Back in 2003, when I was fresh out of art school, I saw the most inspiring show at The Drawing Center. It was a group of Canadian artists called The Royal Lodge who collaborated on hundreds of drawings together. They literally had suitcases full of drawings at the show, each more absurd, funny, clever, than the last. Each drawing was stamped with a date and sorted. I followed the The Royal Art Lodge’s work together and some of the artists individually as their careers took off. Marcel Dzama was a founding member along with Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber. The group officially disbanded a few years ago, but Michael and Neil continue to collaborate (while doing their own separate work). This new book, Constructive Abandonment, collects a bunch of their small paintings. It’s a fantastic little package full of their amazingly strange and humorous work! The pairing of side by side painting in each spread seems so well thought-out in both theme and color which is a nice added bonus. I was curious about the process of creating such collaborative work so I was super excited when Michael and Neil agreed to be interviewed about it:
You two meet once a week to make paintings. Where do you do it? What’s the set-up like? Do you play music or talk?
N: We usually meet at my house. Instead of a dining room I have a couple tables set up that I use for painting. We work there. In the next room I have an area where the unfinished paintings are all over the floor.
If we work on larger projects we set them out on the floor in my living room. We just leased a new studio really close to Michael’s house that we will be using as well. We always listen to music as we work and we talk about anything we can think of. We spend a lot of time talking about the paintings while we are making them.
M: We’ve always had a studio, but for the last few years we’ve been working almost exclusively at Neil’s. It’s comfortable and we have everything we need there.
What your process like? Does one of you start a painting and leave it half finished? How do you decide when it’s complete? How much does the work get discussed while in progress?
N: Yeah, we just start lots of paintings, and then if there are lots of paintings started we might start adding other elements to them and talking about what we could do to make them interesting. We discuss the work constantly, and research ideas, and spend a lot of time working out any wording that ends up in the painting. The discussion, I think, is the main part of what we do. We know they are finished when they are a complete idea. Usually any text will be added right at the end.
M: We are surrounded by lots of books that we use for reference. Often the paintings are started by combining elements from here and there. When we get to the point of having to resolve the the image, that’s often when we start discussing possible solutions. We have a large sketchbook that we use to work out the texts, often rewriting them several times until we both agree.
N: It depends, but there are usually a lot of paintings started that we can work from. Some of these will never get finished and will eventually get painted over. Right now there are at least 100 started.
Are you ever disappointed by what the other did to the painting? Has it ever caused a disagreement?
N: It’s very easy to wreck a painting. It happens all the time. Something like that would not be a big deal and would be no cause for disagreement. I know that for myself there are some nights when I just can’t paint very well, so I usually ruin a few paintings before giving up and work on trying to think of ideas for paintings that are close to being finished.
M: Part of collaborating is letting go. It’s something I learned early on, and it was much harder when we were a larger group. You can’t love everything. But at this point, after 15 years, Neil and I trust each other and we talk about things that don’t work. If something can’t be fixed, we agree to paint over it. Sometimes, one of us will have a strong attachment to a painting that the other feels nothing for. We try to respect those special cases.
Since you’ve been working together for so long, can you ever predict what each other will do next to the work? Do you intentionally set a composition a certain way, imagining that the other will know how it
N: The process is very efficient at this point. We know each other’s working methods and habits and strengths. When I start paintings I try to set them up so that they will turn out well. We also work very small usually which dictates some of what we do. Still, I try not to be completely predictable in what or how I paint. You never know what might work out.
M: Collaborating in this way gives us the freedom to try things we wouldn’t do in our solo work. At this point, the works we make together have almost nothing to do with the work we make on our own. It’s true that we do sometimes repeat ourselves, and our jokes can be predictable. There are a couple ongoing series’ Animals With Sharpies and Library that both involve straight forward set-ups. But these are exceptions.
Do you have roles? For example does one of you always write the text, draw the people, etc?
N: We have strengths and will ask each other to do things we might not like doing ourselves, but we both do lots of everything. We try to paint similarly so that everything blends together. Michael always wants me to do any writing that goes on the paintings, but we usually work out the wording together.
M: I don’t like to see my writing on a painting—It’s like hearing a recording of my voice—I find it off-putting. Within our collaborative work, it seems like our painting is getting less distinguishable. It used to be more obvious who contributed what.
Are there any unintentional reoccurring themes you notice in your work together?
N: I’ve noticed that mood of the work changes over time. For example there was a time period where the work kept getting darker and more disturbing and depressing and that was followed by a period of light hearted, jokey paintings. There was point recently where a lot of the paintings were kind of perverted.
How did this book come about?
N: Drawn and Quarterly contacted us and asked if we wanted to make a book. They have been fantastic to work with.
What are you working on next individually and together?
N: Michael and I have been making little postcard drawings that we will show in Madison Wisconsin in August. Michael is making a lot of work for a show he is having in Winnipeg in November. I am going to Paris next month for a show we are both in about artists from Winnipeg.
M: I’ve also been working on a collaborative book with Micah Lexier and I waste a lot of time operating a blog Stopping Off Place, which mostly documents books I collect. I also stay at home full time with my two kids.
What’s a dream project?
N: A series of giant gold statues.
M: 8 hours of sleep in a row.
Ha! Thanks so much Michael and Neil. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of their new book right here.
All ad revenue goes directly to buying new books to feature on the blog. For rates and specifications please email me here. Thanks to all our sponsors above.
© Julia Rothman 2007