The Royal Art Lodge: Ask the Dustby Jennifer Coates
THE DRAWING CENTER | JANUARY 18, 2003 – MARCH 8, 2003
The Royal Art Lodge is the faux secret society name of a Winnipeg-based artists' collective that has been meeting once a week since 1996. The group has had eight members since its inception, two of whom have subsequently moved to other cities. Either close adolescent friends or family, The Royal Art Lodge is an exclusive club open only to those who are already in it, like the kind founded in childhood behind the garage or up in a treehouse. Their recent show at the Drawing Center, Ask the Dust, is a jamboree of drawings, video, sculpture, music and hand-made packaging.
Each artist has his own particular, quirky, cartoon-based approach that has developed independently. Marcel Dzama, probably the best-known member, makes nostalgically drab drawings from a pigment extracted from root beer in which monsters and people share tenderly dismal moments. Jon Pylypchuk makes collages of googly-eyed simpletons, fuzzy smears in simplified landscapes, where disasters are embedded in the figures themselves. The members work together to cultivate mutual admiration, amusement, competition, and cross-pollination. They collaborate in multiple combinations, but sometimes it's just two who execute a series, as in Michael Dumontier & Drue Langlois's "Medicine Dolls," one of my personal favorites. Small stuffed figures are hung on a wall like ex-votos or voodoo dolls, and tags with carefully written messages that read like confessions or secrets are attached to their legs. The tag of an aqua alien with a thermometer embedded in its chest, a fuzzy hypochondriac, reads "My only responsibility is to be mindful of my internal mechanisms."
In other instances it's unclear who has done what: the group has amassed literally thousands of drawings that run the gamut from witty and profound, to awful (by the group's own admission). The drawings are stored in dull-job briefcases emblazoned with felt emblems. The awful ones have their own skull-and-crossbones briefcase and eventually wind up shredded by a giant platypus. Some drawings read like philosophical one-liners that could only have been invented amongst others. A figure in a thermal suit hoses out a fire as the fire cries. A duck emerges from a cave outside which a video camera is already set up on a tripod. A joke imperative propels the Royal Art Lodge's work, affirming that there is nothing like trying to crack up your friends.
As children these artists were no doubt inundated with television shows that merged fantasy and reality, like Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, The Muppet Show, and Pee-Wee's Playhouse. As if in direct homage, they construct rickety, lonesome, furry creatures who often appear in their videos, as in one where a sad monster reminiscent of a Sid and Marty Krofft creation (of H.R. Pufnstuf fame) moans wistfully about his friends who haven't come home yet.
The group has all the spontaneity and improvisation of an indie band. The only problem is that the smash hit album never materializes; it's just riffs, outtakes, and snippets of potentially great singles. The show is evidence of spirited, generative behavior that culminates in winning fragments. It would be exciting to see a more ambitious project, like a well-produced video, a book, or an animation.
The Royal Art Lodge taps into shared anxieties and childhood histories, mindful of their internal mechanisms and impelled by a need for what former member Adrian Williams called "primitive togetherness." Their work emits a warm glow of creative collaboration and offers proof of poetry amongst the detritus of home, existential
Coates's paintings utilize landscape as a vehicle for hallucinatory visions and psychological spaces.