Art of the City Artists

‘It Takes a While to Figure Out Who You Really Are’: Artist Paul McMahon on His Curious Menagerie of a Career

Paul McMahon, Have a Nice Day, 1977.

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The first time the artist Paul McMahon told anyone that the Goddess had appeared to him in a vision and informed him that he was the king of the universe, the person he was telling “looked like he was going to punch me,” McMahon said last weekend. “And it was someone I knew pretty well!” He paused, thinking back further on the formative incident in 1993. “I think he just implicitly thought what I was saying was, ‘Whatever you think is yours is really mine.’ You know?”

McMahon, who at 67 resembles a skinnier version of David Crosby, with white hair spilling from the sides of his head, explained how he processed that response. “I’m a Goddess worshiper,” he said. “I believe in the Goddess as much as I can believe in something, and she came to me on a couple of occasions. When she speaks in my head, I know whatever I think is not as right as whatever she thinks. I was able to realize, Well, nobody else experiences the same universe that I experience—so I guess by experiencing it, I rule it.”

McMahon.

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We were standing in a refurbished garage space in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, surrounded by the universe that McMahon has created over the past half-century—a jaw-dropping bounty of work that encompasses, to list just a few of his mediums, collages, erotic drawings, abstract paintings, at least one yoga video (he played guitar in it), postcards, and pins (“IT IS ILLEGAL TO READ THIS,” “LEGALIZE YOUR MOM”). It bears traces of West Coast conceptualism, Pictures Generation image play, and the 1970s DIY New York music scene—all moments that McMahon has been a part of—while mischievously resisting any single, simple label.

It was late on Saturday afternoon, and McMahon was in the process of installing what he termed “a multi-directional, which is to say, chaotic survey” of his work at 9 Herkimer Place, a space owned by Helene Winer, the co-owner of Chelsea gallery Metro Pictures. The opening was three days away, and he still had a lot of work to do.

His latest album, Hymn to Her, of charming, simple songs on guitar, was playing on a record player (“You need do nothing/For you are nothing/You are mind alone,” his recorded voice intoned), and amidst stacks of paper and boxes, he was trying to find a wallpaper sample he made with a patterned combination of swastikas, the Confederate Flag, and blonde wigs. He motioned to one box. “In here is a cat playhouse, because I have a sideline in cat toys,” he said.

Some things seemed to be missing, but it was no big deal because he was planning to make at least one more trip upstate to Woodstock, where he lives with his two teenage daughters, to pick up more material. He runs a bed and breakfast there called the Mothership and works as a mailman on Saturdays. He was taking the day off.

Paul McMahon and Nancy Chunn, The Valley of Art, 1982, on view in his current show. Click to enlarge.

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Hanging on one wall was a faux naïve painting from 1982 titled The Valley of Art that shows some of his contemporaries making their art and having it packaged up into big boxes. “There’s Julian, Jack, Troy, Matt, Jim, Erica,” he said, pointing out Schnabel, Goldstein, Brauntach, Welling, and Beckman. A painted David Salle is hard at work on a painting of his own that says only “DAVID SALLE” and the year in huge yellow letters. “It documents and perhaps criticizes the commercialization of art,” McMahon went on, explaining that he made the work with his then-partner Nancy Chunn, who painted most of it. “I did the faces and hand, like Rubens.”

The piece is from a series called “Song Paintings” that the pair made together, and that McMahon would perform songs in front of. As we looked at the picture, he sang a bit of its jaunty melody: “We live in the valley, the valley of art! We’re so lucky to live in this valley!” He also had on hand a drawing for another one from the series, Genius with a Penis, which shows an artist painting with a giant paintbrush that is attached to his crotch. “The idea for Genius with a Penis was pretty much Nancy’s complaints about how you had to have a penis to get ahead in the art world,” he said, nodding. The series was never shown at a New York museum or gallery. “I’m sure I could have tried harder, as usual,” he wrote of this on his website.

McMahon was already something of an art world veteran by the time those works came about. He had been interested in conceptual art while attending Pomona College in Claremont, California, in the early 1970s, after the writer Stanley Crouch talked him out of trying to work as a blues musician. “He convinced me that it was wrong for white people to play the blues,” McMahon said. “He was right about me, because there was an un-genuineness about it that was at the core. I guess that might be what people mean by simulacrum. It takes a while to figure out who you really are.”

Paul McMahon, LOSS, 1975.

METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

At Pomona, he met Winer, who was running the school’s gallery, and he began to make work that combined postcards and photographs into trippy little collages. (A selection of related pieces appeared in the 2009 “Pictures Generation” show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which acquired two of his pieces. Some also appeared in his 2015 show at 321 Gallery in Brooklyn, where my colleague John Chiaverina caught one of his performances.)

