Since 1999, the two-person, Brooklyn-based collective Faile has been brightening the boulevards of New York City with instantly recognizable imagery — a modern mash-up of advertising graphics, mass media totems and original iconography.
This innovative high/low mix has taken them from sidewalks and building sites to international street art exhibitions (including the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and the Tate Modern) to formal galleries to their first-ever solo museum show, opening this Saturday, September 21, at the Dallas Contemporary.
Comprising two long-term friends, Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller, Faile is often spoken of in the same breath as Banksy and Shepard Fairey and with good reason: These self-taught painters, printers and publishers have a freshness and energy to their work that transcends the gallery walls.
CultureMap caught up with the duo in their Brooklyn studio as they prepped for “Where Wild Won’t Break,” an exhibition of installations, paintings and site-specific works inspired by the American West.
CultureMap: Tell us a bit about the idea behind your theme for your Contemporary show.
Patrick Miller: It started with the idea of the West: horses, open skies and cowboys, ideas about Americana. We write a lot of stuff too; one of the lines we use is “Secede to Succeed.” It’s things to relate to Texas. One of the images is someone trying to tame an eagle — there’s an idea of trying to tame something that is inherently chaotic and has a life of its own. In a way, [the theme] relates to our work, working in the streets and working in the studio and trying to embrace and incorporate this chaos into the larger structure of the way we work.
CM: How did you two meet and start collaborating?
Miller: We met the first day of high of school when we were 14 in Scottsdale, Arizona. We always had art classes together and, along with being really close friends, we also had really similar styles and appreciated the same type of art work; we were always trading sketchbooks inspired by comic books and baseball cards. Through college it was along the same lines, and there was a point we started talking about doing silkscreen collaborations, and that was the basis for Faile.
CM: You were originally called A Life. How did the name change?
Patrick McNeil: I moved down to the Lower East Side in ’99, and we’d already printed our first run of what was going to be A Life. I moved in with a new roommate who said, “There’s a shoe store called Alife you might want to look at.”
When I walked in, it was the first retail shop/art gallery that was all geared to street art. I talked to the manager at the time, and he had seen our stuff and thought it was Shepard [Fairey] playing a joke. He said, “I don’t want to tell you what to do, but we have more PR and recognition than you do, so before you go bonkers, you may want to rethink your name.”
We went home and started playing with anagrams, and Faile came out of it. There’s something to “Faile to Succeed,” look past your failures and you’ll find your life. We thought it was powerful and resonated and ended up cutting A Life out of all the posters.
CM: You’ve gone from stencils to posters to stickers to canvas. How did your process evolve over the years?
McNeil: As we traveled, we’d go on these long tours and bring a lot of paper, and eventually we’d run out. We’d end up cutting stencils so we can keep things going, and it became a mobile kind of print shop. If we did a pop-up, we’d find windowpanes and scrap wood, and we’d stencil and paint on them.
Eventually on the street, a poster would get ripped, and you’d come over the top with a stencil, and there would be this level of layers or rebuilding that ended up coming through in the work. The idea on the street is a work would have a life and deteriorate, and that was the beauty of it. In the studio, we’d play with what we’d learned on the street.
CM: How do you divide duties when you are working on a show?
McNeil: It’s kind of the same as it was in the beginning. We come up with imagery, which can happen organically, but these days it’s a bit more structured. We’ll go somewhere like the ballet, take a theme and wrap our heads around it. We both crush it together from there.
The images get thrown into the mix, and from there it can get made into sculpture, applied to prints or stencils. Then they get ripped and broken down and juxtaposed. We’ll have times we’ll sit down and say, “What’s this show about?” We work best with a theme to take in, embrace and tackle.
CM: Is there a vast difference between creating art for the street and art for an established gallery or museum?
McNeil: In the beginning, when we used to work a lot more on the street, the street informed the art happening in the studio — the way surfaces broke down, and rips and destruction and staining, they showed up in the work a lot more. As we’ve slowing been working more in the studio, it’s turned around where the studio is informing the work we do on the street.
Miller: We’re still really inspired by the street, still doing things like photographing a bodega window filled with imagery and type. We never set out to be street artists; when we started it didn’t have that label, it was just people doing interesting things in a direct way. It’s always really important to have the studio side and the street side. It’s very symbiotic.
Faile’s “Where Wild Won’t Break” runs September 21-December 22 at the Dallas Contemporary.