Copyright Chad McCail
A collection of work by British artist Chad McCail on the theme of co-operation and collaboration, explored in three of his major bodies of work: Food Shelter Clothing Fuel, 1999-2003; Snake, 2003; and his show at Edinburgh Printmakers, 2008.
Chad McCail is a renowned British artist. He has been nominated for the Beck's Futures prize and exhibited in the British Art Show 5. This collection is on the theme of co-operation and collaboration, explored in three of his major bodies of work.
About Chad McCail
Chad McCail was born in England in 1961, studied English at the University of Kent and Fine Art at Goldsmith's College, London, before moving to Scotland. McCail has exhibited internationally, with solo shows at Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art, The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, and in various locations in London and the US. In 2000 he was nominated for the Beck's Futures award, and his work was included in the British Art Show 5. He lives and works in South Lanarkshire.
Chad McCail's images appear immediately familiar, even to the first time viewer. Their style references the illustrations common to British Ladybird books of the second half of the twentieth century, and the kind that instruct on how to operate an appliance, navigate a shopping centre or guide airplane passengers towards exits. Yet the surface quality of the images, which reinforces this instructional aesthetic through super-flat gouache or digitally-coloured prints complete with captioned imperatives, belies the sophisticated polemic intrinsic to his art. These unambiguous-seeming worlds of bright colour, simple gesture and blue skies depict a near-future utopia of sorts, inspiring a re-awakening rather than reverie, couched in the appearance of the comic strip or picture story - stories of fear, adolescence, anger and love.
In his work, Chad McCail presents the viewer with narratives articulated in a complex iconography, a lexicon which requires deciphering. Diagrams of authority and individual understanding, these narratives are acted out by a retinue of bean-like skeletal people, who are surrounded by easily-understood symbols of their ambitions and fears. Where the forms are lifelike rather than skeletal or robotic, blank faces deliberately defy psychological analysis, and by extension question the politics of representation and the potential of art to convey didactic meaning. The worlds depicted focus on a point after flux, when resolution seems possible, but the directness of the caption proposes a deterministic state that the visual language undermines. The simple imperative is not sufficient to explain the cause of events which have lead to this sea change in human behaviour, where ardous tasks are willingly shared, arms are laid down, money is abolished, and the work leaves us unsure as to McCail's ultimate aim with these 'instructional' pieces - ambiguous and skeptical and ultimately exhibited in the rather rarefied world of the art gallery.
What this situation leads to, what is of benefit to even the most cosseted viewer of McCail's art, is the questioning of the institutions that currently determine a large extent of what is perceived as 'possible' in society. To what degree might an alternative model of education improve society? How does one protect the rights of the community against the privileged position afforded to a ruling class without jeopardising those of the individual, and equally, can goodwill be maintained within systems of horizontal organisation? What of the need to govern, to enforce justice, support an equitable society and protect against external threats? How much is anarchy tied to McCail's vision of community, and to what extent does he see this work as a model to be replicated in real political change?
Ultimately what arises from viewing the work of Chad McCail is an awareness of the responsibility of the individual to the wider society, and with this awareness, an interest in the imaginative other worlds his images evoke. The artist raises the question of not only whether utopia is possible, but whether it is desirable, and what our role in this new world, and that of the artist, might be.
Food Shelter Cloth Fuel
Chad McCail's work takes as its broad theme the responsibility of the individual to the wider community. 'Food Shelter Clothing Fuel', presents the positive potential of art with a political message.
With such didactic work as Chad McCail's, one could be forgiven for reading them as a near-autocratic message of creative individualism. Indeed the style is singular, but it is the political message which marks out the originality of the artist's voice, and simultaneously lends visibility to the needs of community as overlooked masses and brings a collaborative tone to his solo output.
Discontinuity between image and messsage
In their blank-faced, Ladybird-style simplicity, luscious colouring and lowercase captions, they have the quality of propaganda or instructional imagery, yet any suggestion of McCail's work being rigidly didactic is refuted by the discontinuity between image and message. The slippage between what is read and what is envisaged, the activity registered, invites questioning, becoming the space of the individual, and jointly, eliciting a societal response.
