It's life, but not as we know it

Chad McCail paints storybook illustrations of a better world. Is this the work of a revolutionary or a cynic, or something far more profound?
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The caption along the bottom says People take turns to do the difficult jobs, and the picture shows a view of a street in which some white-collar men are taking off their suits and putting on hard hats and overalls to go down and work their turn in the sewers. In another scene, Wealth is shared, we see a country mansion being put into general occupation and use and, in the foreground, a ceremony in which the old owner's key is buried.

The caption along the bottom says People take turns to do the difficult jobs, and the picture shows a view of a street in which some white-collar men are taking off their suits and putting on hard hats and overalls to go down and work their turn in the sewers. In another scene, Wealth is shared, we see a country mansion being put into general occupation and use and, in the foreground, a ceremony in which the old owner's key is buried.

Or again, Money is destroyed (it is taken from the bank in wheelbarrows and burnt in the road); Soldiers leave the armed forces (they surrender their arms to helpful children); and Prisoners are freed (reunions and reconciliations all round) - each image precisely drawn and boldly coloured. There seems no doubt what to call this, though it's not an expression you hear so much nowadays: utopian communist propaganda. And who would do that?

It is the work of Chad McCail, about whom I know practically nothing. He is a man in his late thirties who lives in Edinburgh, and - to judge from what I've seen in exhibitions - he's been making such images for the past five years or so. He has a London show at the moment, at the Laurent Delaye Gallery. More of his pictures can be seen in the British Art Show 5, touring the country and currently at the Centre for Visual Arts, Cardiff.

But knowing practically nothing about McCail feels fine. These visions aren't personal dreams. Their subjects are public matters, and they're publicly addressed. Wide-format, painted in gouache, they look like murals. They're presented unframed and hanging from clips, as if they were posters, and they'd reproduce well.

What's more, they have no qualms about explaining themselves. In case the message should be missed, McCail provides a full description: " No one charges no one pays shows a suburban community at work. Having turned the supermarket into a large greenhouse and its car park into a market garden, they are happy to share the fruits of their labour with one another." Their messages are made plain. But as propaganda images go, these pictures are odd. The tone is odd. And judging their tone is the main task they set the viewer.

For if this is propaganda, it has none of propaganda's usual sense of vehement striving and crisis, its stirring energies, its hard-won victories, bright dawns and overjoyed celebrations, with crying mouths, blazing eyes and bodies vigorous with righteousness. In McCail's new world, everything is calm and clear. He uses a graphic style that suggests a school book or a storybook or a how-to-do-it book. It's rather like a non-comic version of Hergé's Tintin illustrations. It's neat and explicit, neutral but friendly, stressing the outlines of things, filling them in with areas of colour.

People's faces, notably, are left blank, presumably to keep psychology out. On the other hand, the figures aren't just the functional human models of (say) flight-safety instructions. They are individuated. The idea being (I take it) that of course they are individuals, but this isn't the point here.

Again, in the action, it all happens just so. There's no violence or struggle, no triumph or ecstasy. The banker who protests against the money-bonfire is gently restrained, and such strife is rare. McCail's people are normal people, going peacefully about their revolution. They do the right thing, as if they'd got up one day, had a change of heart and carried on as usual, but completely differently.

This is odd as revolutionary rhetoric, because it recognises no hurdles to be overcome. It treats its goals as if they were (a) clearly desirable - you just have to see this world to want it; and (b) easy to realise. The captions are written in learner- alphabet lettering.

And perhaps now you suspect an irony - for example, in the contrast between the enormous social change implied and the understatement of the images. Or maybe the child-friendliness of the style suggests that such visions are naive and childish. Or that propaganda treats its audience like an infant class?

When I first saw this McCail work, I read it in that way, and didn't like it. I thought it was offering an arty style-content short-circuit, or - worse still - was setting up a priggish confrontation with the viewer. I took its style as simply blank, a blankness which accused the viewer of blankness, with a message that went something like: "you viewer cannot begin to imagine such ideals, they mean nothing to you, so I give you an image of them as dead as your response; as dead, indeed, as my hopes, too."

But I don't see it that way now. The work has aspects that make irony unlikely. There's the gorgeously saturated colouring for one (the pictures I first saw were monochrome line drawings). And there's the inventive detail and singularity of the stories, like the motorists being helped out of their cars in People stop using things - an ironist, surely, would want his cod-utopia made of stock scenarios. At another level, there's no clash between style and vision.

The new world these images propose is one where existence itself is clear, calm, simple and natural - it's a practical vision, though, not at all dreamy. Here life's basic needs and desires are satisfied, and its basic facts understood and accepted without fear or perplexity. See the diptych in Laurent Delaye called Living things grow, regenerate and die, about acknowledging a human cycle of birth, sex, death and continuance.

In the British Art Show, there's a maybe more surprising proposal: a boy-girl couple walk through a blossoming nature, with the title People have relaxing orgasms. It's surprising because, for one thing, the presumed preference for wild, Dionysiac orgasms is so rarely challenged; and because contemporary art hardly ever deals with subjects of such intense everyday interest; and because the orgasm is no longer generally considered a political issue.

McCail's politics is a psycho-politics, informed - another hard fact I have - by the work of Wilhelm Reich (which I can't remember much of). People are often getting liberatedly naked. In the Laurent Delaye show, each story image is accompanied by an elaborate comic-strip diagram, spelling out, again with the clarity of certain conviction, the emotional life of humanity under capitalism, its malformations and internalisations, the self-destruction of obedience, and its cure.

But what about the emotional life of McCail's work? Genuine propaganda lives in hope. What are its hopes, what does it expect of its viewers? Are its intentions really as straightforward as the ideal life it depicts? Well, some ironies it cannot avoid, for instance those affecting any left-political art that circulates in the commercial art world. In Laurent Delaye I asked at the desk about a point the notes seemed to leave obscure - and then experienced the peculiar dissonance of having an employee of a West End gallery (address Savile Row) explain to me, with unruffled candour, the mechanisms of capitalist repression.

And I suppose McCail must be conscious that - the world and the art world being what they are - the straightforward hopes of his images will be met with disbelief, and that this disbelief will then become part of their artistic effect. Their hit is just in their total remoteness from the life we know.

But picturing impossibilities may also awaken desires. McCail's work has no ideas how the world might change. Its revolution is miraculous. But what makes it piercing is the way the new world is imagined so ordinarily - its fusion of the utterly transformed with the completely obvious. It incites a great yearning.

 

Chad McCail's People take turns to do the difficult jobs: Laurent Delaye Gallery, 11 Savile Row, London W1, to 28 October

British Art Show 5: Centre for Visual Arts, Working Street, Cardiff, to 5 November

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