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Neil Farber: Nuisance Grounds

The renowned American artist employs gallows humour and macabre childlike imagery to cause a nuisance

Mixing his mordant sense of humour with a childlike style, Neil Farber’s artwork inhabits a world of its own. It is a melancholy world, populated with a macabre cast of characters: girls with shining eyes, ghosts, gorillas and endless disembodied heads, spreading rapidly across the canvas. They often carry a weight of sadness or foreboding, but their sense of absurdity and surprising juxtaposition of ideas means that they’re more likely to make you laugh than they are to bring you down.

His work, which at times recalls David Shrigley at his darkest, has explored relationships, religion and in particular illness and death, as in last year’s Canniballistics exhibition. He has worked variously with watercolour, oil and mixed media, to build rich, densely layered pieces.

Born in 1975 in Winnipeg, Farber was an original member of the Royal Art Lodge, a Winnipeg-based artist’s collective where he worked alongside Marcel Dzama and Michael Dumontier. Since the collective disbanded in 2008 Farber has continued to work with Dumontier and has also begun exhibiting solo. For Volta 2010 in New York, Farber has created a series of new works. His major piece is Nuisance Grounds, named for a Canadian expression for a rubbish tip. It is 160 inches (over 4m) wide, a leap away from the two inch square pieces he produced with the Royal Art Lodge. Dazed caught up with him to find out why, in this case, bigger means lighter…

Dazed Digital: Your work strikes me as melancholy, but also frequently amusing. What sort of reaction do you hope  Nuisance Grounds will provoke?
Neil Farber: I was hoping it might not be as dark as some of the work has been the last four or five years. It's such a large piece, I was hoping it would end up having a balanced, varied feel. I am happy with pretty much any reaction to my work, but smiling or laughter are always a pleasure to see.

DD: How have you found working alone following your previous collaborative work?
NF: I still collaborate with my friend Michael Dumontier every few days, so my working method hasn't really changed. The work the Royal Art Lodge have made for the last five or six years, and the work Michael and I make together currently was/is for the most part a very specific kind of small painting created with a very particular methodology that we have developed. There is more thinking and talking than painting involved in their production. I think this has caused me to explore some of the opposite directions in my own work. As the collaborative work got smaller and more thought-out my own work has gotten larger and more visceral. There are times when I prefer one style over the other but I think the variety keeps me from tiring of either.

DD: Your work is often described as appearing to be 'childlike'. Would you agree with that assessment and do you think that the work's apparent innocence allows your art to be more subversive?
NF: I have some range, but definitely a lot of my work could be described as childlike. I love to keep the work simple. Humour works better if presented simply and the style allows me to get away with rather dark images.

DD: Who or what have been the biggest influences on your work?
NF: Famous surrealists like Salvador Dali and Max Ernst and early minimalist painters are what got me started painting and that's still what I'm most excited to see in museums. I love Charles Schulz. I think he was miles ahead of any other cartoonists. Practically speaking, my work is most directly influenced by the people I've collaborated with. It's hard to work closely with someone and not develop an influence.

DD: Elements of your art have been described as 'absurd', and you dealt with themes of illness and death in your Canniballistics show. Would you describe your art as existentialist in nature?
NF: I went through a period where the only idea or image that felt powerful enough was blood. I was using a lot of gross imagery, it seemed the best way to convey reality. Death has always been among my most common subjects, but it being such an obvious companion to blood meant there was a lot of sickness and sadness and death in the work for a while. The Cannibalistics show turned out to be quite varied. My original idea was a narrative about a guy who would save all these starving cannibals using his own body, but I couldn't figure out a way to present it properly and moved on to other things. I think my work can get existential at times, it's not something I would consciously think about, though.

Neil Farber exhibits ‘Nuisance Grounds’ and other new works at Volta NY from Thursday, March 4 – Sunday, March 7