Publication: The Sunday Herald
Chad McCail’s temporary studio is not the kind of space traditionally associated with artists. For a start, there as no easels, brushes and blobs of paint drying on palettes. Forget all that. On the walls are various cryptic doodles, sketches and drawings as well as a meticulously designed year planner. Trestle tables and even the floor are layered with more drawings and paper. In pride of place on the desk are an Apple Mac G4 computer, a scanner, printer and monitor. Along side these, a mobile ‘phone. The contemporary artists’ office is now complete.
McCail is one of Scotland’s younger generation of artists currently finding favour in international galleries and exhibition spaces – in McCail’s case a major show of his work is soon to open at Baltic, Gateshead.
This 41-year-old artist is affable, mild mannered and a little dishevelled but it’s immediately obvious that his looks belie his intellect and organisational capabilities. Born in Manchester and raised in Scotland McCail trained in Goldsmith’s College London before re-establishing himself firmly on home territory, describing himself as “Scottish, sort of”.
McCail’s Gateshead show is described by the Baltic as “a clever juxtaposition of the mediums of art and outdoor advertising to create a humorous and at times disturbing comic strip narrative exploring the political, ideological and sexual traditions and beliefs of today’s society”. If that type of ‘artspeak’ is off-putting, discussing his approach McCail is at pains to stress the inclusive and approachable nature of his work. “I try to make my work as visually accessible as possible. At Goldsmith’s I did a lot of reading and we discussed writers such as Jean Baudrillard who argued the visual aesthetic, as a pleasurable experience, was important in getting people to look at work.”
McCail has brought along one of his own most recent works, a book provocatively entitled ‘Active Genital’. On the surface it resembles a comic or a child’s early reader. However, such naïve associations are soon dispelled by even a cursory look the book’s pages. A series of line drawings, just like the linear narrative of a comic strip, depicts some vaguely disturbing elements: a young boy raising his mother’s skirt and then being threatened by the hand of a father; a game of ‘doctors and nurses’ between a girl and boy and then, the boy smacking the girl’s bare backside. The images are neither erotic nor titillating, qualities ruled out by the inclusion of such banal information as the houses’ foundational structure, full of beams, concrete and aggregate, like an architect’s drawing. And then it hits you: the dissonance between the style and the subject matter. This is how McCail’s work achieves it impact, by catching the viewer off-guard unawares. Such techniques, however, are far from pseudo-smart and modern-ironic, qualities McCail avoids.
“These are autobiographical details, they happened to me and drawing them was a liberating experience.” Another in the series, captioned ‘Aged Twelve,’ shows an older boy with his hands inside a younger boy’s shorts. McCailemphasisesthat although these experiences are his own they also embrace a universality of experience, something which our own society is reticent about discussing.
A question hangs in the air, unspoken, between us: I want to ask if McCail feels he was abused as a child. McCail senses this unuttered question but approaches it tangentially: “I suppose I’m interested in sexuality and how, in apatriarchal society there is an exploitative element…the link between sexual repression and conformity.” He adds, “People talk about abuse in the same way as they talk about criminality without discussing the roots…. the whole debate needs to broaden out”.
Clearly influenced by the views of, amongst others, the psychologist Wilhelm Reich, McCail argues “the sexual dynamic is the core dynamic…if this gets disturbed at an early age it creates a lack of confidence and creates conformity”.
McCail’s imagery, then, is clearly didactic – as if he is willing his audience through the force of his visual arguments to re-assess their beliefs and prejudice. But there’s a fine line between this and work which is merely propagandist. McCail concedes that his work may be controversial, as was the case in 1997 when he was showing at The Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland. “The local paper took a mother whose daughter had been murdered to see my show and ran the headline: ‘MURDER MUM’S SEX ART SHOCK’ ”.
Although clearly a malicious and deliberate misrepresentation, this is a risk McCail runs in pursuing his own agenda, one which requires both courage and conviction. However, not all his work covers such overtly provocative territory. He is keen to stress other aspects: “What I’m really interested in is the ability of people to form relationships…this is surely at the heart of any community.”
For his Baltic show, which will be presented in two parts (one of which may be deemed unsuitable for children), McCail will use the enduring symbolism of the snake, a mainstay of Judeo-Christian religious parable, as a metaphorical device for discussing basic human urges: “The snake represents a core energy and alsosymboliseshow the early feminine earth deities were replaced by male sky gods”.
It’s complex but intriguing stuff which somehow, one feels, will attract - as in the past -some kind of misplaced but inevitable controversy.