“After the Royal Art Lodge,” which opened last week at Division Gallery, is not for the myopic. It requires a lot of close looking. The group show of new work from Adrian Williams, Jonathan Pylypchuk, Neil Farber, and the duo of Farber and Michael Dumontier, and slightly older pieces from Marcel Dzama, features 23 works in diverse media — paint, ink, watercolour, wood, old sweater — of which the majority are either small or elaborated with pictures and words. The work is not about fine detail but the proliferation of shapes, all of which are slightly different, compelling dissection at close range.
These were the artists who, in 1996, formed the Royal Art Lodge collective in Winnipeg. Every artist in the show is from that city, yet fans of the kind of contemporary art that has become so prevalent in Toronto will adore it. Visual vignettes are well represented: contained spaces are populated by flat, roughly drawn figures all pressed against a single plane; a narrative is described in pictures or text, or a combination of the two. The attitude implicit in the work is likewise of a kind with, or inspired by, that of many young, predominantly male artists in Toronto. It is at once sardonic and cute, simple and intelligent. Technique is subservient to manner. Beauty and transcendence—or something close—are not concerns, and neither is earnestness, but profundity certainly is: even where the references are to childhood entertainments, cartoons and comic books, they are corralled for the adult purpose of making statements about the culture that produced them.
Michael Dumontier & Neil Farber, Animals with Sharpies, 2013; Image courtesy of the gallery.
In 2013 I can find this post-modern cleverness tiresome. Give me something I want to look at for a long time, many times, that moves me — but Farber and Dumontier’s Animals with Sharpies (2013) makes me laugh out loud and I wonder if that’s actually enough. The mixed media piece is divided in three rows of ten panels, as in a comic strip. Each panel features an animal—commonly a bird, dog, or rodent—scrawling a phrase or pictogram against a solid, brightly-coloured background by means of a Sharpie held in the mouth (or beak). “Johnny, I’m pregnant,” writes the goose, while in the panel adjacent a dog details his “List of Demands,” among them respect, politeness, and the benefit of the doubt. It makes me think: how important is context vs. language in communication? Hmmm. But then I read the title of the work—I hadn’t noticed that all of the animals were using Sharpies before—at which point it became just ridiculous, a joke. But it was funny…
Humour is also a tool in Pylypchuk’s work, but it is much darker. Vomit all your fears of life into the belly of the earth only to have them shit back in your face (2013) takes the cute/sardonic combo “After the Art Lodge” to extremes. Two stick-legged, rectangle-headed, google-eyed figures float atop what looks like a smoldering bed of coals at the base of a gross geyser, spewing black and salmon pink and neon yellow into a dirty, streaked sky. From the side of one of their heads extends a white banner, on which the title of the work is displayed in miniscule scrawl. Pylypchuk is playing with us, but the value of the work lies elsewhere, in its form. The scene is constructed from diverse and bulbous materials, described by literal texture instead of line. What is actually depicted fades as a concern; how it is depicted is the more interesting question here.
Jon Pylypchuk, vomit all your fears of life into the belly of the earth only to have them shit back in your face, 2013; Courtesy of the gallery.
In Marcel Dzama’s The Horsemen Flee (2010), this impulse toward three dimensionality manifests as diorama, for which I have a weakness. Dancers cut from cardboard perform for the viewer from within the close confines of a glass-covered box, mounted to the wall. Their costumes are all cut from the same drab, brick-coloured palette. Some display genitals or wounds as they move, details at first hidden by the cacophony of figures. At the bottom of the piece are the horsemen, dressed in black and charcoal and riding atop steeds the colour of icicles. Dzama is not afraid to alienate me. There is little here that is expected, and the artist’s intentions are not clear. My reaction is thus confused: I’m charmed by the use of the diorama form for the depiction of a strange, almost grotesque scene, and by the folksy aesthetic of the construction, but I’m turned off by the colours, the crudeness of the representations, and the impenetrability of the subject. This is the best of “After the Art Lodge”: small of form, but expansive, or expanding, of mind.
(Image on top: Michael Dumontier & Neil Farber, Animals with Sharpies (Detail), 2013; Courtesy of the gallery.)