Neil Farber & Michael Dumontier

[Artists, Royal Art Lodge]

“We want there to be a reason
for the things in our pictures.”
Experiences that can lead
to interesting online testimonials:
Ghosts
Drugs
Bad boyfriends

NOVEMBER 2011

Neil Farber and Michael Dumontier are founding members of the artist collective Royal Art Lodge, formed in the mid-’90s by a half dozen young Canadians wanting to hang out together during the cold winters, listen to music, and collaborate on art. What started as a pile of drawings in a suitcase in a run-down studio space in industrial Winnipeg, Manitoba, has become a lifelong practice for the entire group, taking the Royal Art Lodge’s works to galleries and museums across North America, the U.K., Italy, France, Japan, Mexico, and elsewhere. Neil, Michael, and other founding members like Marcel Dzama and Jon Pylypchuk have all become significant solo artists, even as they continue to collaborate.

The artists share a homemade, low-fi tendency that is in each case expressed with striking individuality, but in collaboration their disparate styles communicate seamlessly. In its heyday, the Royal Art Lodge made collages, paintings, toys, sculptures, videos, and music. Neil and Michael recently published a book of their collaborations with Drawn & Quarterly, entitled Constructive Abandonment. The title is as good a description of their process as any—coming together to make work, then separating to make work, in each case abandoning some of the ego that gets attached to art-making.

In the book, which is like a children’s book full of unsettling adult seizures of existential realization, Michael and Neil revisit some of the best ideas that came from their time with the Royal Art Lodge. The interview was conducted by email over the course of a few weeks. Mostly, I wanted to ask them about music.

—Lee Henderson

I. LO-FI

THE BELIEVER: My sense is that Winnipeg is a city where artists do many different things, and collaborate a lot. The art school there seems to be a very encouraging place as well. Do either of you teach or do many things locally?

NEIL FARBER: I remember the university as being very encouraging, especially to experimentation. I think you always get a lot of musicians in any art community, and it seemed like a lot of people I knew worked on films that got made locally. I don’t teach. I don’t think I could. I also don’t really do anything else artistically, locally. Splitting my time between my solo work and the work I make with Michael keeps me busy enough.

MICHAEL DUMONTIER: We had a lot of great professors who deserve credit for supporting us, but I think we were really working to impress each other. We made a lot of work outside of school while we were there. I’m not teaching, either, and unfortunately I don’t do a lot locally these days.

BLVR: I know you used to perform music together—you played a great show at Atelier Gallery here in Vancouver. There seemed to be a sensibility at that time—what is called “lo-fi” in music because of the homemade recording quality—that you were able to translate into artworks very successfully. What do you find in music that informs your art-making?

NF: There was a lot of great lo-fi music made in the early years of the Art Lodge. To me, art and music inform each other continually, and when I was making more music there was an overall aesthetic that was shared by both mediums. Now I always listen to music when I work, so when I am working a lot, that is when I start searching out new music and finding new things to get excited about. I think the overall mood of the music informs the artwork, but I’ve found that good lyrics can be inspirational, too.

MD: I knew Marcel [Dzama] and Neil’s music before I met them, and realized I was in a class with them. They used to sell their homemade cassettes at record shops around the city, usually with really great packaging. Home recording/lo-fi was a big deal for me at the time—early acoustic Sebadoh, Daniel Johnston, Alastair Galbraith… I was also trying to collect vernacular home recordings: found cassettes, children’s recordings, high-school band tapes.

Drue [Langlois] and I started making music together before we started the Art Lodge, so I guess musical collaboration came first. The music we made, and our performances, always had a visual component. I could never play an instrument, so these other elements compensated for that a little. Writing lyrics collaboratively with Drue is similar to the way Neil and I now write the words for our paintings. Like Neil, I have to listen to music while I’m working. Music is essential. It’s at the top of the pyramid for me. I’ve always felt disappointed in what I’ve made when I held it up to the music I love. I try not to compare them now.

BLVR: I don’t know why, but I really could hear it in your artworks—the presence of cassette-tape pop noise and lo-fi bands like Silver Jews. Your work identifies some kind of visual language that’s part of a world of dust and the homemade. What are your thoughts on the homemade today, and the changed sounds, given what is possible with home recording? Has the change in fidelity changed your own approach to fidelity?

NF: Because I never studied other artists that much, I always felt that I’d filtered those influences through the other guys in the Art Lodge. I love Inuit art, and most anything you would find in a folk art museum, as well as children’s art or children’s book illustrators or illustrators in general—all the kinds of work that my paintings would draw comparisons to.