Ideals are the substance of propaganda. Yet unlike the smiling subjects of political imagery, Chad McCail's populace are faceless, unsettling perhaps, and decidedly unidealised. The radical idealism of McCail's text, with captions like 'no one charges no one pays' and 'people take turns to do the difficult jobs', plays uneasily off these uncanny figures, heightening the radically unconventional ideas he espouses. The ideas are not new, certainly - McCail has in the past provided reading lists to support his shows - but they are provocative in their prosaic doctrine, easily grasped, and yet forcefully resistant to 'spin'. Above all, McCail's work stands against obedience, apathy and conformity. His work, once seen, stays with you, jostling equally against the closed mind and the advertisement rhetoric, problematising the blank expressions of those with whom he peoples his "idyll".
Challenging the perception of the artist
In McCail's work, art has the power to challenge not only the perception of the artist in society as one of creative genius, either aloof or long-suffering, but the commodity value of art itself, and brings to light the responsibility held by artists to examine society's recent bent towards violence in the name of personal expression. This violence, encouraged by the competitive desires engendered by a global marketplace, is brought to bear on the individual within community by advertising imagery, propagandistic slogans, electioneering and colonial expansionism. Patriotism and society are seen as interwoven, and the same simple language which might exhort people to take up arms in the name of 'personal freedom', in Chad McCail's work, is borrowed and inverted in order to throw light on the very nature of communal living. What is more striking about Chad's work is that his personal artistic language found fame when chosen to tour as part of the British Art Show in 1999 - the billboard-sized 'Food Shelter Clothing Fuel' also found an audience amongst the shoppers in Habitat stores when it was reproduced as part of their sponsorship of the show, a step which might only have served to reinforce the commodification of art were it not for the potency of the radical message cutting through the serenity of the scene proffered.
Debating a political future
These apparently conflicting juxtapositions are not inhospitable to Chad McCail's critique, however. He does not portray a purely idealised kind of political reform, as, alongside his evident skepticism about the value of society as currently constituted, there is a sense of irony inherent in the childlike drawing which shows a willingness to debate the values of utopian ambition. Rather than a withdrawal from society into a dream, McCail's work portrays a real attempt to engage with current modes of thought, governance, justice, commerce. We are invited to view a world of his own creation, a foil for his vision, certainly, but it makes direct and often uncomfortable reference to a world we all inhabit, and as such, debating its political future is a collaborative goal.
Snake, or, Life is Driven by the Desire for Pleasure
Exploring the nature of community and the individual within Chad McCail's 2003 narrative cycle, 'Snake'.
Chad McCail's exhibition Snake, or, Life is Driven by the Desire for Pleasure is the culmination of three-years' work. The full cycle of seven sequences of free-standing panels, first exhibited at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 11 October - 29 November 2003, presents a vision of desire refracted through the prism of power and systems of social and economic dominance and repression. "I'm presenting two fictional worlds - one, where people have harmonius and dynamic understanding of their desires and another, where the desire is inhibited and bound up with violence in the interests of a wealthy elite." CHAD McCAIL, Fruitmarket Gallery 2003.
The symbol of the snake
Central to the narrative of the work is the symbol of the snake. The snake, representing desire, is seen as both personal companion and life force, a unifying entity between all living beings. It is ouroboros, an ancient alchemical sign of creation, death and rebirth, the snake that swallows its own tail. It sheds its skin, it is Eve's temptation. Each stage in the cycle of life and death is marked by the presence of the snake. When desire is felt, the snake serpentines across the belly of a being, when desire must be tempered, the snake forms a loose cord, when desire is constrained, the knotted viper is bound restrictively tight.
'People Work Together' illustrates the harmony of collaborative community. Community guides the voice of desire in unison, within which the adolescent individual can develop an harmonious understanding of others' needs based on sharing, trust and love; a self-disciplining knowledge of when to restrict and when to release desire.
In McCail's skeptical view of current constructions of society, community is ultimately distorted by power, wealth and privilege, leading to the distortion of desires, which are no longer controlled by an educated, trusting ability to harmonise individual wants with community needs.
Learning community methods of controlling one's own desire in youth gradually gives way in the narrative cycle of the piece to the restrictive doctrines of societal control exercised by institutions of governance, production and education. The subjects of control are parodied in three castes: parasites, wealthy and powerful; robots, unwittingly controlled by implanted aspirations of wealth and power; and zombies, a worker-class, subjugated and ill-compensated for their labour.
Social inequity & structures of dominance
The social inequity in-built in the institutions under which the robots and zombies labour and learn engenders an anger that spills over into relationships. The snakes of the zombies are knotted tight, restricting not only desire but the capacity to identify the cause of their thwarted ambitions and the root of their anger.