After graduating in 1972, he decamped for Cambridge, Massachusetts (he’d spent most of his childhood in nearby Reading), and worked at a gas station while organizing one-night shows with artists like Michael Asher and Alice Aycock for an initiative he called Project Inc.

As we leafed through portfolios of his work, McMahon stopped on a page of dollar bills richly colored purple, orange, and green. “When I worked at the gas station, I thought it’d be funny if I gave out colored money for change,” he said, “but then I really couldn’t afford to dye that much money so I just did about 15 of them and mailed most of them to friends.” He made the batch of bills in front of us when he organized a nightclub at the Kitchen in 1977 called I’m With Stupid. “I served really strong drinks for free,” he said, “and I dyed a bunch of those and threw them into the audience.”

By that time, McMahon was back in New York, having been hired away in 1975 from a job as an art teacher in Lexington, Massachusetts (“Long story, but they never thought that I cleaned up the room well enough”), to become assistant director of Artists Space. That position, under Winer, who was then Artists Space’s director, did not last long. “She terminated me on 7/7/77,” he said. “It was for a good reason.” What was that exactly? “I had become unmanageable! And I wasn’t interested. I no longer wanted to be an administrator, and that was part of the job.”

Paul McMahon, Potato Jokes, 1984.

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He has worn several different hats since then. In the early 1980s he began performing concerts as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Psychiatrist. “It’s a very pleasant thing because people tell me their problem, I make up a song, everybody laughs, and their problems seem to get better,” he said. The name of his act was changed, by lawyers, to Rock ‘n’ Roll Therapist, just before he went on a CNBC children’s program around 1989, he said, conceding, “It’s a much better name.” He worked in the mailroom for Jim Henson’s company, designed a shark costume to wear in swimming pools (“It may have since come to be,” he said, showing me a sketch), and wrote a book of potato jokes that is about to be reissued.

Mischievous—but never quite absurdist—humor snakes through much of McMahon’s sui generis work. “I think the neurosis of our family was basically competition for laughs in situations that weren’t funny,” he said. (His father, as it happens, was a psychiatrist.)

Spirituality has also been an enduring interest. “It was in January 1, 1990, when the big stuff all went down,” McMahon said, his eyes going wide. On assignment to speak with Wayne Newton for Interview magazine, the Goddess first visited him. He already had a long interest in Native American religion, and he then delved deeper into its study, eventually becoming an interfaith minister in 1996, after time at the Wittenberg Center in Bearsville, New York, a process that led him to move to Woodstock.

Not all of his time in that upstate haven was spent on spiritual matters. In the mid-1990s he ran a madcap cable-access TV show called Dogs on Patrol with Magnolia Santibanez-Nava. “We were a couple and we wrote plays together, and it was kind of the only time we communicated,” he said. It lasted less than two years. “We did get thrown off the air,” he said, earnestly, and laughed when asked for details. “I cultivated these juvenile delinquents, and they could not do right. When I wasn’t looking they showed a terrible, terrible bullying episode, where the big bully brother comes and aggressively moons all the little kids. Close-up shot of the anus, you know, out over the airwaves. I had been warned.”

A recent painting.

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Those episodes were playing on a small screen in a camping tent that McMahon has pitched inside 9 Herkimer Place. The space will also host recordings of “improvisational media mixings” that McMahon made in the 1970s using TV and radio. “There’s all this analog snow on it,” he said. “There are some amazing synchronicities. What you realize is that the mind will fill in the blanks. Whatever you think now, you’re going to see it.”

Chance also plays a role in his abstract paintings, and he’s been making a bunch of new ones recently—spills cardboard slabs, now hanging from the ceiling. “I just put a lot of stuff on there and whoosh it around,” he said of his process. “I try to keep it from falling off the edge,” mentioning John Cage’s interest in randomness as an influence.

The sunlight was starting to fade and there was more unpacking to do, but before I left, McMahon showed me some of his postcards. He had a big stack of them for his show, whose title, he explained, “is three emojis. It’s an eye, a sparkle heart, and a unicorn. So it’s I love you-nicorn.” (“👁💖🦄.” He has christened the gallery Bedstock for the run of his show, which is on view through April 22.) I took a couple of the cards, figuring I would save a few and mail the rest to friends. I wondered if one might pass through his hands again.

At one point during the afternoon, McMahon had gotten to talking about his work as a mailman, mentioning that he took the job as a way to guarantee a stable income source for his family. “I may be a little too stodgy in my thinking,” he said, “but I’m just very fortunate to have that house and to have the girls—so, you know, I pretty much play it safe as much as I can.”

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