The Braided Stream

Neil Farber
Show runs until Oct. 8 
at LKAP (171 McDermot Ave.) 

There’s something exciting about seeing an artist enter a new phase or period. It’s not something everyone can pull off. The artist must have accomplished enough and have enough confidence in their own voice that they can attempt something radically different while still maintaining that voice.

That’s part of what makes Neil Farber’s The Braided Stream so exciting. Farber, a Winnipeg-based artist who found international success, has worked primarily in ink and watercolour drawings. 

For this, his first solo Canadian show in over a decade, he’s using an acrylic pouring medium, a method that allows for randomness and messiness. More importantly, it gives his paintings a layered structure, with multiple transparent planes like an animation cel. But rather than a cartoon cel’s two or three layers, Farber’s paintings contain as many as 50.

This layering gives his works an eeriness, a sense of physical depth, a feeling that there is always something lurking deep in the background, a danger that we can’t always see, but his characters in the foreground can feel. When we can see them, it instills dread. 

In many of Farber’s paintings, behind crowds of cartoonish characters and a thick haze of confetti-like paint drips, we can occasionally make out a looming death figure. Sometimes it’s Satan or the Grim Reaper. Other times, the figures are more abstract. 

The sense of danger is heightened by the fact that most of Farber’s foreground characters are obviously women, while his obscured death figures aren’t. It adds a sexually political element to the works, suggesting the anxiety informing Farber’s cartoonish world could be the same power imbalance at play in ours.

Farber also makes great use of text, which he uses sparsely but effectively. One painting, “From the Outside World,” has at its centre a table of contents clipped from some old book. The text only contains the numbered chapter titles (“Chapter 1,” “Chapter 2”), but no suggestions of the content the table leads to. The omission implicitly raises a question. Meanwhile, around the cleanly applied text, the world swirls with chaos. Farber’s characters look out at us with pleading eyes, trying to scream at us the untold story the text doesn’t tell.

The piece with the most text, “People are Gossips,” is littered with clippings from fairy tales (Rumpelstiltskin), myth (Romulus and Remus) and history (Caesar and Cleopatra). The inclusion is appropriate because Farber’s complex, layered worlds seem to be informed by their own messy histories, myths and tales. 

His top layers have the clarity of our modern world, where our circumstances and context is clear. But the further back one goes, things become muddled. Fact and fiction, history and myth blur together, and the origin of it all becomes an abstraction, a big question mark.

The most haunting image in The Braided Stream is its final one. “Up” is starkly different from the rest of the collection, showing a ball of the signature confetti-paint in the centre of the image with empty space around it. It seems to suggest a tangled world or galaxy, beyond in the void of space, perhaps some grim world beyond our own.

Published in Volume 71, Number 4 of The Uniter (September 29, 2016)

Related Reads