EDWARD THORP GALLERY | APRIL 8 – MAY 21, 2011
Slugging, Neil Farber’s second exhibition at Edward Thorp, supplies an ample helping of the tragicomic faux-folk art fantasies we’ve come to associate with his work, though the degree to which they are intuited or calculated by the artist will start heated debates—or reignite old ones—among viewers. What is certain, though, is that something is amiss in Farber’s magical republic of drone-like naïfs, personified beasts, and mythical miscreants rising from ferments of cracked enamel, flowing resin, and crazed acrylic paint.
As in his previous efforts, the sheer volume of visual information plays a significant role in shaping the viewer’s experience of Slugging. Most of the paintings are loaded to capacity with highly suggestive, often pictographic or symbolic information—Farber’s subjects, even in their strangeness, rarely feel particular. Instead, they seem like irradiated clones whose slight physiological variations arise from genetic mutations. Several works, such as “New Faces,” “Red Trees,” “Cram,” and “The Republic of Forgiveness” consist of congregations of teeming, frontally-oriented figures rising from pools and puddles of paint. The would-be comfort of the crowd’s homogeneity is occasionally disturbed by bizarre and/or violent moments. In “Cram,” for instance, a seemingly innocuous gathering of translucent, ghostlike individuals turns sinister with the appearance of two dark figures, one a supine orange being in the foreground and another whose face is erupting with a vermillion resin dispersion. Does it represent blood? Is it social commentary? Is it a formal element, or the accidental mark of an artist lost in material exploration?
Whichever it is, the overall effect leaves the viewer unsettled. As the judgmental alien eyes of Farber’s bands of confrontational misfits begin to weigh in, our private experience seems to turn into a public one. Take “Mosquito,” a (relatively) modest painting of a solitary, mutant, mosquito-like entity poised under the painting’s title, crudely spray-painted in red. Though isolated inertly on a white panel, the creature’s provocative gaze gathers the cumulative energy from the surrounding cast, a rebuff that transforms the viewer from interloper to outcast. Other works spin more particular narratives than “Mosquito,” though to similar effect. “Halloween” is anchored on the lower left by a dark, beastly figure of agitated black brushstrokes, flanked by horizontal rows of motley, unruly mobs. Its frieze-like registers give it a Sumerian or Egyptian feel, wanting to be read symbolically, though this moment evaporates quickly. A haunting line of text punctuates the freakish melee—every word out of everyone’s mouth, every time was “feed me, I need more and more”—more the plea of ungrateful, contemporary gluttons, it would seem, than starving Sumerians. The line also suggests the looming presence of an omniscient and omnipresent narrator/artist.
Aside from a few anomalies (a painting of alligators here and one of a centipede there), the work in Slugging resists the possibility of passive viewing. They stymie that Kantian notion of attaining “pleasure without interest,” a concept that everyone from Duchamp, to Man Ray, to Vito Acconci, to Jenny Holzer, to Andrea Fraser have addressed in one way or another. However, Farber is unique in relation to these antecedents because the desublimation is more misleading. His naïvely-depicted universe goads one into stereotyping its inhabitants as doltish, backward, and harmless, only to have those subjects retaliate by coaxing buried phobias and prejudices to the surface.
Curiously, in discussions of Farber’s work, one of the most oft-invoked influences is the outsider artist Henry Darger. It’s a superficial and problematic comparison that in its inadequacy underscores what is primary about Farber’s art. Darger’s famous 15,000-page tome In the Realms of the Unreal is a tortured personal allegory probably never meant to see daylight. The consciousnesses of his characters are existentially enclosed within the book. Though bizarre and anti-social, they are unselfconscious and unaware of the viewer. This lack of guile and defense allows one to enter and exert one’s will, to fetishize and exoticize at a safe distance. Farber’s figures, on the other hand, exert a will of their own, meeting the viewer at the surface of the painting. Unlike Darger’s innocents, Farber’s characters are spoiled by self-consciousness and civilization, which is perhaps why Darger’s are so often naked and Farber’s so often masked and cloaked. Farber’s post-Edenic worlds align him closer to the tradition of modern alienation in Manet’s “Olympia,” Picasso’s “Demoiselles D’Avignon,” and, more recently, the work of George Condo, than to those of folk, primitive, or outsider art.
In Slugging Neil Farber once again tiptoes the line between mirth and menace, play and paranoia, children’s book illustration and “Children of the Corn.” Any viewers who follow him will inevitably lose their balance, weighed down by their own preconceptions, and find themselves shoved by one of Farber’s magical wretches into the corn.