435 King Street East, Cambridge, ON
Andrew McPhail’s all my little failures is a body of work that maintains its sense of play in the midst of breakdown. Known for his obsessive pencil crayon drawings, several years ago the artist stuck hundreds of bandages together to form a baseball-sized sphere. Developing out of this modest exploration, the artist’s recent work repurposes ubiquitous items that reflect his growing interest in making hybrid sculptural forms that encapsulate text and performative elements. McPhail’s adaptive reuse of consumer goods has evolved into a thought provoking body of work that shares many of the same obsessive qualities of his drawings, however, the sculptures differ in that they reveal a far more pointedly personal narrative.
Andrew McPhail is a Canadian visual artist. He was born in Calgary Alberta in 1961 and studied at York University where he received his MFA in 1987. Living in Toronto in the 1980's and 90's his work focused primarily on drawing, often with pencil crayon on a polyester film called mylar. After moving to Hamilton in 2005, his practice shifted towards three dimensional work, performance and painting. His accumulative, craft oriented work reconfigures disposable materials such as band aids, Kleenex and pins into large sculpture and installations.
List of Works
all my little failures, 2007. Mixed media performance sculpture
don’t worry be happy, 2007. Polyurethane spray foam
429 synonyms for homosexual, 2008. Mixed media with hair extensions
by Ivan Jurakic, Curator, Preston.
The eponymously titled all my little failures is a wearable artwork made out of 10,000 generic band-aids that have been painstakingly stuck together. Mimicking a large blanket or quilt, the piece implies use and by inference the human body. The band-aid is a common, yet surprisingly unappreciated symbol of health and well being. Invented by Earle Dickson in the 1920s, an employee of Johnson & Johnson, it wasn’t until the 1940s when millions of Band-Aids were shipped overseas during World War II, that the product was universally recognized. Like a select number of postwar products–Corn Flakes and Kleenex both come to mind–the Band-Aid brand has spawned a host of generic counterparts, and we are all likely to have a box stashed away in a medicine cabinet. McPhail’s compulsive use shifts our interpretation away from scratches and boo-boos to suggest a lifetime of pain and suffering.
Functioning as sculpture and wearable prop, the piece is usually displayed over a department store mannequin, but has also been worn by the artist or hired models. When draped over the human body the piece resembles a ghost or shroud; references that infer mortality and death. But while the piece certainly has a funereal aspect, McPhail tends to privilege theatricality over melodrama, and the piece maintains a strong sense of wit despite its seriousness.
The band-aid installation has been paired with Sorry, a text work constructed out of over 100 black rubber gloves sewn together finger-to-finger. Pinned to the wall, the rubber gloves spell out a tacit apology. Like the band-aid, the rubber glove is a ubiquitous consumer item. However, unlike multi-coloured gloves which are used for everything from washing dishes to surgery, black rubber gloves suggest the handling of toxic materials, including the dead or dying. They are also a means of protecting the body from infection. Facing the pending threat of the H1N1 flu virus, rubber gloves have come to have an overwhelming association with the avoidance of illness. However, the seriousness of the message is offset by its presentation, and the flaccid script that delineates the word.
Upon reflection, Sorry has multiple meanings. It is a word that is commonly used to express feelings of sympathy and regret, but also suggests grief and misfortune. Furthermore, it can be used to denote a sense of inferiority or worthlessness: what a sorry state the world is in, for instance. Depending on your interpretation McPhail’s apology can come off as either earnest or superficial. The paradoxical readings further underline the artifice and theatricality of the presentation. Despite the seriousness of the themes evoked–illness, infection, death–McPhail uses irony and wit to take the apology over-the-top. His exaggeration of materials and their inherent meanings is similar to the way that drag performers exaggerate gender; using excess to push expectations and good taste to the limit.
Instead of addressing sexuality explicitly, McPhail redirects his energy into banal items such as the bandages and rubber gloves, which act as replacement parts for the human body. His sculptures are also stand-ins for his own anxieties: homophobia, hospitals, and his hiv positive status. McPhail’s soft sculptures straddle the line between truth and fiction, absurdity and tragedy. Taken in tandem, they suggest the charged dichotomy in the public debate over gay rights, which often blatantly equates being gay with AIDs, having sex with death, and same sex marriage with imminent societal collapse. From this vantage, the installation oscillates between cabaret and confessional, a sculptural strip tease in which the artist brazenly reveals himself to us and then apologizes with a conspiratorial wink. McPhail’s work invites empathy, but it also requires us to face up to our own failings and lack of tolerance.