New York

Paul McMahon

Artists Space Exhibitions

Two other small events from the end of last season deserve mention. Both were too quiet to attract much attention or to have much of a lasting impact, but slightness can be a virtue, and both demonstrated that. They may not have blown anyone over, but their humor and intelligence in the face of so much dull pretension provided pleasant relief.

Paul McMahon is the balladeer of life in Lower Manhattan, singing artfully simple songs of the joys and fears, and, most especially, of the paranoias of New York’s artistic demimonde. His words are simple, his tunes are simple, his presentation is burdened with a minimum of show or effect, but because they cut so close to the bone, and in ways that are intensely personal (even the least imagination can match names to McMahon’s often reptilian disguises), his songs are simultaneously unbearably sad and very funny. The songs are full of yearning, but also of mockery. McMahon plays a double role—he is both the alienated insider who knows too much and is disgusted, in an ironical way, with what he knows, and the fascinated outsider who does not know enough and cannot believe how much he wants to know more. The role is a sympathetic one, and the charm of McMahon’s performances lies in the very obvious rapport he is able to build with his audience.

This rapport was particularly strong on the evening of this performance, in which the atmosphere was relaxed enough to allow the improvisational song “Rock ’n’ Roll Psychiatrist” to work successfully. This piece is always something of a litmus test, since McMahon composes the verses of the song in response to questions thrown from the audience—an audience at the Kitchen earlier in the year had proven too self-conscious to enter the party-game spirit essential for the song to work, and as a result the entire performance seemed a bit strained. Another feature of the performance at Artists Space was McMahon’s decision to play in front of drop-cloths, each painted to accompany a particular song. His songs have always been written with the painter Nancy Chunn, and the backdrops were also collaborative in conception and execution. There, painted in a crypto-naive style to match that of the songs themselves, was “The Valley of Art” with its busy artists digging up quite familiar looking artworks; “Simon Weasel,” busy at his easel; that sexy salamander, “Cream of the Stream”; and the impressively fecund “Genius with a Penis,” to mention a few.

Thomas Lawson