Perfect Lovers: A Conversation with Tyler McPhee and Lauren Findlay

Perfect Lovers: A Conversation with Tyler McPhee

By Lauren Findlay

Tyler McPhee presents the romance of Maritime environments in a new series on view at Napoleon entitled Perfect Lovers. The collection captures an intense feeling of longing and whimsicality, almost drifting the viewer towards the melancholia of feelings unrequited.

Bas Jan Ader’s fatal project In Search for the Miraculous, a venture where Ader set out to sea and never returned, plays as a significant source of inspiration for Perfect Lovers. Ader’s work contained similar feelings of longing and intensity to those present in McPhee’s current collection. Phrases such as “please don’t leave me” appear in Ader’s work, displayed in such a way that twists the heartstrings of the viewer. Blatant display of raw human emotion and questions on the existence of being and collective unconscious are themes explored by both Ader and McPhee.

Perfect Lovers exploration into the unconscious and McPhee’s questions on the modern man’s identity in relation to his own identity become apparent within the seemingly endless seascapes, completely ironic objects, and carefully crafted images that make us, the viewers, open to feeling and questioning our own interpretation of the work.


Tyler McPhee Perfect Lovers

Tyler McPhee, Perfect Lovers (digital C Print on Linen Paper), 2013

Describe the series you did for Napoleon.                       

Most of the pieces that I made for this series started when I was a Fellow at the Lighthouseworks artist residency program on Fisher’s Island, NY. The island has a colorful history and I was there before the busy summer season. It is isolated and I was thinking a lot about romantic depictions of the maritime environment and the feelings that that provoked within me, as well as feelings that I had within myself that I projected upon the surroundings and how I could find, make or manipulate objects and imagery to evoke those qualities.


How is this body of work related to your previous works? How is it different?

In general, the artworks that I made before this were concerned with evidentiary claims to truth and beliefs by producing artifacts, images, or performances that disclose the very artifice of myth creation. For instance, I created a household lamp that depicted the Hindenburg disaster I made a book that contained a series of photographs of myself as various revolutionaries.  I was (and to some extent) remain interested in how we come to know and understand ourselves as individuals and collectively through moments of cultural significance such as a spectacular event or the performative aspects of self-mythology in revolutionary movements.


This series contains a lot of found objects. What is your view on found object v. made object?

I am interested in the significance attached to objects in everyday life and how they come to have that importance. What is attracting me to these items, do they hold meaning just for me or can I use that to share an idea or feeling with other people?  I feel comfortable in my studio practice engaging in both the making of objects, but also the repurposing of objects and imagery.


Let’s talk about archetypes. A lot of your work is based on this theme of breaking, or reforming, cultural archetypes. What does this theme stem from? Do you feel that your work breaks our cultures archetypes or plays to them?

My works that actively engage in that sort of breaking and reassembling of these characters comes from my interest in what makes up my identity as a man and what makes up my identity as an American man in particular.  These archetypes are highly reinforced culturally.  I’m interested in the spaces in between them, where they break down, the fallibility of the depictions how I relate or don’t relate to them.


A main theme within Jungian archetypes is the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is distinct from individual unconscious, which, can be related to Conceptualism in the respect that many conceptualists feel that work shouldn’t be subjective­– both of these themes shy away from subjective individualism of any sort. Where do you stand in that argument? Is your work subjective or is it stemmed from collective unconscious?

The concept of a collective unconscious feels like the unseen collective cultural reinforcement of a hegemonic.  I would reject that conceptualist notion that the work shouldn’t be subjective because one’s own personal experience is just that.  But it does offer room for extrapolation to a larger group of people’s experience.  That being said, I’m not really interested in work that is wholly subjective, like, I’m just going to freestyle this whole piece and there’s no entryway other than this is what I wanted to do.  I guess I seek something that has a grounding in real life otherwise it would seen like there is a level of relativity instead of subjectivity that is kind of pointless to me as a viewer/consumer of an art experience.


