© Paul McDonough. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, New York City.

Paul McDonough, “California, Two Men and a Woman” (1979) (© Paul McDonough, courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, New York)

On my first visit to California in 1978, I didn’t bring a jacket. It was summer and I expected Beach Blanket Bingo weather — big sunny skies and breezes that barely ruffled the palm trees. That I was San Francisco-bound and held this notion not only testified to my ignorance about the state’s meteorology but it’s North-South cultural divide as well. I ended up shivering on Stinson Beach watching surfers in wet suits; not a single bikini in sight, let alone Annette Funicello.

At about the same time, Paul McDonough was traveling around the West Coast snapping images from Los Angeles to Oregon. McDonough, whose slyly inventive images of New York City were recently collected in a volume published by Umbrage (New York Photographs: 1968-1978), trained his camera on young people gathering on beaches or in parking lots, or skateboarding through gas stations. These photos, currently on display at Sasha Wolf Gallery, conjure nostalgia for that outdoor, bare-skin lifestyle that movies led me to believe was bequeathed to those who came within sight of the Pacific. That my memory of such a scene is wholly manufactured in no way diminishes its force.

The feeling is epitomized in McDonough’s late ’70s photograph of two young men and a woman leaning against a 1959 Chevrolet El Camino. Owing to its open bed, the model, like the “Woodie” style station wagon, was a surfer’s favorite — boards could just be tossed in the back. Spanish for “the road,” the sporty El Camino seems to have been dreamed up in Detroit solely to ferry good times up and down California’s Route 1. The vehicle in the photo, though, has seen better days: it’s nearly twenty years old and looks like it’s been in an accident or two. Nearly the full length of the passenger’s side is crumpled and rust has taken hold in the crevices.

Still, with its dramatic fins and decorative chrome, the Chevy retains some grandeur, however battered. The two lanky and shirtless guys are the likely owners or drivers; their dirty, paint-splattered jeans bear the same pattern as the scrapes and rust on the car that brings them to construction and painting jobs in the hills. (The palm trees and the girl’s bathing suit suggest somewhere coastal, say, Santa Barbara.) There’s probably a second-hand Camaro or GTO in their driveways, too. But this old wreck serves on workdays.

It’s late afternoon and they’ve come into town after throwing up sheetrock all day at the condos being built by the new mall. The guy on the left sports a Duane Allman coiffure: sideburns and straight, shoulder-length hair; his friend may be fashion-forward with the waist of his boxers on display, but the boot-cut jeans accurately date his look. As both men lounge with practiced nonchalance against the El Camino, the same mix of light and shadow that plays across their work-notched musculature and the ripples in their jeans also articulates the metal’s creases and dents. They are part of the car or it is part of them.

Perched somewhat uneasily on the fender, the young woman balances on the front wheels of her roller skates. If her fellow conversationalists lean comfortably into the offhanded mood, she’s unsettled, poised in mid-action, either ready to boost herself onto the hood or push off and skate away. She regards the men — they’re older, I’d guess, by at least a few years — with familiarity, but not so much that she turns her body to them. Despite the bikini, she appears demure, keeping her distance at the front of the vehicle; indeed, each figure is distributed at almost equal intervals along the car as if, in an advertisement, they were situated to emphasize its length. The girl’s Farrah Fawcett cut, tennis shoes, and skates combine to accentuate her adolescence — if they’ve come from work, she’s been out to play.

There is something anomalous, at least to a New Yorker, about everyone’s state of undress: On this town’s main drag, amid the shoppers and parking meters, the men are bare-chested and the girl is outfitted for a stretch of sand or the chaise lounge by the pool. The vulnerability of these young bodies is sharpened by their proximity to the damaged auto — we’re reminded that the collision evidenced in resilient metal would be less kind to flesh.

If the narrative McDonough has seized upon is common enough — two guys talking up a girl — the elegant yet calculated composition recalls certain Renaissance  artworks (the tousled-headed fellow in the center mimics the contrapposto of Michelangelo’s “David”) even as it marks a very contemporary moment in its depiction of uncertainty. The men, whose very casualness connotes eroticism, nonetheless come across as almost indifferent to the woman who, too, seems ambiguous in her intent. Arrayed as they are in the tableau’s careful design, the figures could be outsized auto ornaments. Isolated, more in touch with the car than one another, they relate across distance, as if from separate niches in an altarpiece. The nuances of the presentation call into question our ready-to-hand reading of the social exchange.

Bare skin under palm trees, ease between the sexes, and cars as the conduits of that ease are things movies taught me to regard as particularly left coast. McDonough subverts my fond nonsense. A beach party may await these three later in the evening; maybe there will be making-out on blankets and open air rides down the Coast Highway, Duane and Farrah’s hair whipping like flags, but when this photo was taken everyone’s next move was up for grabs: The only thing they know is that the El Camino, once lavish and now wounded, feels warm against their skin.

Single Point Perspective is an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.

Paul McDonough: Sight Seeing continues at Sasha Wolf Gallery (70 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, New York) through May 5, 2013.

Albert Mobilio is a poet, critic, and an editor at Hyperallergic. He is the recipient of an Andy Warhol Arts Writers Grant, MacDowell Fellowship, Whiting Award, and the National Book Critics Circle award...