David McDermott and Peter McGough have always taken their art to extremes. In the early 1980s, the duo renounced electricity, removed the modern plumbing from their East Village townhouse, became proficient in early photographic techniques, and began to dress and live as if they were in the thick of the Aesthetic Movement of the 1890s. They called what they did “time travel experiments,” and the content of their art was as provocative as their lifestyle. They were a couple then, and quite literally threw themselves into their work, boldly exploring gay and sexual themes that few of their contemporaries at the time dared touch.
This fall, the artists are back with yet another expansive and controversial project in New York: they have converted a real chapel in a busy Methodist church into a temple dedicated to Oscar Wilde. The three-month-long installation (which runs concurrently with a retrospective of their paintings at the Dallas Contemporary) is sponsored by both the LGBT Center and the Church of the Village which share a block on 13th Street at Seventh Avenue.
The focal point of the chapel is a four-foot-tall sculpture of Oscar Wilde, carved out of wood and stamped with the designation “C.33”—the number the writer was assigned when he was imprisoned in 1895 for gross indecency. Around the circumference of the room, a series of paintings depict Wilde’s arrest, trial, imprisonment, hard labor, and martyrdom in the same way the Stations of the Cross depict Jesus’s suffering. Other works honor famous victims of homophobia and transphobia in history, from Alan Turing to Brandon Teena. McDermott and McGough’s famous 1987 painting, Advent Infinite Divine Spirit, hangs above an altar on which votive candles burn in honor of people who have died of AIDS.
The couple has spent two decades working on the Wilde project, during which time they’ve seen the battle for gay rights ebb and flow. The fact that it is finally happening now is largely thanks to curator Alison Gingeras, known for her work with Francois Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi in Venice, among many other major museums. “As the political tides have shifted and the progress we’ve made as a country seems to be in peril, this is one of those projects that remind us of the importance of artists’ visions and agencies in working towards change in society,” says Gingeras. “I grew up in an Irish Catholic family—completely repressive and homophobic to say the least! From the moment that McDermott & McGough spoke to me about their 25 year old vision for the Oscar Wilde Temple, I could conjure it in my mind’s eye and felt it my passionate mission to participate in its making—in so many symbolic ways, righting so many of the wrongs of my own upbringing!”
The temple’s opening in the wake of the Trump administration’s transgender ban has lent a last minute poignant twist to the project, which they designed to memorialize centuries of homophobia. We spoke to Peter McGough in August, a few weeks before the temple’s debut.
Did Oscar Wilde ever come to New York?
Yes! He visited Walt Whitman and they kissed! They kissed and Whitman wrote a poem about his lips. Wilde was here because Gilbert & Sullivan were putting on a musical that insulted the aesthetic movement and made fun of him. So he was brought over to lecture, and he was a hit—they mocked him, but Wilde was always one step ahead of their mockery.
How did you find this perfect chapel in the Village to use?
I wanted to get as far away as possible from a gallery environment. It all started when I met the wonderful curator Alison Gingeras at a party at Jacqueline Schnabel’s house. I was miserable and she brought all this light to my life. She said, “You painted such radical paintings in the ’80s— the ones that said “cocksucker,” “fairy,” “femme.” Did you realize you were making such radical art?” She loved the idea for the temple, and we took it to the LGBT Center, which is so fabulous. They had the relationship with the church, which has a long progressive history and gave us the chapel to use. We’re going to transform it into an Edwardian-style temple where gay people can get married.
But you’ve been pretty critical of religion in your life.
Every religion—including religions I used to be involved with, like Christian Science, Hindu, guru— none of them like homosexuals. And I just thought “Fuck you. Fuck. You.” Whether they worship some mythological animal or Scientology or Mormons— they just don’t like us. But I thought, “What about us? What about a place for us to have solace, introspection, reflection, and hope?” You have to give people hope or they just can’t go on. But that’s why it’s a temple, not a church—it’s more pagan.
Why did you dedicate it to Oscar Wilde?