MD: I think it’s great that people now have access to Pro Tools and other recording software at home. I’ve never understood how anyone could be comfortable in a recording studio. These days, I find it harder to listen to really trebly lo-fi recordings. At the same time, without the old limitations, these new technologies require self control. So much of the software seems to be about correcting imperfections—quantizing, Auto-tune—and, to me, those corrections can really drain the life out of a performance.

BLVR: Are you interested in the modern Cape Dorset artists, the new generation that has a lot of affinities with the way you play with mythology, perspective, flatness, iconic depth, masks, fire, ice?

MD: My knowledge of Cape Dorset is limited, especially the newer artists. Of the old, I love Pudlo Pudlat. I’ve always focused more on Baker Lake, in part because Baker Lake has a much stronger relationship with Winnipeg.

NF: I’m interested but haven’t done much research. The Winnipeg Art Gallery has a good collection of Inuit art, and most of what I’ve seen I’ve seen there or in the few books I have. I should spend more time researching. I’m sure there are lots of fantastic works I haven’t seen yet.

II. WHAT ARE YOU LISTENING TO?

BLVR: Do you look at album covers? What are some great record covers these days?

MD: Sadly, I don’t get to record shops much these days, and I don’t see or hear much that’s new.

NF: There seem to be a lot of album covers that look like Polaroid photos these days. I’ve liked the art on the last bunch of Melvins albums, mostly because they put the song titles on the front and the picture on the back. I’m always happy when I see something written on an album that wasn’t just typed on a computer.

BLVR: Are there some Raymond Pettibon album covers that stick with you?

MD: Well, I wasn’t really into any of those records, but of course they were always around, so they’re in my head. In art school, I started to see Pettibon in magazines, and I figured it out backward. I was into the idea that someone could show work in galleries while making album covers and photocopied books.

NF: I really just know his Sonic Youth Goo album. I appreciate his work and the similarities to our own, but I’ve never really connected with it. One of the first times I went to New York, I saw a show of his, and it gave me a good impression of what a large-scale show of drawings could be like. I spent an afternoon with him at UCLA when I was visiting my friends who were going to school there. When I see his work, it makes me think of shooting hoops in L.A.

BLVR: What is your favorite of Gary Panter’s works? Did you ever see his cover for Steel Pole Bathtub?

MD: The sets from Pee-wee’s Playhouse! No, I haven’t seen that cover.

NF: I didn’t know his name until he had what was the final show at Clementine, which was the gallery I used to show with in New York. I also haven’t seen that cover, but I do like everything I have seen, and I am especially impressed with his involvement with Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

BLVR: Who am I forgetting to mention from those days? Perhaps you were also reading some other oddball comics from later on, like Dame Darcy?

MD: I didn’t get too far into underground comics. I did like what I read of Dan Clowes and Dame Darcy. I was more into the idea that Dame Darcy made comics, music, and dolls at the same time. Drue brought her to Winnipeg at some point, and she showed work at our studio. At her opening, she performed murder ballads on the banjo. It was pretty amazing. At that time, I was looking at a lot of New Yorker people—mostly Saul Steinberg and Glen Baxter. I had a high-school English teacher who made us subscribe to the magazine. He also showed us excerpts of The Wicker Man in class.

NF: I also didn’t really get into underground comics, though I’ve liked some of what I’ve seen. Dame Darcy was very impressive to meet, really talented. In general, I’ve always been more interested in searching out music, so I think I miss out on a lot of underground art.

BLVR: Were you into bands like Trumans Water and Climax Golden Twins and Bugskull, and others around that style, in the early Royal Art Lodge days?

MD: Out of those, only Bugskull. Bugskull’s Subversives in the Midst was my favorite Shrimper cassette. It featured lots of samples from the film Zardoz. I did a lot of mail-order through Ajax in Chicago, and I was pretty loyal to Shrimper and some other cassette-only labels. You couldn’t find any of that stuff locally.

NF: I don’t know any of those bands you mention. When we started the Art Lodge, I was listening to lots of Touch and Go bands like Killdozer and Shellac, and just getting into folkier music like Palace and Steve Earle’s Train a Comin’ album.

BLVR: Can you describe what, if anything, Pavement means to you?

MD: Pavement is the glue that holds my marriage together.

