Artful play

It’s a rare and somewhat beautiful sight to see people chuckling at an art exhibit. At the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery one might find oneself unwittingly grinning upon discovering a pink doll holding a smaller pink doll dubbed, “My husband is so small people think he’s my baby.”

In the touring exhibition of videos, dolls, mixed media works and 500 drawings from the The Royal Art Lodge: A Self-Serving Secret Society, currently at the Wayne State University gallery, there is a certain ironic brilliance to this group of six Canadian artists. Capturing humor through collaborative works, the Winnipeg sextet is more than a flash in the proverbial art-world pan. Their journey began in 1996 and has become an important part of their lives, so much so that this tightly-knit gang claims to have met every Wednesday for eight years now.

What is shown at the gallery is a carefully selected body of work that is endearing, nostalgic and playful, providing strong commentary through wit and minimal text. Inside jokes, narratives and characters have developed within the group over the years, creating an aesthetic and a language that comes across to anyone with a keen eye and a soft spot for the clever.

With a deep understanding that all in the world is not right, the work is similarly childlike, with its consistent thread of hope and faith in new possibilities.

To reach moments of genius every artist must risk imperfection and embrace the process that leads to it. Experimentation depends upon a trust in chaos. The Royal Art Lodge members are capable of this; however, they are deliberately protective about what is exposed. Their “secret society” has no manifesto, but through their family-like commitment, and perhaps out of fear, they are very protective over what is shown to the public — that is, which drawings represent them and which “evidence is destroyed,” so to speak.

As it turns out, the artwork that is not shown is of equal significance.

Before the tour, The Royal Art Lodge created a system of editing in which each drawing was date-stamped and relegated to a separate hierarchical suitcase that determined its fate. The categories were, in ascending order: To Be Destroyed, The Sad Cloud, Pink Heart Face, and The Sun Face. Only the drawings from The Sun Face suitcases were exhibited.

“The Sun Face suitcase drawings that do end up being seen are a small percentage of our works and they give the illusion that we work well together,” says member Drue Langlois facetiously.

According to member Neil Farber, violent and sexual drawings and works that are a “terrible joke, disturbingly ugly or really boring,” are often filed in To Be Destroyed. This is a shame, as I suspect some very inspired works have been censored for questionable reasons.

“I am a tender curiosity,” reads a note attached to one of the dolls, summing up the message of much of the group’s work on display, and their awareness of the preciousness it holds for them. Much of the art is delicately and lovingly made.

Gallery curators Wayne Baerwaldt and Joseph R. Wolin have cooperated with the artists to create a seamless and cohesive exhibition. Yet this is not necessarily a good thing. Through the editing process of the show, we miss a part of the puzzle. The works are censored. Why? If we could see all of the work, maybe we could better understand where the collective is coming from. If someone told you the works were made by one hand, you just might believe it.

Nevertheless, the works provided by the Royal Art Lodge are still a great opportunity to seek truth through mutual exploration and interaction, and that’s what makes this a worthwhile show.


The Royal Art Lodge: A Self-Serving Secret Society is on display at the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery (480 W. Hancock, Detroit) until April 2. The gallery is open Tuesday-Thursday l0 a.m.-6 p.m. and Friday 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Call 313-993-7813 for more info.

E-mail Phaedra Robinson at [email protected].