New York

McDermott and McGough

Massimo Audiello

Messrs McDermott and McGough’s ongoing art project involves various components: paintings, drawings, archaic haircuts and outfits, one affected accent (McDermott’s), a rustic East Village apartment sans modern conveniences, and a lot of atmospheric rumor and gossip. Taken all together, they form a charming story: two youngish men who live and make art as if this were the 19th century, give or take a few glaring anachronisms like post-Modern irony and acrylic paint. But work whose beauty depends on an ugly art world will always be endangered. Certainly in the process of preparing this review I got an earful of input from other artists, critics, and scene-makers. Gossip shouldn’t matter, but the kind of ethereal fiction these artists propose—and, for all intents and purposes, live—is constructed of hearsay. So, reports that they dodge the inconveniences of cooking on wood-burning stoves by eating in restaurants or that they use their artistic premise as an excuse to deny the existence of AIDS can’t help but discolor the fantasy a little.

Still, this was the most convincing collection of works by the two that I’ve seen so far. The faux naive, autobiographical crayola drawings—all on large handkerchief-shaped brown paper, the color of which cutely suggested age and wear—gave their awkward draftsmanship its coziest context yet. Some pictures were sweet (for example, the child McDermott on a tricycle, in Nazi regalia) some clever (the teenage pair nude in a forest, comparing erections), and a few recondite (a tacky gay bar they’d frequented in college). By turning to plain illustrations of their lives, they helped clear the rather rarefied air around their body of work. In the process, they proved that they needn’t rely on the cramped, collagey compositions that have occasionally made their paintings look more incompetent than “out-of-date.”

These drawings also confirmed something I’d long suspected: that McDermott and McGough’s decision to be artists came only after they’d started mingling in the world in period drag. For me what continues to be most interesting about their conceit is not the manner in which it is manifested but the grandiosity of their ludicrous wish. So the question arises: If they can compromise their ideals enough to dine in restaurants and display work lit by track lighting, why can’t they corrupt their conceit even further via that most accommodating of media, television? It’s not hard to picture the pair occupying a square on “The Hollywood Squares,” or doing a regular skit on “Late Night with David Letterman.” If only by virtue of its quirkiness, their plan to live in the past will never be more than an art-world curiosity. It could, however, play wonderfully in a medium where artfulness almost always feels luxurious, and where a grotesque, mediated fantasy like the series “Beauty and the Beast” is considered a class item. Now that McDermott and McGough have chosen the storyboard as their métier, their project seems more than ever—and for better or worse—a kind of pleasant coming attraction.

Dennis Cooper