Finding yourself wedged between two extremes is inevitable in FAILE: Savage/Sacred Young Minds. Entering the immaculately carved Temple, one-half of the large-scale project on display at the Brooklyn Museum, museumgoers' mouths hang open upon sight of the stone architecture's motifs. Meanwhile, in a neon-colored room housing the exhibit’s hyperkinetic, kitschy other half, The FAILE & BÄST Deluxx Fluxx Arcade, faces of both children and adults are plastered with smiles, laughing as arcade and pinball machines whizz their electronic chirps.
As with any work by FAILE, the longtime artistic collaboration of Brooklyn-based artists Patrick Miller and Patrick McNeil, these pieces embrace dualities that require some unpacking. Both Temple and Deluxx Fluxx seem, at first glance, to be the furthest things from each other: religious versus secular tones, high craftsmanship versus video game design. Yet looking past these surface-level differences, the two surprisingly turn back on themselves to find congruity in their contrasts.
"They both really speak to the idea of sacred spaces and kind of a place that takes you to another world," Miller explains to The Creators Project over the phone from FAILE's studio in Brooklyn.
During their earlier years as FAILE, Miller and McNeil predominantly flexed their creative duality muscles with '80s-style stencil and tagger street art that adorned the city streets. In line with influences of sampling cultures within hip-hop and Pop art circles, FAILE would appropriate images, which they would then revamp with their own stylistic colors and patterns to create the point/counterpoint conversation. When they eventually took these works into gallery-museum spectrum, the duo brought this street ethos along with them and mashed it with further concepts better fitted to the highbrow setting, a trend highlighted at the current exhibit.
"One of the things we explore a lot is icons and how icons get broken down," McNeil explained. "You can walk into a church and see Jesus carved on the altar, and there's the high art craftsmanship to that, but then you walk into the bodega and see the Jesus sticker or a Jesus candle and how icons can be broken down and consumed in a high art way or a consumer way."
Temple, appearing from a distance to be a devoutly religious place of wonderment, becomes a blatant satire of this first-impression. Their iconic "Scuba Horse" character sits in place of a deity in the fountain; prayer wheels offer inscriptions with sex hotline numbers; and reliefs that one would imagine to be in-line with homages to the gods actually recall more graffiti-styled messages. Meanwhile, several games in the arcade—while utilizing 16-bit aesthetics—actually convey a higher-level message. One game, with buttons stylized á la bodega store signs, draws a crowd to actively participate in a race of gentrification, a mirror of this real-world socio-economic dilemma.
Admittedly, going beyond the individual exhibits and appreciating the entire exhibit in its totality is far from an easy task. The various reliefs in Temple have their own images, storylines, and chains of symbolic artwork of pertaining to Native American culture that date back to the artists' childhoods in Arizona, and also to metaphors of greed; Deluxx Fluxx offers wheatpaste poster-covered walls alongside the various video game and pinball graphics that comment on our social acceptance of the norm in modern society (i.e. a driving game where your straw avatar follows a rail of coke). Add on these extra layers of noise and excessive visual stimuli, and it’s a recipe for chaos that's difficult to weave a narrative straight from the artist.
Referring to both their work and how it fits in the grand scheme of things, Miller says, "We are in society where we're bombarded with so much stuff all the time. It's more about, how do you make meaning from all this stuff than necessarily always feeding the fire?"
Then again, like coins into an arcade game, or prayers at an altar, maybe getting people to make the first move is the point.
Faile: Savage/Sacred Young Minds is currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum through October 4, 2015.