“Yellow teeth between pink lips,
Eyeline shadow with a crazy look,
The jewel behind my lobe of ear,
Rouge on my face hides my beard,
Long violet fingernails,
I adore those magic tales.”
–Gina X Performance, “No G.D.M. (For Quentin)”
In the beginning of his iconic and role model-worthy memoir The Naked Civil Servant, Quentin Crisp discusses the genesis of his unmistakable dandy style, as described in Gina X Performance’s song “No G.D.M.” He writes, “From the dawn of my history, I was so disfigured by the characteristics of a certain kind of homosexual person that, when I grew up, I realized that I could not ignore my predicament. The way in which I chose to deal with it would now be called existentialist. Perhaps Jean-Paul Sartre would be kind enough to say that I exercised the last vestiges of my free will by swimming with the tide–but faster…I became not merely a self-confessed homosexual, but a self-evident one” (1).
And a dandy was born. Or a fairy, pansy, flaneur or however you want to call that be-suited, makeup-wearing gentleman.
In 2016, the figure of the dandy has fallen somewhat out of fashion. It is, of course, a throwback to an earlier decidedly gay–rather than queer–aesthetic. The hypermasculine clone image still goes strong, probably due to its reliance on the safety of masculinity. But the troubling “gender inversion” of the fairy leaves the aesthetic–much like Jack Halberstam’s discussion of Brandon Teena’s gender performance in In A Queer Time And Place–as an anachronism.
And let’s be honest, the pansy isn’t exactly politically correct either, typically depicted as a loathsome figure in phobic cartoons from the 1930s. I mean, why would anyone in their right mind want to engage with that in the sensitive political and theoretical arena of 2016? However, there remains something importantly transgressive in the dandy–a rouged finger in the eye of masculinity that threatens both hetero- and homonormativity. It’s a delicious embrace of stereotypes.
New York-based collective McDermott & McGough honor this subversive nature–and relevancy–of the fairy in their current exhibition Velvet Rage, Flaming Youth and the Gift of Desperation at James Fuentes Gallery. Following their career-long interest in gay culture from the turn of the century until the 1930s, the exhibition sees the collaborative duo resurrecting the imagery, themes and sometimes, entire paintings from their older work of the 1930s, which resurrected aesthetics from the early 20th century. It’s an anachronism within an anachronism. Is your head spinning yet? Well, ours is, Mary.
You would think this double backward glance would deaden the political efficacy of the work. Instead, the duo’s exhibition questions the notion of progress in the gay community.
For some backstory, McDermott & McGough began collaborating in 1984, which explains why all the art in their exhibition is backdated to that year. In the 1980s, the twosome decided to live and work as if they were Victorians. The only catch was they lived on Avenue C in New York’s Alphabet City. Dressing in fancy suits and top hats, they transformed their townhouse back in time–with no electricity or plumbing. It’s like they took George Chauncey’s seminal book Gay New York as their personal lifestyle guide–that is, if the book hadn’t come out a decade after McDermott & McGough’s Victorian living experiment (I also have to thank Chauncey for this article title).
Note: I currently live on Avenue C and can imagine the shock of the neighbors now. So back in the shooting gallery days of Avenue “Coma,” I assume they created quite a stir.
While presumably deciding to succumb to electricity nowadays, McDermott & McGough still remain fascinated by that period of gay history, which can be seen at James Fuentes. The exhibitions features a range of asymmetrical paintings covered in gay imagery from the early 20th century with titles that reference old Bowery gay bars. There are also several sculptural clothing pieces including one enormous sweater that mirrors their prior painting Friend of Dorothy, covered with words that can alternately be read as homophobic slurs or recontextualized markers of pride like queer, Mary or fairy.
Perhaps the most jarring piece in the show is an installation ode to Onan–the masturbator from the Bible. This tribute presents several masturbatory pointillist-style paintings, a hilariously sleazy table made of variously colored penises (peni?) based on an actual table from the collection of Catherine the Great and several raunchy Greek vases that look as if they belong to Armand and Albert in The Bird Cage. With this swirl of desire, decadence and camp humor, Velvet Rage, Flaming Youth and the Gift of Desperation is probably the gayest show I’ve ever seen. And yes, I mean that as a compliment.
