Together with Banksy and Shepard Fairy, FAILE belongs to the first generation of street artists to be as comfortable in a white cube as it is in an alley — thus contributing to a radical reinvention of the genre. The Brooklyn-based duo of Patrick Miller and Patrick McNeil has for more than a decade shown its mash ups of '50s cartoons and retro advertising from Lisbon to Shanghai, pasting handmade posters on all the surfaces they could find on the way. Paintings and installations are also part of FAILE's exuberant artistic vocab. ARTINFO UK caught up with the two Patricks a couple of days before the opening of their current "Fragments of Faile" exhibition at London's Lazarides Gallery.
In 2001 you wrote: "the street is the other member of Faile." Is it still true today?
P. Miller: I don't know if we can ever fully take the work that we did out of the street away from our process and the way we approach things. It has always been there, and I think it will always be there. But we don't attack it like we used to by any means.
What do you mean "you are not attacking it anymore?"
P. McNeil: We still work on the street but in a different way. In 2001, when we did a lot of works directly on walls, the public would interact with it, and so would the weather, and we would take inspiration from that deconstruction of the work. Now the temple ["Temple," 2010], or the arcade ["Deluxx Fluxx Arcade," 2010] are huge installations and they don't really encourage this type of interaction, or deterioration. The temple is made of marble and steel. People aren't really spray painting it, and it's not prone to the elements like pasted paper on the streets. It also doesn't have the same longevity. A lot of these installations were temporary pop-ups, whereas a poster could stay a year or two years. You could watch it break apart and take from that.
P. Miller: Our practice, and street art in general, has evolved — or at least what we find the interesting part of it.
You've been working with galleries and museums for years, including Tate Modern. Is there still a distinction between street art and contemporary art?
P. Miller: To me they were always the same. Something definitely happened with street art, that was a really amazing movement. But street art is the medium, not the message. A great piece of art stands alone no matter whether it's on the street, or in a gallery, or wherever. I would rather people see us as artists first, and then as a part of this street art movement, helping to define it in some way.
Do you think the fact that pieces of street art, including yours, can fetch such enormous prices affects the message? Street art was supposed to be against the establishment. Or was it?
P. Miller: This has always been a dual thing for us. Both the work on the street and the work in the studio have their own place. When things went crazy with the market, it didn't have anything to do with us necessarily. Those were outside influences coming in.
P. McNeil: The work that we sell doesn't really come out of the street. The work that we sell comes out of our studio practice. I don't think we ever set out to have an anti-establishment vibe to our work either.It was more about trying to get art out, travel, and enjoy doing what we did.
For this show, you've used paint on canvas, the artistic medium par excellence. Is this choice important to you? Are you trying to inscribe yourself in a particular artistic tradition?
P. McNeil: We've always worked on canvas. Canvas is the king of all mediums; it has such a long tradition and history. The challenge with this series of paintings was to tackle the canvases in a different way.
P. Miller: It's sort of abstract female portraiture. When we struck out on the show, we knew that we wanted to dive into our process and play with the bits and pieces. We had come up with this title, "Fragments of Faile," and we were really inspired by quilt-making, and some of these things. A lot of our work is character-based, and a lot of these are female characters. It really became a way of questioning that and changing our style, stripping away these elements. These female figures encompassed that journey.
P. McNeil: It was also about how do we strip away the tools that we normally use — that type of background information and narrative content.
You've have been visiting London regularly for the last 10 years. Do you find that the reception of street art is different from in the U.S.?
P. Miller: London is always seen as the epicenter of some of this street art stuff, while it's happening everywhere and while it's changing now.
P. McNeil: At the beginning though, I don't think it was really about that. It was just access to people and friends here. One of the first inspirations was going to Brighton back in 1997, and seeing stencils there for the first time, then going to East London and being really inspired by the streets there. At the time, we didn't know of any other artists out here. It wasn't as if we were pulled out here because Banksy was here. We didn’t know who Banksy was at the time.
To go back to the origin of it all. You've known each other since you were teenagers, right?
P. Miller: 14, yeah.
At what point did you think: "ok, there's something to be done and we should do it together"?
P. Miller: We passed sketchbooks back and forth at high school; we had almost all of our art classes together. It was always part our friendship. Early on, when we talked about this idea, it was almost like a band. When we were both in university, one thing led to another and Patrick was like "you should really check out screenprinting, it's great." I went back to art school, he got me excited about the medium and I started going in that direction. We started working on a few prints together. He would fly to Minnesota…
P. McNeil: … and he would fly to New York. We worked around the city, photographed things.
How do you work now?
P. Miller: The studio has evolved. It's bigger, and we are pretty organized with it. There is the image-making side of things, and the execution side of things. One of us focuses more on the image-making side of things and the other comes in and changes something, or messes around with it. Fortunately, we have such a strong foundation as friends that even if sometimes you don't want to hear "I think you should change this," we know it's for the good of both of us.
You've talked about the Web site as an "exhibition space" and as a tool to promote and distribute your work, potentially bypassing the gallery system. And yet you are still showing in a gallery. Why?
P. Miller: I think we are still old school. There is still the charm and the beauty of going to see a great show. This is art, this is a visual thing. When you are looking at a small jpg, the size and all these things is hard to really appreciate. The Internet is an amazing tool. It has let a new generation, in every field of business and culture, reach so many more people than they ever could before. But to not go and see the work in person is a real shame — and having that go away would be sad.