When Gelett Burgess wrote the famous line, “I never saw a purple cow, I never hope to see one,” he was practically begging for a dose of reality amidst the onslaught of technology that had blurred the 1890s. That his words have lost little of their power in our present age is no surprise.

Most of us can scarcely conceive of divorcing ourselves from today’s digital gadgetry, even if we understand instinctively that in exchange for accessibility and speed we’ve volunteered our privacy. It’s Faustian, but who needs the lecture? It’s political and the conspiracy theorist in each of us knows that someone is pulling the strings.

I first visited the Brooklyn factory/warehouse of street-art duo FAILE a few years back. With their team of assistants, FAILE (nee Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller) make images that deconstruct pop-culture in a hallucinogenic distortion of modern DIY printmaking. It’s street-art… It’s nu-pop-art… It’s hipsterism derived of the rock poster and the monster magazine. Hell, for all I know, it’s advertising.

Faile 2013

Street-art has made something of a crossover into the blue-chip galleries these past few years and FAILE were amongst the first to cash-in on the attention. When I met them, they were preparing a sixty-foot tower of silkscreened blocks, to be displayed in the atrium of Lincoln Center Ballet in midtown. With such huge crossover commissions, FAILE have been accused of selling out the “street” aesthetic, despite never having a breakout piece at the level of Shepard Ferry’s OBEY/Andre the Giant or Banksy’s documentary-hoax, Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Moreover, their work seems so extremely commercial that street-art lovers are bitterly divided as to its aesthetic value. Love them or hate them, FAILE are hard to ignore these days.

Like many street-artists, the duo apply their name (or tag, if you will) to each canvas, a tradition of implied anarchy. The tagger attempts to re-claim something–concrete wall or subway car exterior–that society says was never his to begin with. Thus, a name spray-painted illegally on public surfaces becomes an expression of the irrepressible spirit of the forgotten. That’s the official version of things. But FAILE are middle class white kids who went to art school and work in the most gentrified area of Brooklyn (Greenpoint).

Moreover, their latest works aren’t tagged onto a street wall. They’re stenciled collages on canvas which, were it not for the subtle hints of self-awareness, might have easily become submerged into the larger doggerel. Thankfully, there’s a breakthrough here.

Consider one image from their recent show at the Lincoln Center. It features an alpine female wearing a knee-length skirt, foot tucked gracefully under her left thigh, a six-chamber rifle resting on her lap. She’s neither ballerina nor buxom lassie, but rather the most traditionally beautiful subject in the series. She sits on a flat rock, foot dangling over the FAILE moniker, a great forest behind her with the silhouette of a panther peering down over a cliff. Beneath her toe lies a great heaping of precious jewels, gold coins and flowers, an unambiguous acknowledgement that technological advance has done little to change the social paradigm.

But this composition isn’t about gender injustice. It’s a meditation on wit.

Faile 2013

The fact is, what should be a dangerous, dramatic visual scenario winds up unthreatening, because FAILE make no attempt to hide the fact that she’s not actually in the woods. She’s in a distorted reality, an urban jungle of trendy neon colors, surrounded by a mosaic of wood blocks with slogans on them, arranged according to corresponding hue.

None of it is real. Not even the girl or her empowering weapon of choice. They are pigment, paint, canvas. She is a fantasy, a product of and for our imagination. The politic represented here is not corruption, it’s consumption.

Lest these descriptions make one think the work expressionist or even mannerist in nature, their sensuality and vibrancy overcomes any semantical ruminations on collective anxiety. For what compels us about this work is not the angst of grappling with life’s many complexities, but the euphoria of the present moment in all of its novel, albeit ambiguous, visions. We become one with the female, united in our universal identity crisis, both decadently self-induglent and paranoid, all the same.

Such vertigo in contemporary life fills another work in that FAILE series. In it, a deflated-looking wolfman sits ponderously on an armchair watching television in some humdrum suburban living room. The words “Retreat to the Ordinary” are emblazoned across the bottom.

The canine beast, once the savage emblem of FAILE’s inner rage in their earliest work, here resigns himself to a life of domesticity. There’s a pet kitten on the floor and a rope tied tightly around his ankles. Patrick McNeil, married with kids and living in the suburbs, says the piece is autobiographical. It is an acknowledgement that his former idealism has become increasingly grounded.

Gone are the self-righteous heroes of standard street-art, the indignation at inequity, replaced quietly by the numbing effect of the daily grind, the aging process, and the cultural malaise that has left civilization in a great fog.

And yet, as each of us inevitably succumb to the death of our ideological selves, FAILE’s work does not celebrate the loss of the hero. Instead, its many rhythms suggest a deep hope for the return of a dark knight. But who knows when? (Brian Chidester)

Faile 2013