Structures of dominance persist as relationships struggle, and McCail's parody is ultimately deeply unfunny. Unable to attain the reasonable satisfaction of personal desires, couples transpose the source of their frustrations onto one another, succumbing to the will to power. Patriarchal modes are handed down to children, who are subject to compulsory training in the methods of their subjugation. The snake becomes the bind that holds a child to her chair in class, where she is taught obedience. The restriction of desire leads to untrammeled ambitions of wealth and power, and success within this system is attained only by killing the snake and performing the controlling tasks of the robot, remunerated for their obedience.
Choice and learning to control
Yet the alternative is also shown. Inherent in the system is the choice, to listen to the snake, learn to control impulse without suffocating desire, and allow love, mutuality and co-operation, rather than wealth, to become the guiding principles by which to live.
In this selection, the organic and the systematised relationships between the individual and desire are shown in three examples of each, and although here presented in a causal linearity, McCail's Fruitmarket show was arranged in a way which did not follow a prescribed route, with each panel standing in free-flowing relation to its neighbours. The cycle, like the snake, goes on, regenerating relationships that may ultimately lead to a harmonious coexistence, but McCail's awareness of the system at play and his bleak vision of the status quo withstands any easy attack on the grounds of utopian idealism.
Creativity as a communal project
Ultimately, ...the desire for pleasure offers a critique of the status of society, the commodity, and by extension, the role of art in the service of capitalism. The audience, in deciphering the narrative and thereby scrutinising their own place in this system, is a central component in the work. In content as well as in execution, the cycle treats creativity as a communal product, a collaboration. Collaborations by their nature question the limits of the individual within the collective, and more fruitful than simply trying to identify the point at which personal desires and endeavours become communal in McCail's work, is to see the potential that collaboration embodies. The vision of a possible world within the work of Chad McCail is in fact a realisation of the possibilities of collaboration; imaginative, rewarding, and radical.
Chad McCail at Edinburgh Printmakers
An exploration of growing sexual maturity as a collaborative responsibility and as subject matter for visual art in the work exhibited at Edinburgh Printmakers in 2008 by Chad McCail.
The subject matter of Chad McCail's 2008 exhibition at Edinburgh Printmakers was always going to raise questions. The cycle of images produced in collaboration with the artist-led production facility centres on adolescent sexual awakening, and the responsibilities of the community towards educating young people on adult sexuality, as well as the importance of understanding nascent desires, their origins in visual culture, and the violence which is often tied to these images.
An everyday world
The ambiguity of McCail's earlier work is not found here, nor is the skepticism which complicates his polemical stance in works such as Food Shelter Clothing Fuel. What the viewer discovers instead is an everyday world, with bald, though not uninteresting environments -the harled exterior of a terraced house, the bark of a tree and the texture of grass, brickwork facades of institutional buildings and the plate glass windows of a modern school. Within these prosaic scenes, unassuming and approachably clothed in detail and warm, earth-toned colours, different generations from within the community interact - the object of instruction in one image, a large, uprooted tree fruiting with sexual organs, a metaphor for the blooming growth of the teenagers who wave farewell to elders as they set off to plant their desires.
Learning through interaction
In this community, we discover, maturity is learned through interaction with others, discussion of pornographic materials in a class setting suggests that the gender relations are as robust as the links between generations. In another scene, a patriarchal figure distributes knives amongst teenagers, who learn to appreciate the implications of violence by responsibly cutting one another. Understanding emotional and physical harm is instilled by giving adolescents the means of causing pain, discussing with them the repercussions of their actions, and entrusting the future of the community to their burgeoning emotional intelligence.
Representation & objectification
One image, the third in the Puberty cycle (which runs to seven images in total) is of particular interest because of the starkly different visual styles employed. In this image, the one depicting the discussion of pornographic material, the faceless figures gesture, in clear, direct and apparently unflustered ways, their articulate criticism of the centrefold between them. The face on the woman baring all in objectification is contrastingly depicted with facial features, which pinpoints to McCail's audience, rather than his subjects, the conclusion of the lesson. Unlike our faceless counterparts in the debate, we identify instinctively with the woman in the magazine, she alone faces us. The problems of representation and objectification in art are age old. Here, we are placed inside the discussion, invited to analyse two pieces of visual culture - both the centrefold, and McCail's output - for clues to understanding our relationships to one another.