Finding wonder in the world

Artists have been using found objects in their art ever since Picasso’s first collage, Still Life With Chair Caning (1912) in which real rope and chair caning wallpaper were an important part of the composition. The found object is now very commonplace in art and is often used in a lackadaisical manner with little consideration to form or meaning. Geoffrey Farmer brings its use to a new level in his recent retrospective How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth? at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). Using the entire second floor of the gallery, the work fills viewers with wonder, delight and surprise as they are immersed in this labour-intensive imaginative world made from very ordinary everyday things. Farmer makes us think about our history, our contemporary culture and our relationship to the printed page in a digital age.

Included in this exhibition is Farmer’s first paper cut work, The Last Two Million Years (2007). Farmer walked around the streets near his studio in search of potential subject matter (following the legacy of Robert Rauschenberg who also collected items from the street for inspiration), and found a large tome with a faux marble cover called The Last Two Million Years. He took apart the book and cut out every individual image and then backed the cut-outs with a small paper support. The images range from large to super-tiny and are positioned single file or in groups on plinths of different heights and dimensions. One of the wonders of this piece is its simplicity in idea and material. Who knew you could create such a monumental piece with one book?

Another room contains an installation called The Surgeon and the Photographer filled with 365 figures made from cut outs from books and magazines of the 1950s, 60s and 70s that were bought at Vancouver’s most renowned secondhand bookstore: MacLeod’s. Farmer’s practice involves research in the form of collecting and a very process-oriented method of production. Each of the 365 figures (one made each day of the year) is constructed of cut out photographs and fabric mounted on a delicate stand. Farmer gives new meanings to found material by juxtaposing both congruous and incongruous images in a poetic and engaging way. Accompanying this exhibition is a thick paperback book comprised of fragments of found numbered texts corresponding to each of the numbers on the figures. Farmer uses found text in the same way he uses found objects, allowing viewers to create their own meaning for these multi-layered juxtapositions.
The VAG owns this piece so if you didn’t have the pleasure of seeing it this summer, you will have another opportunity to see it in the gallery space.  A catalog of Farmer’s work, called  The Surgeon and the Photographer will be available November 15.
What I really appreciate about Farmer’s work is that everything is extremely well-thought out and elegantly put together. With so many artists assembling found objects together without much consideration, his work stands out as being well-crafted and constructed with a sense of poetry and grace. The Catriona Jeffries Gallery in Vancouver, where Farmer exhibits on a regular basis, has a comprehensive collection of images of his work on their website.

In the meantime if you’d like to explore the idea of using materials that are at hand such as papers, fabrics, books or other found objects, I recommend you check out my course Collage: Investigation of Material that starts next week. There will be definitely be a Farmer-inspired project in this course!

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