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Drawings collection of the Royal Art College

The Royal Art Lodge may be a “self-serving secret society,”
as one member put it, but whatever secrets they hold are currently all over
Los Angeles, on display at three concurrent shows.

If you want to get a better sense of what the Royal Art Lodge
does, imagine Salinger’s Glass family as a kind of ad hoc commune holed up in
a decrepit building in Winnipeg, partying indiscriminately with lotus root,
armed with many sharp drawing utensils, guitars and video cameras and abiding
by no curfew. Their images are of pirate ships setting sail for hospital islands,
flapper women mingling with tree-headed people, femme fatales frolicking hand
in hand with skeletons, boys with heart-shaped torsos, octopi cuddling with
cute girls or holding multiple lamps over computers, lone penguins stranded
atop mountains gazing up toward the heavens. Bare-bones text frequently further
develops and often subverts what appears to have been the obvious and/or initial
intent of the imagery.

What makes the RAL so good is that the cleverness exists within
an ostensibly simple context; sometimes even the words will be oddly redundant
to the pictures. Somehow the obvious text of Animal Diets brilliantly
finishes a drawing of an eclectic array of animals ambling past a row of food-filled
bowls.

The RAL consists of eight young Canadian artists — Michael Dumontier,
siblings Hollie and Marcel Dzama, Neil Farber, brothers Drue and Myles Langlois,
Jonathan Pylypchuk and Adrian Williams — who began Wednesday-night collaborations
back in 1996. Since then, the RAL has produced a formidable body of predominantly
surreal figurative work, much of which is currently on display at MOCA’s oft-overlooked
Pacific Design Center satellite.

I’m told the RAL sessions typically commence between 6 and 8 p.m.
and often continue on into the early hours of the morning. Says Marcel Dzama
of RAL’s organic collaborative process, “Working with the RAL has allowed
me a certain freedom in that there is no authorship to any of our work. We just
date stamp the front and do not sign. Even if someone doesn’t contribute to
a drawing, there would be no way to tell.”

Usually one artist will start a drawing, throw it in a pile, and
then others contribute, amend, appropriate, thus embarking on an ongoing dialogue
until either a work reveals itself or is appropriately disposed of. “At
the beginning of a meeting, I generally like to start drawings or paintings
and then later on when my mind is working better I switch to finishing them,”
says Farber. “For me, there’s definitely more satisfaction in finishing.
The works develop in a lot of different ways, but usually it is a lot easier
to start a work than to finish one.”

At the end of each session, the pieces are sorted into a set of
suitcases that denote ranking and prospects. As the public has become more aware
of the RAL and their work has begun popping up in galleries around the world,
the editing process has become more rigorous. Says Farber, “I think we
have a more carefully thought-out approach these days. When we make embarrassing
work these days, we hang it in our Social Emotional Gallery, which is a small
piece of wall over by the costume chest.”

One of the people very much responsible for blowing the lid off
the RAL is the curator Wayne Baerwaldt, who co-curated the Pacific Design Center
show along with Joseph R. Wolin. Speaking recently at MOCA–PDC about the RAL,
Baerwaldt admitted that his initial support was not entirely without reservation:
“I was very concerned about the ‘cuteness’ factor of the work of the RAL,
and I always assumed that they would sort of outgrow that and go in another
direction. But, in fact, they went even more in that direction, but in a way
that was ultimately entirely convincing, due at least in part to the fact that
there was this kind of incredible subversion going on.”

After first appearing in 2003 at the Drawing Center in New York,
the RAL has been traveling continuously. None of the pieces on tour date further
back than 2002. The primary expression of the RAL has always been drawing (with
elements of collage, too), although all RAL members work and collaborate in
various other media, including music and video and crafts such as costume, kite
and doll making.

Since the group’s inception, several RAL artists have begun enjoying
individual success and are now showing internationally in solo exhibitions,
including Pylypchuk, Farber and Marcel Dzama. Dzama, who so far has attained
the most individual acclaim, has recently relocated to New York with his wife,
Shelley Dick, but he doesn’t plan to let the move tamper with his RAL membership.
“I love Winnipeg and plan to visit there a lot,” he says. “I
still share a studio with the RAL and will send unfinished drawings in the mail
for them to collaborate with.” Below the 48th parallel, it was L.A. gallerist
Richard Heller who first discovered Dzama: “I did a group show with Wayne
Baerwaldt in 1997 and although Marcel was almost like an outside choice, he
ended up the hit of the show. We sold his drawings for 40 dollars, although
initially he was like, ‘They’re five dollars so can we charge 10 so I can still
make my five?’”

Heller’s Bergamot gallery is currently showing the Royal Family,
an RAL offshoot consisting of Marcel and Hollie Dzama; their parents, Maurice
and Jeannette; Farber (who is Marcel and Hollie’s uncle, but close to them in
age); and Marcel’s wife, Shelley. “Thing about living in the big cities
these days,” says Heller, “is that it can be incredibly stifling for
young artists, which is why the whole premise of RAL is so great and worked
so well in Winnipeg. They all started out together in this small town and they
all had bands and were all making all kinds of art. And because they were in
a town like Winnipeg, they were actually in a position that they could do all
of it on their own terms without being saddled by the repercussions and expectations
that often accompany such pursuits in cities like New York or Los Angeles.”

Pylypchuk and Williams, both of whom left Winnipeg and the RAL
early on, have a joint show of mixed-media pieces at China Art Objects. “There
were some natural groupings when we started. Not based on politics, but just
natural partnerships,” says Pylypchuk, who came to Los Angeles in the late
’90s and subsequently got his MFA at UCLA. “Michael and Drue, Neil and
Marcel, and Adrian and me. When Adrian left, I felt like I lost my partner.
I was also looking into going to grad school and was not really doing anything
when I went to Lodge meetings. The company was good, but I just sort of sat
there. I was not making much art then. That time between the collaborations
and grad school was pretty important because I started to value what I did individually,
based in part from confidence I got from the group.”

Dominating the main gallery at China Arts is an assembly of Pylypchuk’s
wonderful cat-soldier sculptures in various states of agony. Says Pylypchuk,
“I try not to think about what I do while I am doing it because it gets
in the way of the process. I guess I just liked the idea of little cat soldiers
crying and puking — sort of feels appropriate right now.” Another collection
of soldiers, non-feline but seeming just as lost, courtesy of Williams, who
now resides in Montreal, watches over Pylypchuk’s debacle.

Naturally, growth and success have thinned the ranks of Winnipeg-based
Royal Art Lodge members to just a handful, but Farber says that fact has only
deepened his commitment: “It takes even more of my time than before,”
he says.

Adds Marcel Dzama, “I am not worried that a little distance
will stop us from drawing together.”

 

The Royal Art Lodge | At MOCA – PACIFIC DESIGN CENTER,
8687 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles | Through February 14 | (310) 289-5223

The Royal Family | At RICHARD HELLER GALLERY, 2525 Michigan
Ave., Building B-5, Santa Monica | Through December 18 | (310) 453-9191

You Won’t Live Past 30 | Jonathan Pylypchuk and Adrian
Williams At CHINA ART OBJECTS, 933 Chung King Road, Los Angeles | Through January
8 | (213) 613-0384