Pull No Punches, Waste No Words: How St. Louis Duo WORK/PLAY Humbly Channels Greatness
“THERE ARE NO TROPHIES FOR RESISTANCE” reads an all-cap tower of stenciled text, “ONLY OPEN REBUKE.” The font is serifed, the words are black and “RESISTANCE” is split into its Webster syllables upon a hanging black banner. Against a white gallery wall of painted brick, the piece neighbors two black-and-white photographs of Tommie Smith and John Carlos issuing a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, one overlaid with the caption “BLACKSKINNED STORMTROOPERS.” A framed Colin Kaepernick jersey glows a lone red from the adjacent wall.
Called “When Stars Align,” the mixed-media installation created by Danielle and Kevin McCoy—of the St. Louis creative duo WORK/PLAY—renders the abstract imperative #Resist vividly tactile, textual and multivalent. “A lot of our work intends to spark dialogue,” explains Danielle McCoy from her husband’s graduate studio space at Washington University in St. Louis. “If you just walk in and say, ‘That’s cool,’ the work has no feeling. Art is supposed to be up for interpretation.”
Walking into the studio—part of which doubles as an activity space for their inquisitive 2-year-old daughter—it’s clear that feeling informs everything that WORK/PLAY conceives and designs. “The Mike Brown incident was really hard for us,” Kevin McCoy recounts. “We live in a city that was already racially tense. But then there was this continuous loop of black bodies being brutalized and nobody cared. It was a point of reflection: ‘Why are we making comfortable work? We are not comfortable.’ So we have to pass the buck. We have to make other people uncomfortable to get them to think critically.”
With a practice that values provocation over art world laurels, WORK/PLAY has been steadily building a reputation for mingling experimental printmaking with design, illustration and textile work. However, if making their audience uncomfortable is a conscious goal, the pair couldn’t seem more comfortable with each other—betraying the 10-plus years of their creative and romantic partnership. The two met in a college psychology class at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and—after a chivalrous “pot pie made from scratch,” as Kevin McCoy boasts—their paths quickly converged. “He was there for communication and design,” Danielle McCoy shares, “and I was there for biology. It was completely different ends of the spectrum.”
“I kind of corrupted her,” her husband jests.
“He did,” his wife deadpans to what seems a running joke. “As we started working together more, I realized that design was my calling. I was more on the conceptual side and Kevin was more at the forefront.”
From the beginning, WORK/PLAY focused on printmaking, letterpress and silk-screening. “Throughout our entire practice we’ve always tried to incorporate text,” says Danielle McCoy. “That’s one thing we’ve always stayed true to. Even if I know what something is going to say, Kevin is the one who’s going to design it.” As the two toggle throughout the creative process, they balance more commercial projects with research-driven conceptual and curatorial work intended for the gallery and public art space.
Ergo, the WORK/PLAY moniker. “When we’re working or doing design for a client, we’re playing around in our studio, having fun, exploring ideas and materials,” explains Kevin McCoy. “Conversely, when we’re out playing, going to a show, going to exhibitions, hanging out with friends, there’s always stimulation to create new work. We oscillate between the two.”
In the process the couple has accumulated an impressive roster of clients across discipline and region, including Vitaminwater, Red Bull, the Contemporary Art Museum, The Luminary and Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis. “Some people say to us, ‘Every time we turn around, your name is in the credits,’” Kevin McCoy relates. “But make no mistake, we paid our dues: A lot of ‘Nos,’ a lot of pressure, a lot of headaches, a lot of hard work. We earned our clientele.”
Low on flash and big on fortitude, WORK/PLAY has made a living—and a vocation—off of an ethos one part industry and one part humility. “We’ve stayed under the radar for a reason,” says Kevin McCoy, shifting seamlessly to address his daughter’s request for a napkin. “We put our heads down, got work done and thought, ‘This turned out great. What’s the next project?’”
On view in the studio is a piece from a series of framed brown paper bags they’ve emblazoned with the question “Am I accepted now?” Confronting “colorism in the black community,” the series literally sends up the “brown paper bag test” as a source of discrimination among 20th-century African-American sororities and fraternities. As Danielle McCoy elucidates, “When Kevin letter-pressed the words on the bag, some of them got darker, some of them got lighter. Someone might look at the bag and think, ‘Am I accepted now? I guess I’m light enough, so I can be accepted.’ We can provide space for people to have these conversations. To talk about personal experiences young and old.”
“To see people actually come in and physically do the test is really amazing,” adds Kevin McCoy .
On the opposite wall, the likeness of a dollar bill is defaced with images of slave labor. Created in collaboration with printmaking students from a local community college, the piece calls attention to both our first president’s identity as a slave owner and the degree to which such degradation formed the crux of our nation’s economy. “We don’t pull punches,” Kevin McCoy asserts. “History doesn’t pull punches. When you find out all the ills and disparities in our society, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. The United States got its infrastructure on the backs of slaves, monetarily speaking. So we juxtaposed scenery from the days of slavery to the iconography on the dollar bill. The U.S. has always been told, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ but plenty of people here didn’t do that.”
For WORK/PLAY, professional and creative progress are less self-propelled than indebted to their shared faith in something greater. “A lot of what we do comes from our own spirituality,” Danielle McCoy emphasizes. “We don’t really take a lot of credit for the work that we make because it comes from a higher source.” Similarly, the two see their future in St. Louis as guided by bigger forces. In this light, “When Stars Align” applies not only to the cosmic intersections of righteous activism, but also to their attitude toward life in general. “When the time comes that we feel led to leave, we will do that,” she continues. “But not before we make a positive mark on this city.”
Images courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.