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That Was Now, This Is Then:

The Art of McDermott & McGough

Usually the art that ends up being the most important to you starts off being the most difficult to deal with. I first experienced the work of David McDermott and Peter McGough when they were interviewed on tape as part of a video series about the ’80s art world (Art Ache, 1991). This was probably the best way to be introduced to them, since it was film of them in their apartment, doing their thing, which is living in an elaborately restored world of the past. With all the accoutrements of the time: furniture, clothes, books, heating, and electricity, or lack thereof. I was completely disturbed by the whole production; it was totally alien. Were they serious? How could one decide to live like this, day in day out?
McDermott, the outspoken member of the duo, said something that’s been making me think ever since. He said that the reason old genres, like still lifes and landscapes, are so popular is because they have nothing to do with the here and now. Now it is all concrete and cars and suffering.
Contemporary artists can only make art about contemporary things; they can only express the time they live in. But people don’t want to be reminded of how bad everything is, they want to look at art and be happy. That is why pictures of horses and buggies, street cafes, and landscapes are so popular. It’s a simpler time. He concluded that that was the type of art to make. So they travel back in time and make art about it.
I brought this up to McGough when chatting with him before his lecture last October in the SAIC Ballroom, except we ended up just talking about the Art Ache video.
“Weren’t we on the cover of one of those?” he asked.
“Oh yes, the one of you in a smock painting a picture that said ‘who profits? who pays?’” And then I mentioned the part when Henry Geldzahler explains his “Atlas Shrugged” theory. Geldzahler says something happens every couple of years that he calls “Atlas Shrugged.” You have the world, with all these artists on it, and then Atlas, holding it, shrugs, and half the artists fall off and never come back.
“That’s exactly what it’s like, too,” commented McGough, “artists just suddenly disappear.”
And that’s sort of what happened to McDermott and McGough, but instead of “dying of AIDS or a heroin overdose, or ending up in Milwa-ukee,” as McGough put it, they went to Ireland. They went to Ireland because it’s tax free for artists and they saw it as a doorway to Europe. They are truly international artists, working throughout Europe and in New York. That they have managed to maintain a presence abroad and a continuously evolving body of work, but that they are still not talked about much in America these days is proof positive that the art world is much more than New York. People will still tell you that New York is where it’s at, but that’s just not true anymore. Europe is exploding in all sorts of ways, but we in the States hardly hear of it. Artists are becoming nomadic, globetrotting to the next art gig.
McDermott and McGough are artists in a kind of odd place; in some circles their importance goes without saying, in others they are quite obscure and not even heard of.
“Oh, don’t show that part!” said McGough, referring to a scene in another film about them that was playing on the screen. There was a third person, also decked out in 1800s garb.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“That was our first boyfriend, he totally ruined our lives. He was the first closet heterosexual I ever met.”
Erik: So, do you have lots of studio assistants, to go between you and the modern world?
Peter: We don’t have all these studio assistants, they’re horrible!
Erik: They’re too careerist?
Peter: No, we don’t do students.
Peter McGough first met David McDermott in the New Wave Vaudeville scene, which was part of the East Village scene. David was an MC who made fun of the acts in the shows. David asked Peter to be his boyfriend and make art with him, so they made a painting to get money from David’s mom. They started their humble life by making little pictures to decorate their house. “We decided we were artists, not shopkeepers, so we would starve and beg for money from artists and friends.” They found a book from the turn of the century that was about how a young man should live and behave and how to be a successful and prominent figure. So they decided that that was the way to do it and followed the book to the ‘T.’ The most influential artist to them was Julian Schnabel, because he took them under his wing and showed them the ropes.
They started out with quaint, olden-day pictures and then started introducing themes of homosexuality. Then they “started making work more about time, not just fairies and dandies.” The idea was that all time exists at the same time. “There is no time, just summer, fall, winter, and spring, etc.,” said McGough. They thought about what might happen in the year 2000. Perhaps time would start moving backwards, computers would disappear, buildings would get unbuilt, and things like that. So they did time map paintings explaining these ideas. An Italian dealer said, “Paint anything but those time maps. Something I can sell, a landscape or a flower.” So they painted a bouquet in the shape of a dollar sign and sold it to someone else.
There’s a lot of history and politics in their work. They finished a sketch by an excommunicated Pre-Raphaelite. The Pre-Raphaelite got caught up in the spirit of decadence, and also caught in a public lavatory with a sailor and it ruined him. He ended up a sidewalk artist. Their work responds to these anecdotes and forgotten shames of history, and brings them out. I asked Peter if they do paintings as a statement. Does he see painting as an archaic medium, and a thing to collect, like old shaving kits? “No, no, painting is very much alive. Painting is great, people are always going to like it and it will always be around. We like it, that’s why we do it,” McGough said.
They also build time machines. David calls it “devinylization.” “It wasn’t pretend or playing house,” said McDermott. McDermott is sort of mad. His theory was that if everything was accurate and perfect, the plumbing, the furniture, the clothes, all of it, who’s to say it isn’t 1928?
In the height of the ’80s boom, McDermott and McGough had several time machine projects going at once. Like 18th and 19th-century farms in upstate New York, and an early 20th century bank in the city. A Model T Ford and a carriage, a lot of which they lost when the art market crashed, but McDermott and McGough have weathered the storm.
Their work is about escaping the banality of the modern world. They grew up in 1950s suburbs where you could walk for miles and never get out of it. It’s about escaping that banality. Childhood centered on the television set because it was an escape; they were building a bubble of security. The way Peter talks about escaping banality, I can’t help but think of their contemporary, Jeff Koons, who seems to take all of that and go in the opposite direction. He has the “Ushering in Banality” series. Koons takes that sameness and says this is good, this is right. It is a quality, or is it?
McDermott and McGough immerse themselves in as many different pasts as possible and move through time and space. In 1987, they started doing photography with a camera from 1910. First they just based the photographs on their everyday lives. Then perfect time machine installation still lifes. They completely restore and make livable apartments, and document them. They’ve made still lifes from old books. David sets things up and Peter photographs them. They taught themselves from old books. They did it all, experimenting with photography and different printing types as if they were attempting to be Henry Fox Talbot. McDermott and McGough’s photography obsessively focuses on still life and staged scenes, hat collections, teapot collections, old parlor tricks, and balancing acts. They are currently working with tin-type photography and are planning a silent film.
At first McDermott and McGough’s work and life seem completely impenetrable. But once you give it time and consideration it becomes quite amazing. McDermott and McGough seamlessly blend painting, photography, installation, and performance into one, whole thing — art and life.
Illustration by Erik Wenzel




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