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When the Royal Art Lodge formed in Winnipeg in 1996, it was comprised of six young men in their early 20s and the 12-year-old sister of one of the members. Eleven years later, the drawing collective has a reduced membership - only Marcel Dzama, Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber remain - and a slightly altered practice, but it continues to produce art of bewildering invention and narrative ingenuity.

In the beginning, the RAL would meet on Wednesday evenings and work on a collaborative drawing, which would be passed around until one of the group declared it finished. They were improvising on the Surrealist parlour game called The Exquisite Corpse. The RAL produced thousands of drawings in this manner that earned them critical praise and international recognition. They participated in important exhibitions, culminating in Ask the Dust, which opened at The Drawing Center in New York in 2003 before touring to The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto and de Vleeshal in the Netherlands.

Inevitably, the members developed solo careers that superseded the group's collective identity, but the spirit of collaboration and friendship that inspired the RAL's formation persisted and is clearly evident in Where Is Here?, the three-person group show that opened recently at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. (It was curated by Mary Reid, the WAG's curator of contemporary art.)

Over time, the collaboration has assumed a different form. Dzama moved to New York in 2005, while Dumontier and Farber continue to live in Winnipeg, still the centre of Art Lodge production. Dzama couriers pages of multiple drawings that Dumontier and Farber cut out and combine with their own figures and landscapes.

These mail-art collages assume various scales, from 10-centimetre-square mixed-media-on-masonite mini-paintings, to linear works such as Warbler, made up of 23 panels running the length of the gallery wall. The piece is framed by the head and tail of a baleen whale, while the remaining 21 panels become the imaginative belly of the beast. Anything can happen in Art Lodge-land: Snakes emerge from the eyes and mouth of a young woman; a tree man considers ways to persuade a girl to give up her pet rabbit; a dejected boy sits in a room, separated from a girl in another room by a spider web that covers the doorway. The piece is called Constructive Abandonment.

One of the RAL's essential characteristics is a sense of humour that takes on various shades; it runs from the poignant to the problematic and is happy to throw in a touch of the bizarre. In one painting, a girl looks out at the viewer with just the tail of a mouse visible between her closed lips; the caption reads, "Anything to get the boys to look at her." In another piece, an elephant has a snake up his trunk and two frogs sucking on his tusks; in still another a small grey rhinoceros looks confusedly at a large grey elephant it assumes to be its mother and cries, "Mother, I can barely see you."

There is much confusion about where people belong in the world according to the Art Lodge and where animals fit into the equation. The creatures in the small paintings are irresistible and invariably anthropomorphized. They can be disagreeable. In one delicate drawing, a woman balances precariously on a wire and implores a bird to let her pass so that she can get to her clothes on the line: "Please little bird, I just need to get my socks." In another work, a young woman gets a different kind of attention from her feathery friends: "The birds had been coming on to her all day."

RAL creatures also carry a sense of almost heartbreaking vulnerability that is one of Where Is Here?'s most appealing traits. One of the first works you see on entering the exhibition shows a lamb with two red hearts. As with many Royal Art Lodge works, the text gives the image added resonance: "A precious little lamb who was born with a heart like anyone," who then "grew a second heart from the love that was all around." The caption for the piece draws on the gentle side of Art Lodge production.

Theirs is a strangely captivating world; the monstrous side of the interactions between humans and creatures, and among ourselves, has been scaled down. Even their largest work sustains a compelling intimacy and wonder. The Final Problem, a 15-panel piece that includes thousands of images piled one on top of the other, is a metaphor for the inside of the artist's head emptied out and organized in space. Solving the problem in the title is the burden of a young girl who pushes a large head up a steep incline. But we know she will be successful because her collaborators - Dzama, Dumontier and Farber - have been there before her, carving out a space at the top of the multi-panelled collage where her burdensome head will find a perfect fit.

Where Is Here? is at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until Sept. 2 (

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