Last November, FAILE, the Brooklyn-based artist team of Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller, posted a sneak-peek image from their latest project on their Facebook page.
Pieced together atop a stack of wood blocks emblazoned with cheeky iconography was an interpretation of a vintage image of Tanaquil Le Clercq, the iconic New York City Ballet principal dancer from the 1940s and 50s. Dozens of FAILE fans clicked “Like.”
Welcome to the “ballet project,” as FAILE calls it, or the New York City Ballet Art Series, to use the official name. The series, which begins this Winter Season, will feature annual collaborations with contemporary visual artists who will create new works inspired by New York City Ballet for display throughout its home at the David H. Koch Theater.
FAILE, as artists McNeil and Miller call their 14-year-old collaboration, inaugurates the series with their boldly irreverent representational art that juxtaposes images to create complex, thought-provoking tapestries of ideas, storylines and unexpected connections.
Mixing ballet iconography with their own pop culture imagery, the artists fashioned a 40-foot tower for the Promenade constructed from hundreds of printed and hand-painted wood blocks and more than a dozen paintings for the Orchestra Level made from imageladen wood blocks framed in steel.
“Because no one had done this before us all the doors were open in terms of what we could present” Patrick Miller
Though best known for commissioning new work from choreographers and composers, New York City Ballet has a storied history of engaging visual artists to create set designs, posters and other elements. Over the years, artists such as Isamu Noguchi, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Julian Schnabel, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring and Francesco Clemente have worked with the Company. The art series, conceived with the help of the worldwide communications agency DDB New York, was designed to showcase, and embrace, the talents of a new generation—and lure their art-loving followers to the ballet.
To that end NYCB is once again offering two evenings of contemporary works, February 1 and May 29, with all seats priced at $29. Everyone who attends one of these performances will take home a hand-painted wood block created by FAILE to commemorate the occasion.
Two months before its debut, the NYCB commission was a work in progress in FAILE’s spacious new studio in a former silent movie theater in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Lining the walls, a near catalogue raisonne of prints and torn canvas paintings exhibited the team’s signature iconography -- wolves, religious imagery, political figures, boxers, bunnies, Native American images, car culture, and female nudes. A pair of paintings destined for Art Basel in Miami Beach shared a table with a giant silkscreen covered in ballet imagery playfully tweaked by the artists. Nearby stood a tabletop mock-up of Wolf Within, a 16-foot fiberglass, steel and concrete sculpture of a man gobbled up by a wolf; the piece went on view in its permanent home in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in October.
Street art and the collaborative process are at the heart of FAILE’s work. The two Patricks, who met in elementary school in Arizona, both studied printmaking—McNeil at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Miller at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. As young artists in New York, they helped trailblaze the maverick practice of putting up fine art prints on the street and leaving them to the elements.
“You could put your art out there and have it seen and be part of something alive”
The street shaped their aesthetic, teaching them to work fast and loose, stop worrying about perfection, and embrace changes in the work rendered by random elements—rain, decay, rips, images that got covered up and peeling images that revealed layers beneath.
The street also influenced their name. FAILE is an anagram for Alife, the name the artists used briefly before discovering it was already taken. But the name referenced their street-honed belief that to succeed it is necessary to experience failure at some point.
For the New York City Ballet Art Series commission, the artists immersed themselves in the Company archives, scanning and photographing generations of ballet photos, posters, promotional materials and Playbills. They attended performances, chatting with long-time ballet-goers and taking in what was on stage. “There was something about the power and energy of it, how explosive and emotional it felt,” Miller says. The result? Look for the image of a ballerina with lightening bolt legs.
After nearly six months of work, the artists say they feel a kinship with NYCB. “Balanchine pushed the Company to break away from the status quo, and that relates well to our background,” Miller says. “They see themselves as an extension of being in New York, and so do we. I think it made for a good fit.”