Artist Zeph Farmby has a lot to say about materialism, racism and the skewed values of American society. He does it with a lively palette, pop-culture savvy and sense of humor. Appropriately, this is the same technique used by the forms of entertainment and the sociocultural mindsets that he is criticizing.
Farmby, who is based in New York City and New Haven, has a show titled “Wash With Like Colors” at Manchester Community College.
Four 8 feet-by-8 feet wooden heads of an African-American boy are positioned throughout the gallery as though rising through the floor at nose level. The forehead of the first boy is clear and smooth. The subsequent heads are gradually filled with cartoon stereotypes of African Americans: the Mammy Two Shoes character from “Tom and Jerry,” watermelon-eating boys, Brer Rabbit talking to the tar baby. The series is called “Brainwash.”
“Within cartoons, being a child, things could be put into your memory bank that you would look at as entertainment, not understanding what those images are,” Farmby said in an interview. “The cartoons are putting something in front of you, making fun of you and making it colorful and making you laugh at it. You’re so young you don’t understand what you’re looking at. But as an adult I looked at it. This thing was making fun of me.”
Another artwork, “Love, Lust and Desire,” shows Pinocchio holding a can of gasoline, his nose growing. Mickey Mouse stands nearby with a lighter. In the background, an American flag shows through the burnt remains of a dollar bill. The white stripes of the flag are made from the comic book depicting Captain America losing his power.
“The dollar bill at one point was strong internationally. Now the dollar bill is weak,” Farmby says. Other references to the “love, lust and desire” that arises from reverence for money are seen in his “Praise and Worship” series of three paintings. All show crumpled-up dollar bills topped by halos.
Another comic-book reference is used in the piece called “Love.” A little boy in multicolored military fatigues holds up an automatic rifle which, instead of spewing bullets, spews the word “Love.” The blood-red background is made of comic books – Quick Draw McGraw, the Two-Gun Kid, Mickey Mouse – depicting characters holding firearms.
“I was entertained by comics as a child and I am a comic-book collector. Being so young, when you pick up a comic with a character holding a gun, you’re not thinking much of it. As an adolescent, you recognize that this gun gives the people holding it some kind of power,” Farmby says. “I wanted to take something that is there and make it as innocent as possible.”
The exhibit’s funniest artwork is “Eat the Rich,” a faux road sign stating “One day the poor will have nothing left to eat but the rich.” Farmby says that piece references a specific political movement.
“I wanted to say something in reference to Occupy Wall Street without it having those words on it,” he says.
ZEPH FARMBY: WASH WITH LIKE COLORS is at the Hans Weiss Newspace Gallery, in the lobby of the atrium at Manchester Community College, until March 22. zephfarmby.com.