New York

McDermott & McGough

Cheim & Read

In their recent exhibition, “A True Story Based on Lies,” McDermott & McGough presented a series of crisply painted, brightly colored canvases that rework lurid comic book and commercial illustrations. Chump into a Champ, 1964, 2005, for example, shows the iconic Charles Atlas bodybuilding ad in which a skinny loser gets shoved in the face by a fairground muscle man, only to buff up and avenge himself, thereby winning the adoration of a girlfriend who had earlier joined in mocking him.

The background of the Pop-style montage Don’t Be Half a Man, 1964, 2005, depicts the other famous Atlas ad aimed at demeaning sensitive string beans, in which the hapless scrawny boy—called “girlie” by his tormentor—returns after his Atlas workout to punch out a beach brute. The upper foreground of this montage also shows, in profile, the free-floating bust of a young, muscular Guy Madison, his boyish face an encapsulation, in this context, of the rapturous allure of the postadolescent and also, if more lightly, the potentially lethal danger that attends the homoerotic. Below him in the lower foreground of the work another muscular all-American pretty boy in shorts and a torn short-sleeve shirt struggles against a giant grasping masculine hand. A metaphor for the fundamentally sadomasochistic nature of so many human interactions, the painting conjures the guilt-ridden voyeurism of adolescent fantasy.

One might be forgiven for mistaking these works for a lost trove of paintings by some Pop pioneer. As the anachronistic—and, in fact, blatantly false—dates of their paintings indicate, David Walter McDermott and Peter Thomas McGough, born in 1952 and 1958, respectively, endeavor to position themselves conceptually out of time, casting a critical light on the present by mirroring the mores, standards, and styles of a bygone era, most often the Victorian. Here, the visual language of Pop is resuscitated to reflect that movement’s canny reflections on the hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness, and bigotry that attend our cultural moment. Within this framework, the duo’s primary theme has remained the role in our culture of suppressed or subverted homoeroticism. The large diptych Our World, 1965, 2005, is a copy of a mimeographed gay publication from the pre-Stonewall era, defiantly filled with all the biting ninnyisms of that day’s gay patois. Here these razor-sharp bons mots are turned back against a fanatically homogenous and militarized culture, both that of 1965 and our own, by a cadre of outsiders with nothing to lose by their defiance.

Other works feature more different though equally hackneyed cultural tropes: the ax murderer, the superhero, and the beautiful victim, as well as Lichtensteinian depictions of women in maudlin poses, including a noirish depiction of a she-devil in red velvet. Here McDermott & McGough largely limit themselves to lampooning our culture, and have fun deflating the enduring shibboleth of homophobia, hardly dimmed by the current saccharine pop-commercialization of “gay.”

Tom Breidenbach