Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber
The Artists Formerly Known as The Royal Art Lodge
An interview with Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber
By W. David Powell
I interviewed Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber by email in the spring of 2015. I was interested in the work of the Winnipeg artist collective, The Royal Art Lodge, founded in 1996 by Michael and Neil along with Marcel Dzama, Drue Langlois, Jon Pylypchuk, and Adrian Williams. When it ended, Michael, Neil and Marcel were the remaining members, but in between Myles Langlois and Hollie Dzama had also become members.
Their work is a curious blend of the naive and the sophisticated. Their combination of alla prima painting and darkly ironic text appeals to me on many levels. As I dug a little deeper into their history and their work, I realized that we shared a number of common interests, but there was one aspect of their work that I was puzzled by—something that is totally alien to me—their ability to collaborate in such a seamless way.
This is how it went down.
DP: You both still live in Winnipeg, don’t you? You have been collaborating for some time now. Is this an outgrowth of the time that you spent as art students at the college there? How long ago was that?
NF: We do both live in Winnipeg. We did meet when we were both students of fine arts at theUniversity of Manitoba. We had many mutual friends and similar tastes and started collaborating around twenty years ago, mostly as part of the Royal Art Lodge.
DP: A few years back you abandoned the Royal Art Lodge moniker. Any particular reason for that?
NF: Yes, Marcel had moved to New York and was no longer able to collaborate, and Michael and I agreed that two people weren't enough to be a lodge.
MD: At a certain point, we’re just two guys sitting in a room together. I prefer the anonymity of the group name, but at the same time, I never felt great about the Royal Art Lodge name. It was supposed to be a joke, and we never expected anyone but us to use it.
DP: The paintings are so seamless. Improbably so. Do you sometimes forget who did what or is there a division of labor?
NF: We can usually tell, but we did go through a period of a couple of years where we were purposefully trying to make the paintings as seamless as possible and I remember a few times people asking us who painted what on a painting and I couldn’t really tell. Both of us using the same techniques helps the paintings maintain a uniform style. On certain projects we will divide up the jobs though, whatever makes the most sense for the idea.
DP: I understand that some of the initial Royal Art Lodge collaborations were in the area of performance, “low-fi” music, is that accurate? Can you talk a little about how the visual art grew out of that?
NF: When we started the Art Lodge there were six of us who had been working collaboratively in smaller groups before. There was a shared sensibility among many of those collaborations. Everyone had some interest in playing music and there were a few active bands. Lots of low‑fi recordings. Lots of video projects. There were eventually puppet shows and other performances.
DP: When you were making and recording music and doing performance pieces, were you also doing packaging and promotional posters for that aspect of your work?
NF: Yes, we were doing lots of cd and cassette covers, posters for shows, t-shirts and stuff like that. I think things like album covers and gig posters are a definite influence on the paintings we make now. The way that images interact with words. We often make paintings about the size of a cd and we’ve had our paintings used as album art a number of times and specifically made paintings to go along with music a couple of times.
MD: Yes, packaging was a big thing for us. Drue Langlois and I had a band early on and our cassettes or CDs usually had booklets with images representing each song.
DP: Did this in any sense lead to the visual art collaborations and inform
NF: This is possible, some of the various bands existed before the Art Lodge. At that point I was only playing music with Marcel and we had been working on things together since we were kids, but making a bunch of different flyers together for a show is a pretty similar experience to making Art Lodge drawings.
MD: Drue and I also made dolls to sell as merchandise at our first club performance. The dolls eventually became their own thing and we began to show them in galleries, apart from the music.
DP: The performances at Cabaret Voltaire were the beginning of the Dadaist movement and the graphics that they used for promotion created a look that reflected the anarchistic and irrational ideas of their performance/poetry and costume design. Your work demonstrates a more ironic sensibility and a naïve, neutral, illustrational look, but somehow I see a bit of a Dadaist spirit manifested here. Am I reading too much into your work? Are art historical references like that out of place? Do you relate to the Dadaists, or other artists or movements from recent art history?
NF: My first artistic love was surrealism and when I would imagine the surrealists, I would imagine them having meetings and talking and working on things together and this is why I wanted to be a part of something like the Art Lodge. I always think of dada as a precursor to surrealism. All of that early modern art is amazing. Surrealism, Cubism, Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, that is what I want to see when I go to museums. A well-executed giant abstract painting is one of my favorite things.
MD: At the time the Art Lodge formed, I was very interested in Fluxus, and I definitely had that in my mind when starting a collective. Although their work was completely different, the Fluxus artists made music, films, performance, objects, and more. Their objects were often made in multiples and were meant to be cheap and accessible. There is a clear line from Dada to Fluxus.
