Last Thursday, the artist Paul McMahon staged a performance inside of a retrospective show of his work currently on view at 321 Gallery in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. The exhibition is titled “44” and contains 44 works spread over 44 years (one per year) of the artist’s long and winding career, which at various points has led him into the worlds of art, music, and even comedy and television. He currently resides in Woodstock, New York, where he lives with his twin daughters in an “everything center” called the Mothership. He also works one day a week as a mailman.
For the night, McMahon was joined by the equally accomplished performance artist Linda Mary Montano, flanking him inside of a shrine-like installation that contained, among many other things, photos of Obama, The Karmapa, and Brahmananda Sarasvati . She was dressed like McMahon’s doppelganger—fake beard, hat, shades—and loosely mirrored his acoustic guitar and vocal moves without really making any noise. She occasionally stomped her feet or sang softly, but for the most part it was an earnest act of lip-syncing.
“Paul is the troubadour king of Woodstock, N.Y.,” Montano—who has also done a similar thing as Mother Teresa, Bob Dylan, and her father—told me in an interview alongside McMahon before the performance. “Highly honored, highly respected. Seen as one of the true practitioners of all that’s correct about life and art.” For Montano, performing as McMahon was a way to “learn more about his philosophy.” The first time she performed as the artist was at the Mothership, where she lip-synced to his recorded music for seven hours while McMahon was present in the room, but not performing. “I had time off. I had the day off,” he told me with a laugh.
McMahon is seen by some as a bridge between 1970s Conceptual art and the Pictures Generation in New York and was included in the 2009 “Pictures Generation” show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition to visual art, in the ’80s he worked on The Muppets and wrote a published book of “potato jokes.” He once appeared alongside Soupey Sales on a televison show called Comedy Tonight in a giant spud costume made with a double bed foam piece. “I had a lot of other careers that I didn’t pursue,” he told me. “I don’t want to be a giant potato [for a living]. I’m not interested.” He had a Kundalini rising experience in 1998 and told me that in 1993 “the goddess spoke inside my head and told me I’m king of the universe, and that was 22 years ago, so I’ve been sort of trying to figure things out, you know?”
(Montano’s life as a performance artist is equally hard to summarize. It notably includes a seven-year project in which she wore only monochromatic clothing and spent part of each day in a colored room listening to a specified tone. All of this correlated to the qualities of a singular chakra, which changed yearly. She was raised Catholic but lived in a Zen monastery for three years and studied with Dr. Ramamurti Mishra at the Ananda Ashram in upstate New York the 1980s. Over the past decade, she has returned to her Catholic roots. “I realized that not everybody has chakras but everybody has glands,” she said as a way of explaining a new performance but also, perhaps, her reformed Catholicism.)
McMahon’s artist statement for “44” treads numerology, Eastern spirituality, and ’60s countercultural theory into a larger narrative centered on the events of 9/11 and our current president—the country’s 44th. In person, he combines mystic spirituality in earnest with a hearty dash of good-natured irreverence. Although his look now could be described as “Woodstock lifer” (he was wearing smiley-face pajama bottoms during the performance), a video included in the exhibition shows him in the early ’80s with shorter hair, performing in a style not unlike, say, Jonathan Richman. He was once even in a band with No Wave icon Glenn Branca.
“It looks bad for humanity, but I think it also looks good,” McMahon said, explaining his outlook. “And I think that there’s a good chance that the world as we think of it is not really the way it is, and that it’s much more a product of what we think it is than we think it is what it is. The nature of reality is extremely interactive, much more interactive than we’ve been led to believe.”
“It’s neural mirroring,” Montano added. “That the neurons in the brain mirror what we’re thinking. So, if we’re thinking X the neurons are going to get addicted to X and when we start thinking Y…”
“What about triple X?” McMahon interjected. They both laughed.
Thursday’s performance fell on the final night of Navratri, the Hindu festival of the Goddess. This fact was not lost on McMahon, who told me that he would be playing mostly love songs. “It’s a lot of Goddess stuff,” he said to the crowd at the start of the performance. “For you men in the room, it’s all pussy stuff.” The set was very much rooted in the American singer-songwriter tradition, albeit with a few curveballs. He covered “Fool’s Gold” by the British boy band One Direction, a song beloved by one of his daughters.
At one point in the show, McMahon was pontificating about his admiration for the President (he had made baseball caps with the letter “O” on the front) when a crowd member shouted something critical about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to which McMahon s(w)ung back “Barack Hussein Obama, he’s not perfect in every way he could be.” From there, McMahon deftly improvised some lyrics about the TPP before singing a punch line of sorts: “I’d rather have Obama than Mitt Romney.” To this, the unimpressed heckler responded by simply yelling “same thing.”
Instead of escalating this further, McMahon chose to go a different route, starting up an altogether different song. “What makes a man go crazy when a women wears her skirt so tight,” he sang, choosing to return to the night’s primary subject matter. All the while, Montano continued to play along, fake beard and all.