New York

McDermott and McGough

McDermott and McGough’s latest installment of what seems to be a lifelong project—reassessing or commenting upon the present by conjuring up campy versions of an imaginary past—is concerned once again with matters of form. These works, like the resplendent dandyism of McDermott and McGough’s public personae (the couple are often seen about town in full Edwardian attire), invite viewers to ponder the question of appearance, vivifying the Wildean valorization of style over substance and form over content.

The first eight drawings encountered upon entering the gallery resemble either 19th-century commercial signage or clothing illustrations. What is being sold here is the image of fashion; for fashion, as Roland Barthes suggested, exists to create desire. It is the desire engendered by the quirky, bold men’s fashion illustrations (largely from the early part of the century) that seem to have captured McDermott and McGough’s attention in this episode of their ongoing “time travel” project. No man is complete, the artists suggest, without the appropriate attire: here period prices that are astoundingly low by today’s standards are juxtaposed with the schematically rendered items. The product is presented first as a necessity and then as an unobtainable ideal of sartorial perfection; both advertisement and artwork are at once retail merchandise and escapist fantasy. The conceptual challenges posed by these canvases (what are the relationships of clothing to fashion, commerce to imagination, object to fantasy) are all the more disarming for their eccentric charm and homoerotic appeal.

The canvases that simulate billboard advertisements with their bright primary colors and oversized images are the most visually arresting. Funny, too, they suggest a state of mind in which commerce runs amok. 8 Cent Collar. 1928., 1990, delights in the physical marriage of a price and a collar, while Diet for a New America. 1918., 1990, presents the stereotypical black chef grinning exuberantly over a vegetarian substitute for meat. The implied commentary upon the inanity of advertising through an anachronistic image, which is patently offensive to the contemporary viewer, is tempered, one feels, by the artists’ wholehearted embrace of both inanity and anachronism as a way of life.

In the recent work, the artists’ preoccupation with self remains a constant: in Splendid Achievements Part II. 1928., 1990, the gay themes from the last Whitney Biennial paintings return in miniature as souvenirs celebrating the ascendant glory of McDermott and McGough; in A Decorative Dream. 1882., 1990, money flies in the window borne in the beaks of doves, as do cabinet photographs of young men; and in a series of works not included on the checklist, Messers. McDermott and McGough present different billboards and signs announcing themselves and their occupation. Whether or not one finds such insistent self-preoccupation tiresome, McDermott and McGough’s assertion of painting as a kind of billboard (inverting the Pop inspiration of billboards as a kind of painting) is at least a clever, ironic, and ultimately self-deprecating assertion of their artistic monomania.

The works concerned specifically with time travel are somewhat less successful. A park landscape peopled by Edwardians and dinosaurs entitled Primevel Perambulation. 1867., 1990, seems nicely primitive (a paradoxically professional “folk” painting) but a little dry and uninspired; compared to the richer amusements of the other canvases, it’s a pictorial one-liner. Similarly, their choice of Herald Square as a sort of epicenter for time travel is refreshingly idiosyncratic, but the work itself is not very transporting—it ultimately seems flat and fussy.

The most engaging pieces in the show are from the series known as San Francisco Earthquake Souvenirs. 1906., 1987–90, in which individual articles (broken porcelain, old shoes, cracked glass), encased in elegantly labeled vitrines, are presented on a long table swathed in purple fabric. The display is at once haunting and mirthful, ironic and, in its way, sincere. Here, for a moment, the past becomes truly palpable.

McDermott and McGough have managed to synthesize the self-conscious vapidity of Pop art with the discursive criticality of Conceptualism, creating a sort of precocious dandyism that is all the more impressive for its determination not to be taken too seriously. By wanting to be seen only as sexy eccentrics with perfect party manners, they make smart bids for superstardom by convincingly playing their parts.

Justin Spring

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