You said in your proposal that you were influenced by Bas Jan Ader’s In Search of the Miraculous, a project which went completely awry. Sol LeWitt has written, “The work of art can only be perceived after it has been completed”. Although Ader’s project did not go as planned, do you think that his vision was carried out? Or, since he did not adhere to his original concept, do you feel that the project was a failure? Does this apply to your own practice?

Bas Jan Ader is/was really smart; the work is really savvy. Through the use of that title, “In Search of the Miraculous”, he makes sure that the piece is successful.  If he disappears, dies and encounters dying/death/the afterlife then he has encountered something truly miraculous.  If he makes it across the ocean, than in a playful sense, he has achieved a miraculous situation because the journey is so dangerous.  The fact that he disappeared in the process leaves the work open ended, but not in a way that leaves it uncompleted.  It is complete, open ended because the viewer can forever encounter BJA in his search and the unknowingness of this process is what makes it so potent and interesting.  It is both sparse and deep at the same time.  It is basically a title that has some contingent archival photographs that it existed because the boat is gone as well.  Yet, the piece goes on and on.  A journey without an end point and I think that any really good work does that, it stays open ended.

I would love to create a work of art that has that sort of character to it.  There’s definitely a trajectory within his small body of artwork that moves away rapidly from the material to the ephemeral to create this “true” art moment.


Talk about your work in relation to Ader’s.

I think that “In Search of the Miraculous” is one of the best pieces of artwork ever made. That being said, I also think that BJA would probably not be too interested in my work because he was trying to create artworks that transcended mere rendering.  What attracts me to his art is that there is a courageous vulnerability in what he did in exposing his body and his feelings to the viewer.  His work is also a bit tongue in cheek and reflects his personality and I definitely like artwork that does both of those things.


Can you talk about your process? Where does an idea start and how do you bring it to fruition?

It’s been a while since I had a proper studio.  That being said, my ideas usually start during some component of travel, whether that’s walking or driving, going to a thrift store or on a trip.  I get an idea going and then, kind of write it down, make a sketch or buy some small thing that inspired me.  There’s a long gestation period with my ideas.  That Hindenburg idea was like 5 years old when I finally figured out how to make it.  There’s a lot of research in between me getting an idea and then how it will come to fruition, that’s maybe 80 percent of what is happening for me.  I feel like I’m always doing something different so I’m trying to figure out how to make something, messing it up, finding something cool within that mess and keeping the good, tossing the bad and continuing until the work is finished.


How do you feel about Conceptualism? Do you consider yourself a conceptual artist?

I have a tenuous relationship with conceptualism because a lot of times I’m really bored by that kind of work.  A lot of it is very academic and dry. There’s a lot of point making going on. I certainly draw upon conceptual artwork all the time and am very interested in the presentation of concepts in art, but I wouldn’t attach myself to one ism.


Your previous work in 2011, “The Incalculable Immensity,” involved similar Maritime themes that are presented in this body of work. Was “Incalculable” a base inspiration for this series?

Yeah, that was definitely the point where I was starting to think about using these themes and building multiple pieces around them.


How will this series affect your future bodies of work?

I’m not sure quite yet.  There is a video that I want to make that I could see going in this group.  After that I want to change things up completely and challenge myself to make a completely different group of artworks.



  1. Jung, C. G., and Marie-Luise Von Franz. Man and His Symbols. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964. Print.
  1. “Under the Big Black Sun » Bas Jan Ader, In Search of the Miraculous, 1975.” Under the Big Black Sun » Bas Jan Ader, In Search of the Miraculous, 1975. N.p., n.d.


About the Author:

Lauren Findlay is an artist and writer living and working in Philadelphia, PA. She is a published writer and internationally exhibited artist. A recent graduate of the University of the Arts, she is currently experimenting with themes of abstraction influenced by literature and expanding her writing career as far as it can go.

To download a .pdf version of this essay, click McPhee_Findlay_August_2014

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