NF: I always avoided Pavement, imagining them to be boring. Recently Michael played a bunch of Pavement for me after I kept wondering aloud what their appeal might be, and while I didn’t exactly like them, I did appreciate some of their messier, noisier moments.

BLVR: So what’s a great band from the heyday of the Royal Art Lodge that people aren’t listening to or talking about as much anymore?

MD: The Shadow Ring! Also bands that came out of Dunedin, New Zealand, Alastair Galbraith being my favorite.

NF: I like the band Breadwinner. They were quite early for a kind of heavy instrumental music that is more popular now.

BLVR: What’s good now? What are you listening to now?

MD: Not much new stuff. Always: Shirley Collins, Bill Fay, Kath Bloom, and Loren Mazzacane Connors. Neil and I have pretty different taste in music, but we sometimes overlap. While we work together, some of the staples are Kate Bush, Current 93, Marc Bolan, Townes Van Zandt…

NF: Some of what I’ve been listening to a lot recently are P J Harvey’s Let England Shake, the last few Earth albums, the new Swans album, High on Fire, and the first Residents album. I just got into Laurie Anderson this past winter and have been listening to Big Science quite a bit. I’ve also been really into Bathory recently, and black metal in general.

III. GOOGLE, NO ROAD TRIPS

BLVR: It’s interesting to learn that two of the major drawers from the ’80s and ’90s, Panter and Pettibon, weren’t so heavy on your radar. I like your honesty. It seems weird, but it doesn’t surprise me, either, because I grew up in Saskatoon, and remember how unlikely it was to hear those names or be informed by them. Pettibon was just the brother who made decent album covers.

NF: I grew up on a farm with only two TV channels. I didn’t grow up around much culture. When I got excited about painting, I never really got further than what would have been in a modern art history textbook. I loved surrealism and abstract painting, and anything related to those. I always thought painting was the highest form of art. What led me to drawing was seeing so much self-important, pretentious, conceptual-type art in university. I wanted to reject that by making quick, fun art. I had so many ideas that I wanted to get out at once that it led to simple little drawings and paintings. Of course, I would love to make super-pretentious art now.

BLVR: There’s always been a sense, though, that if it’s not Pettibon and Panter and Pavement, other books and pictures and artists were shared among you guys, and that your art is informed by a passionate, playful search for great esoterica. Have you preferred to look elsewhere for ideas and inspiration and imagery, more outside the music-scene crossover stuff?

MD: I waste a lot of my time documenting my “search for great esoterica” online. It gets so complicated trying to identify or give credit to all of one’s influences. Everything Neil just listed would apply to me as well. At the same time, there are things that inform my solo work that don’t seem to enter into our paintings. The work with Neil has taken on a life of its own, continuing from what we were doing in the Art Lodge, while having less and less to do with our individual work. The immediate source material we use has a lot to do with how our paintings end up looking. Working that way helps us bypass our influences or individual styles. We’re surrounded by books, most of which are purposely generic: textbooks, children’s educational books, Golden Guides, old magazines, picture dictionaries.

BLVR: Your blog is so comprehensive: a visual diary and a collection of rare and beautiful finds. Can you talk about how you learned to do your research? I mean, what did you learn about doing research into the arcane to make sure that when you went out looking, you knew where to look or who to look for? Was there a source that helped you browse used-book stores and record shops to discover these materials? This seems especially interesting considering your relative isolation in Winnipeg. It’s not always the case that everything is available in your city the way it is in a big place. Aside from Google, do you road-trip?

MD: A lot of my friends have been collectors, and I owe a lot to them. I’m always interested in sharing collections and learning that way. I used to trade tapes a lot. I still have a few friends who I trade music with, but it’s hard to find the time. I miss that. Recently, through my blog, I’ve met a lot of people online whose interests cross over with mine, while leading me in all sorts of new directions… it’s almost too much. That said, I often find things at thrift stores and library sales that I never could have been looking for. In those cases, the research is done after the fact to figure out what, exactly, I’ve found. It’s surprising how much out there still has no online presence.

I don’t really get a chance to road-trip. Aside from Google, I have a regular circuit of shops in the city. We also sometimes trade our art for things—we post a trade list on our website. That’s how I’ve managed to get some choice books and records that I could never bring myself to buy.

BLVR: Alongside this great learnedness and knowledge in your pictures, there’s imagery that feels totally immersed in the discovery-mode of pure automatic image-making—letting the paint, pencil, ink, paper guide you. Can you discuss how your process and curiosities help you cultivate your image ideas?

