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In the Book of Genesis, God strikes down Onan, the second son of Judah, for the crime of masturbating. In Velvet Rage, Flaming Youth, and the Gift of Desperation, a show by artist duo McDermott & McGough at James Fuentes Gallery, Onan gets a gaudy shrine: Three gold-framed paintings picture him masturbating into cotton candy-colored clouds. They’re hung above a carved wooden table composed of phalluses sprouting from breasts, modeled after a table from the collection of Catherine the Great. Called “Hic Habitat Felicitas” / Temple of Onan,” it’s flanked by Grecian-style urns with porny illustrations. This very literal celebration of self-love is the centerpiece of a show filled with similarly campy critiques of homosexual oppression through the ages.
McDermott & McGough consists of visual artists David McDermott and Peter McGough, who divide their time between Dublin and New York City. As fixtures of the Lower East Side art scene of the 1980s, they were famous for getting rid of the electricity and plumbing in their Avenue C townhouse. This Luddism was part of their commitment to living like Victorian-era dandies: They strutted around in top hats, starched collars, and cutaway suit coats.
They made their work using old-fashioned materials, like rabbit skin glue and lead-based gesso on canvas, and backdated it to the early 1900s. To commute to their studio, a converted Williamsburg bank, they’d walk over the Williamsburg bridge with their two dachshunds inside a dogcart, and an old wagon harnessed to their two springer spaniels. Some might call their retro lifestyle a schtick; McDermott called it the result of his teenage decision to live in the past. The pair uses art, design, and fashion to imagine alternate histories.
On gallery walls striped Pepto Bismol-pink, the new works on view mash up art historical references from ancient Greece, the Victorian era, 1930s animated films, and the disco era. In one series of paintings, portraits of women in Edwardian dresses, frilly parasols, and bustles are set against neon Op art backgrounds. The canvases are collaged with fragments from previous paintings, patterned like bright mosaics; the busy, tiled compositions resemble proto-Tumblr pages. It’s all executed with astounding technical proficiency, which balances out the element of kitsch. Though they were made this year, these works are backdated to 1984 and 1986, framing them as nostalgic reevaluations of the duo’s Lower East Side art stardom decades ago.
Another series is a darkly comic spin on a homophobic black-and-white animation from the early 20th century. In the original cartoon, after a “pansy” orders a drink at a bar, the bartender mixes him a poisonous cocktail. When the flamboyant customer drinks it, he transforms into an angry beast, screaming and ripping off his clothes as he destroys the bar. To calm the tortured “pansy,” the snickering bartender sprays him with “Eau de Pansy” perfume.
Here, images of the angry, bar-destroying pansy adorn torn, blood-spattered shirtsleeves hung on gallery walls. The Betty Boop-era cartoon becomes a striking visual metaphor for the AIDS epidemic, suggesting bystanders’ ambivalence towards the gay community in crisis.
The artists, to their credit, don’t take themselves too seriously, but that doesn’t mean their work isn’t about serious things. The subtle running theme is queerness throughout history — its persistent silencing, its coded expression through style. The word QUEER embellishes several of the canvases — something that might not seem radical now, but which was shocking to mainstream audiences in the 1980s, when these artists first started working.
In the 1987 Whitney Biennial, McDermott and McGough featured an oil painting, “A Friend of Dorothy (1946)” that pictured slurs for gay men — cocksucker, faggot, homo, Mary, queer, pansy, fairy, nellie, and fem — painted in script. “Shocking to see in an oil painting in a major museum, the invectives made public the hushed language of hate,” writes Claude J. Summers in The Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts. “With affectionate wit, the painting checked the foul words with the gay community’s own terms.” Here, they revisit the work with the same words stitched on a yellow sweater with extra-long sleeves that’s spread on the gallery floor.
By mixing statements of gay pride with imagery from eras of repression, from Onan’s slaying to Victorian dandyism, McDermott and McGough evoke an alternate history in which queerness wasn’t forced underground.
MCDERMOTT & MCGOUGH: Velvet Rage, Flaming Youth, and the Gift of Desperation continues at James Fuentes (55 Delancey St D, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 23.