Victorian time travelers McDermott & McGough fast-forward to 1967 in new exhibition

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McDermott & McGough (Courtesy the artists.)
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Peter McGough, one half of the collaborative artist duo known as McDermott & McGough, is never at a loss for a story.

“She’s realizing she’s not really a human being,” he said as he assembled a sculpture, comprising nine painted blocks, stacked three-by-three, showing the black-and-white face of a wide-eyed blonde in the grips of some terrible realization. His own eyes became quite wide as he explained her “sense of panic.” “She’s a mannequin, and they let her out for the day.”

So utterly guileless and candid did this bit of storytelling seem that I didn't realize that the scenario McGough was describing was part of an existing narrative, more specifically a Twilight Zone episode, “The After Hours.” That wide-eyed blonde is the actress Anne Francis in the role of Marsha White, who, in the course of trying to buy a birthday present at a department store comes to the recognition that she is merely a display dummy. The work (pictured below) is titled Just a Memory.

I was visiting McDermott & McGough’s Bushwick studio last month as the artists prepared for their latest show. Other stories followed as McGough pointed at a series of mock-ups made in preparation for large-scale oil paintings.

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“This woman is having an affair in Italy,” he said, gesturing at an image of a tortured beauty, “and should she go back to her husband and children in the States?”

More and more tales came, told in a half-bemused, half-deadly-serious style. All concerned what McGough variously termed “the moment in one’s life where they become so aware of their situation.”

All those moments, taken from film and television, are now on view in Suspicious of rooms without music or atmosphere, the duo's latest exhibition at the Cheim and Read gallery in Chelsea. That exhibition title—theatrical, even melodramatic, a little sad and quite funny—tells you a great deal about McDermott and McGough’s work, which is, in its latest incarnation, a superrealist assemblage of juxtaposed '60s movie stills. (“Suspicious” brings together scenes from several films released in 1967.) Even before they trained their exacting eye on the cinema, the pair’s work has been cinematic, in the sense of immersive, sweeping mythmaking.

They first came into fame—or at least the New-York-art-scene-in-the-‘80s version of it—for their method-level commitment to living their lives as turn-of-the century dandies. Forswearing the modern convenience of electricity and other such creature comforts, David McDermott and Peter McGough, who met at the University of Syracuse in the '70s, transformed an Avenue C townhouse into an early-1900s monument. They documented their lives, strictly using photographic methods developed in the Victorian era, producing a movie-like narrative, telling a story that was at once constructed and performed and somehow utterly true.

Of this early stage of the duo’s career, McGough said, “We built this time machine together.”

The blueprint for the “time machine” came from McDermott’s theories:

“His life,” McGough explained,” was experimenting, creating a life in another era.”

McDermott, who now spends most of his time in Dublin, continues to reject modern technology:

“For David, there is no computer, no cell phone, no modernity,” McGough said, describing his collaborator as “one of the most eccentric people I know.” (McGough himself, who has a Facebook page, is considerably more relaxed on such matters.)

Eventually, McGough came to the conclusion that he could not paint another detachable collar or arrange another porcelain cup:

“Everyone thinks of us as these Victorian dandies, and that’s not it. So I thought I’d take us out of that,” he said.

And so the artists turned to mid-20th-century films, all those movies “about how people ruin their lives or have their lives ruined,” McGough saod.

“I’m fascinated by the human condition, and how ridiculous it is, and how beautiful it is at the same time. And how people make their lives, their fantasies. I’m fascinated by beauty and by choices.”

It would be wrong, he said, to look at McDermott & McGough’s paintings and conclude that they are about a particular movie or the mystique of a movie star (even though the new work features the immediately recognizable faces of Elizabeth Taylor and Lana Turner and Lauren Bacall):

“It’s not about movie stars,” McGough said. “I paint these people, because I can relate to them.”

(Though he also said: “I am kind of worshipping these people—it is, to me, about idol worship.”)

Identifying with cinematic heroines is also a kind of escape, a portal not entirely unlike the earlier time machine project:

“When I think of my own misery,” McGough said,” and then I see it in a film, and the heroine has a beautiful veil and beautiful hair, I think, ‘Well, it’s not so bad.’”

“It’s both ends—life can be destroyed, but then there’s also the awareness. We all construct our own scenarios of life. These paintings are expressing scenarios.”

Anyway, what people want from art, McGough said, is a flight from the mundane, from everyday drudgery. They want the heightened emotions, the dire predicaments, the imperiled dreams of film noir:

“I think people live off of excitement like people live off of drugs, so that’s what I want to express, but I really want it to be pretty too.”

McGough wasn’t kidding about wanting the work to be pretty. As he led me around the studio, he paused near one of his assistants, who was carefully reworking the bottom portion of a painting which prominently featured a woman’s worried face: “She wasn’t pretty enough,” McGough observed, “so that’s why Donald is redoing it.”

“I think life is absurd, I think it’s a joke,” McGough said as we were winding down our tour. Then he paused. “I mean, I think there’s real tragedy, there’s real suffering, but I think it’s really ridiculous what people do.”

The paintings surrounding him, with their faithfully rendered scenes of human drama, were an acknowledgement of this absurdity, but also a sympathetic and witty admission that, without absurdity, life might become boring. And what could be worse than that, McGough wondered?

From there, he observed that artists aren't always the best at expressing themselves about their own work.

“That’s why they hire people to write catalogs,” he said.

And it could certainly be delightful to read what others had to say about your art, to see your project through their eyes. But you also run a risk:

“I’d be furious,” McGough said, shuddering at the very thought, “if they wrote a boring article about me.”

McDermott & McGough’s latest show, ‘Suspicious of rooms without music or atmosphere,’ is open now at Cheim & Read gallery, 547 West 25th Street.

Images, from top: Installation showing, on left, ' Just a Memory, 1967' (2012); 'I know lonely nights, 1967' (2012); and, left to right, 'unwillingly mine, 1967' (2012), and 'Looking over my yesterdays, 1967' (2012); all images by McDermott & McGough, coutresy Cheim & Read.