A garish, blinding pink paint lines the gallery walls in stripes like a pink prison cell. This is reminiscent of one of the paintings in the show, which features two cartoonish images of dandies, presumably representing McDermott & McGough. They are joined by a large waiter-type who hovers overhead like the bellman in Twin Peaks. Titled, appropriately, The Pink Cell, the painting seemingly reflects the prison of our own bodies and gender performances, as well as eventual radical acceptance of these stereotypes as Crisp describes in the beginning of The Naked Civil Servant.
As Crisp continues, “As soon as I put my uniform on, the rest of my life solidified around me like a plaster cast. From that moment on, my friends were anyone who could put up with the disgrace; my occupation, any job from which I was not given the sack; my playground, any café or restaurant from which I was not barred or any street corner from which the police did not move me on” (1).
While many other figures repeat through the show, the figure of the pansy or fairy looms large over the entire exhibition. A black and white representation of the caricature appears in several paintings including Grim Street Realism with Fairy Tale Language.
In an interview with Artforum, McGough explains that the character comes from a Betty Boop cartoon. He observes, “A fairy, all rouged up, comes into a café that Betty Boop’s dog friend is running to order a chocolate soda. He’s trying to get the little dog’s attention by saying, “I want a chocolate soda, please” in this really soft fairy voice. The dog’s ignoring the fairy to flirt with a Mae West character. Eventually, he makes the fairy’s soda, but he puts in tacks, bug spray, and shoe polish. The fairy drinks it, gets sick, and starts pulling at his clothes—he starts destroying the diner because he’s turned into a monster.”
Grim Street Realism with Fairy Tale Language depicts both aspects of the fairy–the swishy barfly and the angry Hulk queen. For McGough, he forges a connection between the hate lobbed at the fairy and the willful government ignorance about HIV/AIDS. As he continues, “And God, I’m watching this, thinking, This is just like AIDS in the 1980s. So many gays murdered, so much horror and rage, and nobody’s doing anything about it because everyone’s terrified.”
With a red background, which could symbolize either anger or blood, Grim Street Realism with Fairy Tale Language portrays, like the title suggests, the grim realism within a cartoon fantasy. This is even further articulated in McDermott & McGough’s T-shirts such as Velvet Rage. The piece consists of a tattered shirt emblazoned with the image of the enraged fairy from Betty Boop, who also rips his shirt off like he was fighting WWE. The bottom of the shirt has a barely recognizable tinge of red paint, which reminds me of the ACT UP image of the red handprint on a sign stating “The Government Has Blood On Its Hands.” Whether about HIV/AIDS directly or not, Velvet Rage highlights anger in the face of a homophobic and violent society. That fairy can fight back.
By linking the cartoonish violence against the pansy from the 1930s with the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s and the contemporary art of today, McDermott & McGough reveal the continued relevancy of these old time aesthetics, as well as throw the reparative narrative of progress into question. Like Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal recurrence, McDermott & McGough’s art shows that this same old story happens over and over again.
In addition to the battering of the pansy, the exhibition also revels in the energy of early 20th century gay culture in paintings like The Circle Hermaphroditus. The painting contains a bright swirl of various gay tropes, including idealistic 1920s illustrations of the Arrow Collar Man and Victorian women with parasols who seem like drag versions of the artists. These paintings challenge, like Chauncey’s Gay New York, the “widespread myths about the history of gay life before the rise of the gay movement, which I call the myths of isolation, invisibility and internalization” (1-2). It didn’t just start with Stonewall.
McDermott & McGough’s show asserts that the vibrancy of gay life and the hatred thrown at gay culture remain at large and thoroughly relevant today. But not only celebrating the gay community while remembering its continued threats, the exhibition also conveys a jab at conservative politics and aesthetics. As McGough declares in Artforum, “No shame. Fuck Mike Pence and Trump and all those idiot asshole Christian bigots and perverts destroying children’s lives with conversion therapy. If the works aren’t sold, I’ll organize a huge orgy around them at home, with beautiful ephebes playing lyres and pan flutes. It’ll be exquisite, and so grand. Fuck everyone!” Fuck everyone indeed.