New York

McDermott & McGough

Robert Miller Gallery

Q: Why did the man throw his watch out the window?
A: He wanted to see time fly.

The joke depends on the assumption that it is absurd to defenestrate a timepiece. But perhaps it only appears absurd to us because we are unused to questioning time or challenging the conventions it informs. Walter Benjamin pointed out that during the July revolution of 1830 the insurgents began, spontaneously and independently of one another, to shoot at the clocks in Paris’ towers. Although most of us synchronize our watches, time has its dissidents as well: McDermott and McGough have never subscribed to any regnant form of time.

Animated by the conceit that it takes place in January 1915, this current exhibition of photographs represents a step forward chronologically from their previous camera work; the pictures of scientific experiments at the last Whitney Biennial, for example, suggested the 19th century. Perhaps they are rehearsing the principal stations of the history of photography. The gallery announcement states that “the mammoth plate size of 20 x 24 inches is seldom exhibited. Color photographs are here exhibited for the first time,” but the works are not actually color photographs; rather they are black and whites that have been tinted orange, blue, or “other shades of popular favor.” Nevertheless, this enthusiasm for technical development is the show’s unifying idea. It purports to recapture the days when technical innovation was still wedded to a belief in progress. Today, when technology is bound up with the anxiety of automatic armageddon, there is something sad about the fact that the logic of the new seems to us, at best, quaint.

This ambivalent nostalgia inheres as well in the diverse subject matter of the works. The photos depict antique sculptures, memento mori, furniture and household items, a few still lifes, and a few fuzzy portraits. It is the sort of subject matter we see in period photographs and think: “That’s right, this was before the Leica, when only stationary things could he photographed.” Historically, photography’s subject matter begins largely with bourgeois bric-a-brac arranged into still lifes. Along these lines, McDermott and McGough present a deep brown photo of two decrepit top hats and a yellow photo of men’s accessories—cuffs, cuff links, collars, a pocket watch—placed around a miniature glass arboretum filled with stuffed birds. Making deft use of the contrast between the progress suggested by their medium and the decay implied by their antiquated subject matter, McDermott and McGough counterpose the invention of color to the deterioration of the material world. The top hats are decrepit and might well have belonged to the two skulls that are posed identically in another picture. Even the photographs of otherwise mundane objects take on an elegiac air amidst these reminders of death. A pair of shoes, for instance, is subject to the fetishistic stare that comes with the realization that the person who walked in them will never walk this earth again.

Within this somber context, the various pictures of Roman sculptures no longer look like the innocent work of a photography enthusiast. The pieces’ missing arms, legs, heads, and their all-too-obvious support struts make them appear fragile and mortal. A sequence of seven photographs features close-ups of these sculptures’ crotches: one figure sports a fig leaf, another a penis that looks youthful and real, but the rest have been castrated by time. Would a 1915 exhibition ever have featured a series of works dedicated to sculptures’ crotches? There are indeed anachronisms—for instance, there were certainly better color photographic processes available by 1915, and even Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz had already exhibited “autochromes” by 1912. The aim of the artists, however, is not to create a time capsule or purist simulacrum of a bygone era. Instead, they use time in the way that Giorgio de Chirico used space: every element within the fiction recedes to a different vanishing point.

Keith Seward