NF: Basically, we create an image without thinking about it too much, then try and find a way to have that image become a complete idea. Usually this involves a lot of discussion about what could make the painting interesting, then slightly altering the painting and often adding text. I think of it as a kind of problem-solving game. We go through periods where we are painting a lot, and periods where we are just thinking a lot.

MD: Most of what we do is combine disparate elements taken from our source material, and although the beginning of the process is quite hurried and unplanned, we rarely leave those juxtapositions alone. We want there to be a reason for the things in our pictures. To us, the paintings make sense in the end. The text often provides the solution, and we work very hard to get it right.

IV. WHY IS THIS DOG WEARING A HAT?

BLVR: How did the works for Constructive Abandonment come about? Has there been an exhibition of these pieces as well?

NF: Since this was our first book with Drawn & Quarterly, we wanted something that was representative of our main body of work. Going back six or seven years, a large percent of the work we made was paintings on six-by-six panels; it’s what I would consider our standard. Constructive Abandonment is a selection of six-by-six paintings from the last two years. They were selected to provide a nice variety, and stand as an overview of our recent output. All of the work would have been exhibited, but not together as a group. We make a good-quality scan of every painting just before we send them out to be shown.

MD: The paintings have all been sent out to various galleries. We don’t necessarily know where they are now.

BLVR: When you say you work hard to get it right, do you mean you talk a lot about an image before moving forward, or you try a lot of things before you figure out that it’s finished?

MD: Both. We talk a lot, but we also explore multiple solutions.

BLVR: The texts in the pictures are excellent. Who are some of your sources for text samples, or have you developed a writing habit alongside your artwork that manipulates found texts and writes original ones?

NF: We don’t usually use someone else’s text unless there’s a special reason to. If we want something to sound like it came out of a textbook, or off a greeting card, we might research those things, or if I’m looking at a book while we are painting, a piece of text might inspire a painting or fit in with one. Usually, though, we just talk about the paintings: What is this character thinking? Why is this dog wearing a hat? Then, once we have an idea, we start working on a way to express it in words. This is sometimes the hardest part, and sometimes we can never figure out a way to get an idea across, and it gets abandoned even though we both like it. We usually keep going over the texts to make sure they’re as succinct as possible, and often use a synonym-finder to make sure they sound as pleasant as possible. This challenge is most of what keeps me excited about the work.

MD: Yes, most of the text is written by us, without sources, but we do also alter found texts. I’m fond of online testimonials: people writing about their experiences with ghosts or drugs or bad boyfriends.

BLVR: For many of the pieces, the text acts as part of a punch line that helps put context to something—a man with a puppet or a rickety hangman’s structure. Does the text come last, or do the text and image build simultaneously?

NF: Usually the text comes last. Even when the idea comes earlier in the process, it’s hard to commit to any text until everything has been painted. As much as we talk about and use text, I’m always happy when we can get an idea across without using any text.

MD: Back when we were a larger group, we’d sometimes write a title or text first, as a setup for others to respond to. That doesn’t happen anymore.

BLVR: Would you always work at the studio together, or would you come in to find more added or eliminated that you had to work with?

NF: We work on these paintings separately as well as together, especially when we have some sort of deadline. We don’t usually finish the paintings separately. It works better if we talk them through together.

BLVR: Do the animals represent things for you in the studio? Have they become recognizable personalities, if not archetypes? For instance, when you draw a horse, or a child, frog, priest, wolf, do you consider these part of a private language within the works, like characters in a graphic novel? Do you read and draw them as a means of seeing a private story, or does the menagerie flummox and grip you as much as they might a gallery-goer?

NF: Each painting is its own world, but a lot of times I do see the paintings as one page from a story. You can imagine what has happened before or after. Sometimes they are worded as being a part of a story, especially the paintings where characters are in conversation.

MD: Occasionally something or someone will show up again as a recurring character—for example, there’s a pine tree who dates women—but that’s rare. We try to start from scratch with each new painting. There are obvious clichés that come with a horse or an owl or a priest. We can use those associations or choose to contradict them.

BLVR: Your images are often reminiscent of a children’s picture-book style, but with a strong, explicit sense of the taboo—the disruption of the child’s peaceful dream with a darker, more complex reality. Is there a tacit understanding of the taboo as part of your subject matter, or do you seek out new and fresh ways to reference explicitness and violence?

NF: There is a darkness that is a large part of our style. Taboos are always going to be interesting. Our style has its range and there is room for explicitness in violence, but not at the expense of our classy, highbrow image.

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