One imagines that Geoffrey Farmer must go through millions of X-Acto knives a year. The Vancouver-based artist is known for his cutouts of images culled from books, magazines, and other printed material, which have been exhibited at Documenta(13) and at the Tate. In his new work Boneyard (2013), currently on view at Mercer Union, Farmer adapts his signature technique—excising any traces of context through the careful removal of images that are then arranged in strikingly disconcerting staging—to sculpture.
A commissioned work, Boneyard features figures—sculptures from the canon of art history—in shades of beige, ivory, brown, and taupe arranged on a flat, circular plinth. I was reminded of the Cast Courts at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). At the V&A, the casts are life-size and were used as study objects to train generations of artists and art historians. These casts represent some of the most iconic Western art sculptures, architectural elements, and monuments. Imagine then that Farmer’s installation is the situation in reverse—instead of being dwarfed by the “canon” at Mercer Union, visitors find themselves giants among reproductions.
The cutouts stand assembled, some even elevated on miniature plinths, but all are only a fraction of the actual size of the artwork represented. Farmer is playing here with scale, reproduction, and one art book’s “canon.” The forest of images stand at attention despite their various contortions (see for instance a listing Christ who seems to have been descending from the cross). Farmer’s shears have removed those details.
His mash-up of figures is rich with colliding styles; the wide, staring eyes of early Medieval sculptures gaze at the vividly lifelike drapery of late Renaissance torsos. These collisions problematize the narrative that originally ordered these images in the book used as source material for the work. The beauty of Farmer’s complete disregard of context and linear narrative progression is that these figures are freed from their usual work as evidence for some art-historical stylistic analysis or progression in artistic skill; instead, the viewer can imagine the strange conversations that might take place between a stern knight and an angelical putto figure. Farmer asks us to remix and reimagine how images work when all we have to work with are images.
Mercer’s commission and exhibition are timely. Farmer continues the success of Documenta(13) at Mercer, while the commissioning series demonstrates its ongoing support of key artists. More Farmer will be seen in Toronto at his solo show at the Art Gallery of Ontario—part of his Gershon Iskowitz Prize—later in 2014.
A Light in the Moon will be on view at Mercer Union through January 11.