DP: Yes, I can definitely see how you would be attracted to the Fluxus movement, the accessibility, the ironic humor and the performance aspect of it all. Al Hansen, a collage artist, was an American member of that movement. I think he had a strong influence on his grandson, Beck Hansen, as well. Beck’s early releases feel pretty low-fi to me and Odelay, in particular, feels like a sound collage. His earliest performance often crossed over into performance art. Oddly enough Beck and his grandfather had an art show of their collages and assemblages,“Playing with Matches,” back in 1998, that toured to Winnipeg. I wonder if you saw that?
NF: I do remember “Playing with Matches.” It was at the Plug In gallery. We were doing a lot of stuff with Plug In around that time and that was a big show. Beck was probably at the height of his popularity. I can’t really remember what his work looked like now. I think most of the show focused on Al Hansen because he obviously had a full career to draw from and I remember thinking a lot of that was great, really fun and clever. There is also a further connection between Beck and the Art Lodge in that Marcel made the art for a couple of his albums.
MD: Yes, that show was incredible. It was curated by Wayne Baerwaldt, who was the director of the Plug In Gallery here in Winnipeg, at the time. I don't think about it much, but Al Hansen's assemblages probably had a big influence on my solo work. I also saw a massive Fluxus retrospective at The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis while in my first year of art school. Both those exhibitions were really important to me.
DP: Yes, the Walker has a great deal of Fluxus work in their collection. Sometimes I also see strong folk art influences in your work, especially the look of Inuit art. That was probably part of your regional culture. Is the influence conscious, or did it just come about organically?
NF: I love Inuit art and all forms of folk art. The Winnipeg Art Gallery, our largest local art museum, has, I believe, the largest collection of Inuit art in the world, so we have seen a lot and it is a definite influence. This is especially true of some of my solo work. I also love folk art in general. It is often simple and straight to the point and I love the look of handmade objects or childlike imagery.
MD: Yes, we’re both into all this stuff. We’re lucky to have so much access to Inuit art here in Winnipeg. The drawing and printmaking of the Baker Lake artists in particular have had the most influence on me. There are countless folk and outsider artists I’ve admired and it’s hard to track influences. For me, some of the graphic simplified imagery in our work comes just as much from vintage children’s book illustration as it does from folk art and Inuit art.
DP: I understand that you are collectors of obscure homemade music, often cassette-only releases. Do you also collect books and obscure print publications?
NF: I sometimes like homemade music, but this kind of collecting is done best by Michael.
MD: I don’t really collect cassettes any more. In the mid-nineties, there was a cassette network that I was very interested in. I’m starting to buy vinyl again and I collect books, but my collecting is sporadic and unfocused. Most of the books I buy these days are from thrift stores. I look for art books, but mostly oddities with interesting images; vintage children’s books, art education manuals, old DIY books on any subject, nice cover design, books that have been defaced or repaired in interesting ways. Condition doesn’t matter much to me and I’ll often buy a book for one or two images. I am interested in rare art books, but most of those are out of my league. Some of the best books in my collection were acquired through trading for art, otherwise they’d be unattainable. Overall, my book and record collection is pretty modest.
DP: Somehow you have managed to break into the international gallery scene, with shows in Germany, Italy, New York and Los Angeles. This is no easy feat when you are in a remote outpost like Winnipeg. Can you tell me a bit of how that came about? How did you make yourself known to the world at large?
NF: We received some notice and press early on for being an art collective and this led to other opportunities. Our big break, I suppose, was Marcel getting to show in Los Angeles early on which gave us exposure to the international art scene. Basically one thing leads to another.
MD: We’ve had a lot of support from early on and I think we’ve been very lucky. Wayne Baerwaldt was someone who took Marcel’s work out of Winnipeg. Our Drawing Center show in New York in 2003 was initiated by Rutger Wolfson from the Netherlands, who came through Winnipeg on a curatorial exchange of some sort. It was that show, which toured a lot, that got the most attention for us.
DP: How does the work you do individually differ from your work as a duo?
NF: The work we do individually is quite different from what we do together. I have two main projects going on my own at the moment. One is a series of paintings made of many layers of liquid medium. These paintings sometimes have figures, but are basically abstract. The other project is making and photographing mannequin sculptures as a way of recreating drawings I used to make.
DP: Do gallerists choose to show one or the other, but not both? How does that work for you?
NF: Yes, some galleries will just show our collaborations, or just one of us, or any combination. It pretty much depends on what the gallerist is interested in.
MD: My solo work is minimal by comparison. It’s largely representational, but my images are often simplified to near abstraction. I sometimes use humor, but in a much different way than I would with Neil. I work with many different materials, making my work more like sculpture than painting or drawing. I’m still interested in collaborating with Neil exactly because that work is so different from what I do on my own. I’m lucky to go down two paths at once.