Mike McCready’s mother taught art for nearly three decades, and she instilled in him a great love of painting and sculpture. But even though he liked art, the omnipresence of works by Monet, Van Gogh and Warhol intimidated him when it came to making his own visual art. McCready would stick to playing guitar, something he’s done for nearly 30 years in Pearl Jam. “I held artists on such an iconic level that I never felt I could even try,” he says. “I never had the confidence.”
Similarly, Seattle- and New York–based visual artist Kate Neckel, whose work has been featured on billboards and in magazines, never felt like she could put herself out there as a singer. “When I was in third grade, I was supposed to try out for choir,” she says. “I got so nervous and felt so much emotion around singing that I called my mom and said I didn’t feel well.”
Now both Neckel and McCready are facing their fears together as a multimedia art duo, inspired initially by Andy Warhol’s multimedia extravaganzas of the Sixties. Using the name Infinite Color & Sound, the artists will debut their collaborations, which encompass painting, music, sculpture and performance, at an exhibition dubbed Sway next month. It’s set to run at the Seattle gallery Winston Wächter Fine Art from March 22nd to May 18th.
Over the past four months, McCready has been trying his hand at painting (“I’m doing it right now as we’re talking,” he brags) and Neckel finally sings on songs they’ve written together. “I feel like I’ve been cracked open,” she says. “I feel like I now have this whole other way of expressing myself, which, at the age of 42, is the most amazing and beautiful thing.”
The artists’ paths first crossed last year at the Seattle Art Fair. A mutual friend had told McCready to check out some of Neckel’s artwork, and her colorful swirls and abstract line drawings struck him. His wife, Ashley O’Connor, then commissioned Neckel to paint what the latter describes as “an abstracted family portrait” for their home. She sat down with the couple and listened to the stories of their relationship and the adventures they’d gone on and created a six-panel representation of all the things they cared about. Neckel completed it in December but before she was done with it, she and McCready were discussing collaborating on an art project. They started creating art together last October.
Although the tipping-off point for the guitarist was to emulate something like Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, which launched the career of the Velvet Underground alongside Warhol’s films, he and Neckel scaled their idea down. “I don’t need to rip something off that has already been done so amazingly,” he says. “The point turned into doing something on a smaller level, the two of us. We’re pushing each other to do stuff that neither of us have done before. I’ve never painted. I’ve never drawn, because I’ve been terrified of it. But Kate has allowed me to just go and try that. She’s started playing guitar and she’s singing, and she hasn’t done that before.”
“There are no rules,” Neckel says. “We’ll go over to the beach and take a canvas out into the water to paint or we’ll take a guitar. We trust each other and we’re comfortable just experimenting and seeing where something goes.”
To Neckel’s eyes, much of the art she and McCready have been making has had an abstract-expressionist feel alongside some dada aesthetic. “It’s very intuitive and very much based on feeling and action,” she says. “It’s very raw and very connected. I follow his hand; he follows my hand.”
McCready will take photos of Neckel’s drawings and glue them to Polaroids. The two of them will paint mannequins. Or sometimes, they’ll just create in proximity to each other in the media they’re most comfortable with.
“Kate will put a canvas down, and either she’ll start painting and I’ll play to the rhythm of what she’s painting in my mind or I’ll start playing and she’ll paint to what I’m doing,” he says. “Eventually, I’ll start following her in terms of how fast the rhythm of her hand is going, in terms of turning and painting colors and how big they are. That will make me go intuitively into something that’s more droney. I just have to feel it. I’ve always played guitar by feel, primarily. It feels intuitive. It’s very immersive.”
Beyond the duo’s improvisational works, they’re also writing two “actual songs” that will accompany the exhibition. Neckel sings and plays guitar for one, and McCready sings one, which, he says, is another example of pushing himself outside of his comfort zone.
McCready and Neckel’s biggest problem right now is knowing when to stop. They already have a sense of what the Winston Wächter gallery will look like when Sway opens, but because they’ve embraced the “infinite” part of their collaboration’s name, they’re not sure where the cut-off point is. “We have deadlines,” Neckel says. “We have a catalog [to make].”
When it’s installed, visitors will see large paintings (“Some of them are over seven feet long,” Neckel says), collages on canvas, drawings on paper, mixed-media works and what McCready describes as “Polaroid pictures that are cut up and painted on.”
“In the front of the gallery, we have live performances,” Neckel says. “There will be a whole other body of work including some of the mannequins and works painted on sweatpants, sculptures we’ve made on the beach and guitars that we painted on. When Mike was working on the music for a Johnny Cash film, he passed me a guitar and said, ‘Here. Start drawing on this guitar with a Sharpie.’ That’s how our whole process has been. It’s super organic and natural. It’s never serious.”
Neckel at the moment is excited to learn more about performing in front of an audience from McCready. “Mike obviously has a lot to teach me about that,” she says. “I’m excited to spend these next four weeks working on our music and the performance elements.”
They titled the exhibition Sway after the bluesy track on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album. “It’s my favorite Rolling Stones song of all time,” McCready says. He points to its refrain, “It’s just that demon life has got you in its sway,” as having a particular meaning to him and the art he’s created with Infinite Color & Sound. “What does it take to get out of that?” he offers up as a question he hopes their art answers. “All of us as human beings experience fear, loneliness or sadness; you’re swaying into an unknown territory that’s terrifying. How do you get out of it? What do you learn from it? Can you get through it? That’s significant in terms of life and art for me. How do you get through those times that are hard?”
“I think the art probably does reflect those themes,” Neckel says. “It reflects the vulnerability and openness, and pushing through the fear and desire to create the work. I think the work has an honesty to it.”
Although Winston Wächter has a New York gallery, they haven’t yet decided on whether they’ll be bringing Sway there. “I hope we can take it there,” McCready says.
It’s been a long road for McCready to get to this point, but he’s finally feeling comfortable with visual art. “I operated on fear for many, many years to stay away from things that aren’t just guitar or rock, ’cause I’ve done that since I was 11,” he says. “This stuff is brand new to me. I’m 52 and just starting to learn all these new things about art through Kate and how to create and how do make mixed media and to be vulnerable with that. And I’ve learned from that vulnerability. It’s been a really great experience, and it’s been very quick. I feel a freedom in this that I haven’t felt before.”