Maritime Myths at Tyler McPhee’s Perfect Lovers

[Michael sets sail on a journey through an exhibition paying tribute to a legendary lost artist and sailor, with works made of materials suiting the subject. Catch this show before it closes on Friday! — the Artblog editors]

Tyler McPhee’s Perfect Lovers at Napoleon Gallery examines the loneliness, longing, and companionship that accompany a sailor at sea. An homage to maritime culture, the six photos, paintings, and sculptural works create a mythological and romanticized biography of an old sea captain.

The idea is derived from Bas Jan Ader’s final performance, In Search of the Miraculous. On July 9, 1975, Ader set sail from Cape Cod toward Amsterdam on his boat called “Ocean Wave,” which was found some time later, unoccupied, off the shores of Ireland.

Vintage postcards

Installation View_Tyler McPhee
Installation shot of Tyler McPhee’s Perfect Lovers

The surrealistic digital image, “Perfect Lovers,” depicts two lighthouses separated by an ocean at the moment their light beams meet. The anthropomorphized structures appear to have a romantic moment. The lone tower at the left, like the lonely sailor at sea, desires a companion that it will never meet. McPhee began this piece with a vintage postcard that was digitally manipulated into a nearly symmetrical composition–note the moon, which is not reflected–that inspired the artist to continue his exploration of maritime subject matter.

Perfect Lovers_Tyler McPhee
Tyler McPhee, “Perfect Lovers” (2013), digital C-print, oak, 12” x 10”.

Across the gallery, the artist continues to play with vintage postcards of the sea during a storm as it might be experienced by a lonely sailor on a ship. The cards are leveled at their horizons in the artist’s attempt to imitate a natural experience; yet in reality, the vastness of the ocean quickly consumes the viewer in a way that cannot be replicated on paper.

Oceans_Tyler McPhee
Tyler McPhee, “Oceans” (2014), vintage postcards, dimensions variable.

Even still, McPhee’s “Oceans” waver between the playful, doodled additions of anchors and sharks from previous owners and the ominous scenery underneath. Boats are seen off in the distance between waves crashing together, providing little hope from the viewer’s perspective in the tempest at sea. The artist presents the ocean as a massive leviathan that can overtake the best of sailors, with a visceral torrent that drags the viewer off-kilter as he or she walks by.

A voyage neither finished nor forgotten

Wanderin_Tyler McPhee
Tyler McPhee, “Wanderin” (2014), model-making materials, 40-oz. bottle, rope, oak, 60” x 1’  x 1’ .

Throughout the show, McPhee tactfully weaves an open narrative within each of his works, then leaves the viewer to unravel the story. For example, the 40-oz. beer bottle sculpture in the corner, “Wanderin,” depicts an empty boat called “Ocean Wave,” like Ader’s mythical boat. There is an uneven ocean wave about to knock the bottle off its elevated wooden stand–but instead of providing a clear answer about true outcome of Ader’s transatlantic voyage, the artist’s ship-in-a-bottle challenges viewers to develop their own conclusion.

eeuwige vuur..._Tyler McPhee
Tyler McPhee, “eeuwige vuur…” (2014), digital C-print, 22.5” x 17”.

In 1971, Bas Jan Ader photographed “Untitled (The Elements),” a self-portrait of the artist standing on rocks near the sea holding a sign that said, “FIRE”. McPhee’s “eeuwige vuur…,” Dutch for “eternal fire,” reenacts Ader’s performance, with McPhee holding a sign and standing before the sea. In his artist statement, McPhee relates the commemorative performance to the story of Bigfoot to suggest that the true outcome is elusive and will never be known.

Lighthearted mythology

Ithaka_Tyler McPhee
Tyler McPhee, “Ithaka” (2014), plywood and acrylic paint, 18” x 14” x 12”.

“Ithaka” presents a topographical island that hardly resembles Ithaca, Greece; rather, it is shaped like a large breast, with stepped layers that call to mind topographical maps–an important part of sailing. The sculpture highlights the desire and longing for companionship experienced by a sailor at sea. This is one of the most playful and lighthearted artworks in the exhibition–it digresses from the serious nature of the other works of art, moving into something like a daydream that a sailor imagines while exploring uncharted islands with his lover hundreds of miles away.

The Old Man in the Sea_Tyler McPhee
Tyler McPhee, “The Old Man in the Sea” (2014), sea glass, pine, 8” x 8”.

Perfect Lovers has a multitude of solemn, weighted works, balanced with a vintage nautical aesthetic, that is relieved by “Ithaka” and “The Old Man in the Sea”–an abstract self-portrait of the artist inspired by the tradition of sailor’s valentines. These valentines were mosaics made from sailors’ shell collections from around the world; McPhee’s adaptation highlights and humanizes the alternate side of the isolated sailor guise seen in the rest of the exhibition.

Altogether, Perfect Lovers reads as a biographic showcase of an old sea captain persona that Tyler McPhee has created; the work shows the alienation and peril that the ocean brought this captain during his hypothetical travels. McPhee develops myths surrounding a sailor’s life to illuminate the uncontrolled nature of the ocean, culminating in a romantic maritime mythology that submits to and embraces the mysterious nature of the ocean.

Perfect Lovers is on display at Napoleon Gallery on 319 N. 11th St., 2L, Philadelphia, PA 19107 until July 25, 2014.