In his first solo exhibition in the United States, Vancouver-based artist Geoffrey Farmer brings his characteristic playfulness and canny knack for manipulating mundane materials to difficult themes of transformation, mutilation and mortality. Given the artist’s prolific output in dozens of international venues over the past decade, the stateside solo show at Casey Kaplan seems long overdue. But if there is any exhibition fit to introduce Farmer’s sprawling, infectiously curious approach to art-making to the uninitiated, it is the tightly selected “Bacon’s Not the Only Thing That Is Cured By Hanging From a String.”
In keeping with his previous projects, which saw Farmer mine the intuitive connections between everyday objects and grandiose themes of time, history and philosophy, this new series of work unearths a rich network of references among avant-garde filmmaking, ancient Egyptian burial rituals and modernist poetry. Pulling Your Brains Out Through Your Nose, which opens the exhibition, features hundreds of photographed faces and objects cut out from fashion, news and pornography magazines. Taped together and suspended from bits of coat hangers unceremoniously shoved into the gallery drywall, the hanging forms evoke Surrealist collages but also call up a long history of mummification practices, meant to prepare the dead for passage into the afterlife. Fluttering delicately whenever a viewer passes them, Farmer’s monstrous characters gesture towards human figures without cohering into intelligible beings.
Mimicry and transformation also underpin the largest work in the exhibition, a series of 13 makeshift lampposts constructed from plywood, found objects and exposed light bulbs. Farmer is at his best when he is unapologetically playful, and the standout sculptural forms in the series are those that straddle theatrical whimsy and an eerie sense of foreboding. Given individual titles, such as The Greeter and Little Feather, the lampposts operate as mini-altars to forgotten objects that have been creatively appropriated to serve new functions. In Tongue Standing Upright, for instance, a plastic grocery bag becomes a suffocating lampshade, while in Shadow and Grow fabric, foam and cardboard are imaginatively placed to simulate a willowy female form (recalling one of the artist’s earliest and most memorable projects, “Catriona Jeffries Catriona,” 2001). The series is inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1978 film, In a Year Of 13 Moons, which follows the protagonist’s tragic efforts to win the affections of another man by undergoing a not-wholly-convincing sex-change operation. The narrative of earnest but unsuccessful masquerading is perhaps a fitting metaphor for Farmer’s artistic practice as a whole, which often makes seemingly impossible demands of humble objects.
The final gallery, which holds 10 distinct, small-scale works, most closely resembles Farmer’s 2009 installation, The Surgeon and the Photographer, with dozens of miniature forms cobbled together from cutout photographs, clay, fabric and tape. On a low table, Lost Dogs and Half-Eaten Apples presents a procession of 29 puppet-like figures supported by wooden dowels, cardboard and pencils. Meticulously assembled, some of the characters even sport impossibly small LED lights, which twinkle intermittently atop open parasols and delicately presented rings.
Amid all this ornamentation, however, Farmer’s work continuously refers to the passing of time and the ephemeral nature of our interventions into the world of objects. Even the title of the exhibition, drawn from an early-20th-century poem by forgotten British author Hugh Kingsmill, lends Farmer’s arrangements a sinister undertone. “Like enough, you won’t be glad, / When they come to hang you, lad,” writes Kingsmill. “But bacon’s not the only thing / That’s cured by hanging from a string.” Seen in this light, Farmer’s new work offers more than a poetic narrative about the transformative possibilities of everyday materials, and instead meditates on the ways we try to cope with life’s larger mysteries through the tools we have at hand.