Los Angeles

McDermott & McGough, Furnishings, Works of Art and Other Status Symbols, 1965/2017, oil on canvas, 60 × 48".

McDermott & McGough, Furnishings, Works of Art and Other Status Symbols, 1965/2017, oil on canvas, 60 × 48".

McDermott & McGough

Team Gallery | 306 Windward Avenue

McDermott & McGough, Furnishings, Works of Art and Other Status Symbols, 1965/2017, oil on canvas, 60 × 48".

Titled “Hollywood (Homosexual) Hopeful,” this exhibition comprised more than a dozen new paintings purportedly first made in the 1960s—all works cited here, for example, bear the dates 1965/2017. The three large paintings that formed the most immediately cohesive grouping in the show were located in a small white shed next to the gallery’s back patio, evoking a typical artist’s studio for a hobbyist painter in this Los Angeles beachside neighborhood (the gallery is located in Venice). The works depict mid-century interiors in the manner of real estate photography—the scenes are spotless and framed in a way that draws attention to the splashy designer furniture, artworks, coffee-table publications, and personal effects within them—all of which also signal the time when they are set.

In each case, the visual details of such objects charge these otherwise quintessential ’60s domestic spaces with a homoerotic dimension. In Chamber Comedy of Manners, copies of men’s physique publications are on a credenza, while in Furnishings, Works of Art and Other Status Symbols, a particularly lurid iteration of illustrator George Quaintance’s 1957 painting Hercules hangs atop a fireplace in a gold frame. In fact, Quaintance’s images of beefy Caucasian men in varying states of undress and sexual fraternity appear in several of the living spaces depicted in this gallery, and his stylistically soft lines and curvilinear shadows seem to inform the paintings’ visual approach in general. As a group, these three works point to the exhibition’s wide-ranging concern with the private and domestic—and usually closeted—facets of an opulent gay lifestyle in mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles. 

In the exhibition’s main room, an array of tableaux espoused visual approaches markedly different not only from the Quaintance-inflected interiors in the shed, but also from one another. Victorian-style illustrations, surrealist landscapes, and text-based compositions all signal the artists’ desire to avoid a signature style. Two paintings, Cigarette Smoke Tinged Breath and Absorbed in the Absolute, reference iconic portraits of Hollywood stars Montgomery Clift and Ramón Novarro, respectively, overlaying both with other images in one corner: the former showing the bisexual heartthrob in a drunken stupor (he would die of a drug addiction in 1966), and the latter a portrait of one of the male prostitutes who would murder Novarro in 1968. These inset pictorial spaces rupture the visual pleasure of the works in a way that echoes the turbulent lives and tragic deaths of their subjects. Collectively, the works in the show concern historical examples of homophobia and repressed subjecthood, but especially given their stylistic variety, too many of the works seem to function above all as visual research notes. Juxtaposing the specific and the general—by, say, placing serially male (and mainly white) bodies amid scenes of retail-ready domesticity—they recall a broadly unfortunate history through an unfortunately broad lens.   

David McDermott and Peter McGough have produced work together since 1980, dwelling on particular historical eras with a powerful commitment that has extended to the duo themselves physically appropriating the sartorial and social manners of, say, the first decades of the twentieth century, as a means to query the ways in which historical narratives are constructed and continue to operate. This positions the artists as operating between now and some other era, as in the faux double dating of the paintings in the show. While this exhibition appeared to pursue peripatetic, inchoate recollections of an era fast receding in the rearview mirror, perhaps—for better or worse—such a methodology crystallizes the dynamic of one of the artists’ central concerns: nostalgia itself. But nostalgia is powerful because of the idiosyncratic desires and personal associations that underpin it. When it is taken up as an aesthetic strategy, its specificity too often gives way to blunt visual motifs or narrative clichés. If we’re to presume (albeit tenuously) that such lives, such histories, are now firmly in the past, can we not make available a more gracious—perhaps a more vital—tribute?

Nicolas Linnert