipeg, where they continue to collaborate as a duo, though no longer using The Royal Art Lodge name. Their art has gained international recognition and is part of the reason why in 2011 Maclean’s named Winnipeg the hottest art scene in Canada — after Vancouver, that is. Farber’s solo work is also in a collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“There were no rules or manifestos, and not much in the way of organizing,” Farber told me of The Royal Art Lodge’s early days. “Our main form of collaboration was drawing, which was usually done together on Wednesday evening. We worked at the same table, where we’d start drawings and pass them around. Drawings would be removed once they were finished, and at the end of the night we would review and count them, then stamp them with the date.”

A sample of this work is currently on display at Winnipeg’s trendy Plug In ICA, which is featuring a retrospective exhibition titled My Winnipeg on the city’s art scene. In prairie cities, it usually requires a big-name, international art star, such as Rodin, Warhol or Rockwell, to draw in the crowds, but after the exhibit triumphed in Paris, it seems like Winnipeggers are finally willing to accept their hometown artistic heroes. (It sometimes takes a while.)

Much has been written about the isolated nature of Winnipeg and how this contributes to a disproportionate number of talented musicians, writers and artists. Even Farber admits that, “every aspect of the Winnipeg art scene is explained by Winnipeg’s geographical isolation.”

The image many people have, I suppose, is of the unshaven Winnipeg lad, decked out in a parka and smoker’s mittens, plucking away at an old guitar while he warms himself with cheap rye by the wood stove as a blizzard rages outside. The frigid climate forces a sort of hearty discipline, so the theory suggests. It forces you to act and create just to stay warm. It also helps, apparently, that the nearest city of any substance is a day’s drive away. We are lead to believe this is the same sort of cold, northern isolation that produced the dark films of Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman and the angsty art of Norway’s Edvard Munch.

While Dumontier and Farber might share a touch of that morbidity, there’s also a lighter element in their work. Indeed, the duo is not nearly as rigid (nor frigid) as their surroundings might suggest.

“We strive for wit, which can often be dark humour,” Farber said. “The work can occasionally be serious, but usually retains some element of humour. Generally, the mood of the work slowly shifts over time. I think once we get used to thinking one way, it gets more interesting to think another.”

Even their working method is far from icy.

“Spontaneity is key to our process,” said Farber. “Usually a painting will begin with an image, generally a character or object, that is added to and talked about until a full idea is realized.”

This process has changed little over the years, despite the changing lineup and the fact that it’s just the two of them now. The result is an oeuvre of hundreds of collaborative paintings, many quite minute in size. Last year, Montreal’s Drawn and Quarterly, a company known for publishing graphic novels and comics, published a selection of Dumontier and Farber’s work in the book Constructive Abandonment.

Although the connection to the comic medium is quite clear, Farber maintains a distinction: “We make no specific effort to achieve a comic-esque quality, but we don’t really try to hide any influence either. My default drawing style is cartoonish, but I like it more for its simplicity than for any comic value. Also, I think our motivation is different than someone specifically creating characters and telling stories. We do those things, but our real interest is in the problem solving of making the things we paint interesting. The paintings draw from almost any situation where an image is interacting with language. Some examples would be single panel cartoons, children’s books, motivational posters, labeled diagrams, advertisements, album covers, greeting cards, event posters, movie posters, book covers or medical illustrations. Our painting style also derives heavily from collage techniques, which is different from the drawing and inking style that is typical for comics.”

Their website contains an extensive list of influences ready for perusal. The list is kind of nuts and also brilliant in its thoroughness, idiosyncratic diversity and ardent refusal to pigeonhole their style into a simple sound bite like, “I love Salvador Dali” (though they undoubtedly do). Although the list contains ample visual influences, such as Piet Mondrian and Paul Gauguin, musicians are also prominently featured. Indeed, Dumontier and Farber often work with 1980′s British cult singer Kate Bush bellowing in the background.

“It’s hard to say how music influences the work,” said Dumontier. “I can’t work without music, and I aspire towards my favourite music, but that’s hopeless. Music is better.”

I have my doubts about that because I think their art is pretty damn good. Nevertheless, like any good artist, these fellows certainly have a proper sense of humility and self-deprecation.

Both Dumontier and Farber have separate solo careers, and the art they create on their own is so distinct from the six-inch absurdist paintings they’re famous for that you wonder how they could ever collaborate. Farber is clearly more of a surrealist, and in this way his work in more in line with his former collaborator (and nephew) Marcel Dzama. Dumontier, however, eschews the absurdity that defines The Royal Art Lodge, and takes a more direct, minimalist approach.

“I consider the work Michael and I make together more intellectual than the work I make on my own, which is more about creating a mood or realizing an aesthetic,” said Farber. “My goals as a solo artist are more painterly and mindless.”

Dumontier agrees: “I see my solo work as separate. The humour is different and my approach is a lot more formal. My work comes out of experimenting with material, while the work with Neil has remained anchored in painting and drawing.”

Of all their work, solo or collaborative, one of the most remarkable is Library, a substantial collection of tiny individual paintings of non-existent books, often with absurd titles. I had the chance to see this on exhibit a few weeks ago, and couldn’t resist reading each and every book title. It’s addicting. Dumontier admits that while he collects books, he rarely reads them — yet the duo’s attraction to the written word is clear.

“I love coming up with fake book titles,” said Farber.

Their art is fun, even when it’s a bit morbid. It’s clever, witty, intelligent and, yes, sometimes existential. Although their work may not win over everyone, it did eventually convert my friend — the same Kinkade fan I had been badgering for months about the Royal Art Lodge.

I was at his apartment the other day, and after a while, when I dismissed myself to use the john, I saw it: the Kinkade was gone, replaced by a framed page ripped out of Dumontier and Farber’s book. A ship’s captain, ready to sink down into the waters below, appears to be walking the plank. The caption reads: “Fear not. Nympho mermaids await you.”

Nice. Maybe not the best place to display it, but at least I’m not looking up at a sappy winter scene anymore. And it’s good to know that if things don’t go so well in there — if the plumbing seizes or sucks me in or something — at least I’m assured of nympho mermaids. That’s something, it appears, we can all appreciate.


* * *

Andrew J. Bergman lives and writes in a dystopian Mennonite town, but feels no Orwellian sense of urgency to escape. He is the author of, among other things, the novel Inches From America. He promises that the next one will be better.