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From winter springs an art collaboration

December 25, 2004|Susan Emerling | Special to The Times

The art scene in the climatically inhospitable Canadian city of Winnipeg is having its day in the L.A. sunshine. Across town there are exhibitions and performances of Winnipeg artists that provide a context for MOCA's presentation of "The Royal Art Lodge: Ask the Dust," an exhibition of collaborative drawings, paintings, videos, dolls, puppets, kites and music created by the Royal Art Lodge, a self-proclaimed "Self-Serving Secret Society" that is the brainchild of six undergraduates from the University of Manitoba art department working not so secretly in Winnipeg from 1996 to 2003. Together these shows provide a glimpse of a vibrant art scene and the unique aesthetic of this central Canadian city and its community of artists.

The Royal Art Lodge began as a joke, a way for a group of friends in their early 20s -- Michael Dumontier, Marcel Dzama, Neil Farber, Drue Langlois, Jonathan Pylypchuk and Adrian Williams -- to take a weekly break from their solo careers and the impending completion of their schooling. The group eventually expanded to include Dzama's younger sister, Hollie, and Langlois' brother, Myles. The premise was incredibly simple: They would get together one night a week and draw. "It was about friendship," says Dumontier. "We liked each other's work. I thought we'd keep the drawings without ever really showing anybody."

But as the evenings progressed, the work became increasingly collective. "One person would work on a drawing until they didn't know what to do anymore, and then they'd throw it into the center of the table. 'Can you save this?' " recalls Langlois, of their oft-uttered lament. "Another member of the group would pick up the drawing and continue the work."

At the end of the evening, they'd pack the drawings into a collection of old suitcases. Eventually the group members gave themselves a ridiculous official-sounding name that riffs on the artists and Winnipeg's immigrant working-class roots and the do-goody collectivity of lodge culture. The secret of the society was not so much its clandestine activities as the group members' inherent shyness and Winnipeg's remoteness from the bluster of the big-city art world; they weren't so much secret as completely unknown. They also invented the most generic crest they could think of -- a shield with a star.

Over the seven years represented by the show, the lodge produced hundreds of idiosyncratic, cryptically narrative, piquantly humorous drawings and collages that blend a playful homemade aesthetic with narrative influences that include instructional films, comic books, film noir, science fiction and the group's repertoire of stock characters, including sad clouds, a large heart walking around on a pair of men's trousers, deer people in bathrobes and a wolf that vomits blood. In the process, all of these aesthetics have combined to support what is perhaps their most potent creation, theRoyal Art Lodge itself.

Despite the group's innate introversion the art lodge has struck it big. The exhibition at MOCA was co-curated by Wayne Baerwaldt, director of the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto, and independent curator Joseph R. Wolin, and has been on a hugely successful two-year world tour. It began at the Drawing Center in New York in January 2003 and then traveled to the Power Plant De Vleeshal in Middelburg, Netherlands; and Wayne State University in Detroit before coming to MOCA. It has boosted the individual careers of all six of the founding members in a way that would be hard to imagine without the success of the group.

This success is evidenced by the shows and other events that have run concurrently with the MOCA exhibition. Drue Langlois and Dumontier's band, Eyeball Hurt and the Medicine, played at the Royal Art Lodge opening at MOCA in November. Pylypchuk, who received a master's in fine arts from UCLA in 2001, and Williams -- the first members of the group to leave Winnipeg and the lodge -- have a show of paintings and drawings at China Art Objects gallery in Chinatown through Jan. 8. And Richard Heller Gallery at Bergamot Station has hosted a show of collaborative drawings and paintings by the extended Dzama family, under the amusing -- and not entirely inaccurate -- moniker of the Royal Family. Marcel, who recently moved to New York, is the breakout star of the art lodge, and three members of the lodge are part of the Dzama family. Farber is Marcel and Hollie's uncle, and the show also includes work by Marcel's wife, Shelley Dick, and Marcel and Hollie's parents, Maurice and Jeanette Dzama, who drew together on their first date as teenagers.

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