FAILE's art reaches beyond the urban art niche to touch a generation. The duo's work uses imagery associated with popular culture to examine complex, and often neglected, metaphysical issues facing the artists' epoch. Spirituality, heroism, unconditional love, a greater moral purpose – and equally a lack of these – are among the concepts that the duo brings up so eloquently in their artistic conversation. In the posturing world of urban art, with its harsh motifs, they represent a passionate sensitivity that appeals across the gender divide.
FAILE's work provokes thinking rather than dictating it, lending the work an approachable, compassionate tone that's undoubtedly part of its considerable appeal. Themes of immediate relevance to the viewer, such as romantic love and metropolitan lifestyle culture, are positioned next to less familiar but equally compelling motifs concerning, for example, religion or space exploration. This enveloping combination lends the art astonishing personal resonance.
From their beginnings stencilling and wheat-pasting collages made from pulp imagery, including fliers for underground music acts and specialist prostitutes, to their incredibly successful print editions inspired by comic book culture, to the ambitious architectural works such as The FAILE Temple and giant sculpture The Wolf Within, FAILE have constantly evolved their unique artistic style. The forms of expression they chose seem contradictory – arcade machines and traditional American quilts for example. But they are a reminder that progressive subcultures like urban art often spotlight that which can be found lacking in mainstream thinking.
FAILE are a collective in the form of Patrick Miller and Patrick McNeill, two close collaborators who grew up together in Arizona, USA during the 1970s. They began working together in New York in the late 1990s. (Aiko Nakagawa, an early collaborator, left to pursue her own career under the name Lady Aiko in 2006). Even their initial wheat-pasted collages avoided the succinct and sometimes aggressive vernacular of street art, revelling in an accelerated culture of Americana while simultaneously being aware of its pitfalls. Like so many artists who rose to prominence with street work, the duo were paying their bills with a wide variety of design commissions, and these early forays were collected in four books including the collections Orange and Lavender.
The duo made a smooth transition from street activity to gallery pieces when they began exhibiting in the early 2000s. These shows featured large format, limited edition works on paper and board, plus physical items such as "FAILE boxes", which resemble chests for personal keepsakes. The two-dimensional pieces at first followed the collage format of their street work, but soon evolved into mini-narratives taking the form of imaginary comic book covers. These compositions are produced to such a professional level that one is left wondering if they are original or appropriated. Often they contain considerable hand finishing, and due to handling during the process often appear "worn" or "vintage" in feel.
While rarely at all salacious in content, the comic book characters depicted were often portrayed as grappling with adult emotional issues as much as heroic dramas. FAILE's consistent use of the Challenger space shuttle, which exploded in 1986 after take-off, killing all aboard, is a strong example of not only FAILE's resonance with a specific generation, but also of the duo's hankering for social ambition beyond the consumer spectacle. FAILE's "signature" is usually simply a pencilled "1986" rather than the names of the artists.
The duo's work was first exhibited at the group show Swish at what is now The Outsiders London in 2006. In the same year at The Baltic Gallery in Newcastle, FAILE were featured at its highly publicised Spank the Monkey exhibition alongside lauded fine artists with their roots in popular culture such as Barry McGee and Takashi Murakami. 2007 saw From Brooklyn with Love, a sell-out exhibition with Lazarides, at the site of what is now The Outsiders London. A monograph containing all of FAILE's works on paper and physical gallery pieces, FAILE: Prints and Originals, was published by Gestalten in 2010. Fragments of FAILE, held in Lazarides Rathbone during 2011, saw the duo experiment with female figurative portraits inspired by fashion imagery, composed using patterned segments akin to printed textiles.
Besides a voracious market in limited edition works on paper and imaginative sculptural works, FAILE's career since those first gallery shows has been characterised by a number of impressive large-scale installations.
Tender Forever was among reproduced street works by artists such as JR and Os Gemeos that hung on the exterior of London's Tate Modern museum in 2008. Lost in Glimmering Shadows was a large off-site exhibition held by Lazarides the same year. Alongside large-format works on paper, FAILE created a number of working "prayer wheels", their first examples of sculptures inspired by religious artifacts. The works, questioning consumerism and the supposed superiority of Anglo-saxon culture over that of societies considered more primitive, were displayed in a school theatre resembling a circular amphitheatre. Conversely, 2010's The Deluxx Fluxx Arcade, a collaboration with fellow New York artist BÄST, comprised bespoke arcade machines in FAILE livery. The show was accompanied by Torn, a mini-retrospective of FAILE's work over the past decade, one of the first exhibitions at Lazarides Rathbone.
The same summer at Lisbon's Portugal Arte 10 festival the artists unveiled Temple, an outdoor installation designed to resemble the ruins of a sacred building, with fixtures and embellishments drawing upon their existing body of work. The Wolf Within, a 15 foot high sculpture, was unveiled outside the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar in 2012. It shows a male figure dressed in the universal uniform of the clerical salaryman undergoing a lycanthropic transformation. The statue is designed to be permanent and remains in situ. In 2013 FAILE collaborated with the New York Ballet on installations for the cultural institution's lobby area, including Tower of FAILE, a vast obelisk raised to the top of the venue's famously high ceiling.