New York

Paul McMahon

I just loved Paul McMahon’s latest show. Sure, there are many ways, more articulate and refined, of expressing admiration, all of them more dignified and appropriate for an art review. But there is a directness, simplicity, vulnerability, and benevolence so profound in McMahon’s art that earns it such inanely effusive praise. His charm and openness has completely seduced me out of my cumbersome jaded critical armor. Naked here, before this craftily disarming jester, I will make no pretense to hide the strong positive bias with which I entered the show. A dedicated fan of McMahon’s peculiar sense of humor for a few years now, ever since I saw a few odd examples of his work, I eagerly embraced this show, his first solo exhibition of visual art since 1975. Along with an appreciation for his subversiveness,which is generally misunderstood or ignored, I must confess an inordinate weakness for precisely that tragicomic spirit of unabashed sincerity and silliness that makes McMahon’s art so hard for many to swallow.

The tension within McMahon’s art between entertainment and punishment is the result of his intentionally carrying his ideas out to excess, in which the extremity of execution or presentation often erases all depth, balance, and perspective. The wide array of songs, jokes, videos, paintings, photographs, performances, and objects produced over the past decade by this self-dubbed “renaissance man” are not about subtlety but about simplicities and their one-dimensional resonance. He often pushes his circus of cultural clichés beyond the commonly acceptable threshold of tolerance in order to provoke extreme thoughts and feelings. McMahon can elicit the most polarized reactions with his strategy of oversaturation and his absurd lack of sophistication.

Except for The First Red Polkadot Painting, 1977, all of the works in this long overdue show were made by McMahon between 1984 and ’87—a diverse lot of conceptual-art curiosities sprawled unorthodoxly across the walls, floor, window ledge, and ceiling. He arranged his continuing series of red polka-dot paintings in various configurations, such as a group from 1984–87 stacked against a wall, and ran the theme into the ground by strewing round buttons of all colors all over the floor. He showed photographs that he’d taken of New York street scenes and interiors but with all the “text” erased: automobile license plates without serial numbers, street signs without street names, etc. These altered photographs give the same quirky mutant pleasure as Laurie Simmons and Allan McCollum’s collaborative photo series from 1985, while the red polka-dot paintings are even more to the cutting point than Sarah Charlesworth’s plaids. Viewers were provided with a bowl of fortune cookies (constantly replenished) and a funhouse, and McMahon had even glued a butterfly on the ceiling. This cluster of idiosyncracies, seemingly unconnected yet forming a single schizophrenic entity, gave the impression of being carelessly deliberate and deliberately careless.

Stupidity is McMahon’s deepest subversion. His naive “idiot savant” persona has been one of the most interesting and wonderfully out-of-place phenomena in the New York art world. The raw emotions of his childlike songs (penetratingly amateurish with the same accuracy as Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers) and the redemptive carnivalesque pathos of his standup comedy are woven into the fabric of his visual art. What makes McMahon’s slapstick so gratingly ironic is its straightforward, deadpan delivery. This installation was an insane travesty of the mundane so modest that it probably drew only a few puzzled glances. The art, in process and product, is casual yet strained. Fun here is an existential concept. The jokes in his comedy routines are often so idiotically bad that they become caustic and antisocial abrasions, and the punch lines, when amusing, are of a comic incompetence troubled by failure and alienation. The transgressions of language, style, and rationalism are both purifications and contaminations. These contradictions are embedded into McMahon’s appropriation and mediation of popular culture. They are not so much antagonisms as they are sympathies. The frail objects of this show, brittle impersonations of art and artifact, were produced with a sense of humanity that sets them apart from the cerebral social criticisms of most other contemporary art simulation.

Carlo McCormick