He was a victim of society. The Lord of Queensberry denounced him as a sodomite, but he didn’t run away. And at trial, he never denied his love for Lord Alfred Douglas, Queensberry’s son. Everyone said he should run to Paris, but his mom told him, “If you run away, you’re no son of mine.” He was taken down at the peak of his career to the glee of the mob. He took ill and died very soon after getting out, so he was basically executed. And like Jesus, he was betrayed along the way. All the artists denounced him. He helped make them, and they snubbed him. Walter Sickert, Aubrey Beardsley. Sarah Bernhardt ignored his pleas after he got out, sick and broke. They all dropped him because he was a fag. So we’re glorifying him as a deity.
How has the initial reaction been?
You know, the temple was first supposed to be at this castle in Europe. They were so enthusiastic. And then it got canceled and I asked and asked, and said, “Tell me the truth,” and finally they admitted it: the people in the town thought I was making fun of their religion. But here, people just took it on, and I thought, “Wow! This is a really powerful project!” People got so invested. When I first used to think about the temple, I used to almost cry, and then everyone pitched in: artists gave money—like Cindy Sherman. My friend who owns the textile design company Les Indiennes donated fabric. You know, I think it’s something really beautiful. Beauty isn’t big in the art world today. I think beauty matters.
Where will it go after this show?
It goes to London in December. But what I’d really like to do is I’d like to put it in a Napoleonic tent and take it around America to each state-capitol building—have it there on the lawn for a week. I guess they might burn it down, but that’s what I’d like to do.
Your painting Queer is said to be an early instance of making that word a point of pride instead of a slur. How did that come about?
I was watching Dick Cavett with my mother in the ’70s and he had Christopher Isherwood on. I hadn’t read anything of his, but he was a good-looking Englishman, so I watched. Cavett says, “Well, you’re gay,” and Isherwood said, “I hate that word.” Cavett goes, “Well, what do you want me to call you?” and Isherwood said, “Call me a queer.” As a 15 year old, I thought, “Wow. He’s choosing the word that’s been thrown at me constantly at school.” And it stuck with me.
You live in the West Village with a view of Stonewall, and you’re an art star. Are you affected by homophobia?
I was walking by the Hudson River recently, and this guy on a bicycle yelled at me rudely to get out of his way. At a stoplight a few minutes later, I went right up to him and said, “You could have just used your little bell, you know.” And he rode off and yelled, “Fag!” And I thought, “You’re a genius! How did you figure that out?” I mean, I am a walking advertisement for being a fruit. I’m in a pink cotton suit walking a little tiny long-haired Chihuahua called Queenie. A miniature one, with a spaghetti-strap leash! I don’t give a fuck.
How’s the time-traveling going?
Well, you know, we lost everything in the crash of the late ’80s—our East Village dream machine, the bank in Williamsburg, and our small, eighteenth-century Catskills estate. The IRS took everything. But, you know, Bill Cunningham, the fashion photographer, always told us money ruins everything. I’m living in the 1930s. McDermott keeps at it, living in the 1890s. His art is time, but it’s hard work. Right now, he doesn’t have a place to live because he tore out the brand-new modern kitchen at the place in Ireland I rented for him. The owners were pissed.
Do you watch TV?
No, I only have a 1930’s radio. I’m so sick of everything about watching some creepy family on TV and their money and their arguing. I know queens who love the Kardashians, but I’d rather set my hair on fire.
Will McDermott make it to the opening?
McDermott renounced his citizenship because he was embarrassed to be an American with George W. Bush being president. Boy, now is there is something to be embarrassed about! It’s hard for him to come here. He won’t fly. The one time he did, you should have seen him: after all the people with their cargo shorts and baseball caps got off, here he comes in a beautiful plaid suit, a bowler hat, and luggage that looks like he stole it from Ellis Island. But he has visa problems. He has a criminal record, too, from before I knew him. He’d get arrested for going into old abandoned houses and taking furniture.
What’s the furthest you ever pushed the radical side of your work?
One day, McDermott came to me with this idea. He said, “I want to paint Hitler portraits.” I said, “You gotta be kidding me.” I said, “It’s the worst idea I ever heard.” He said, “I want to make a show that nobody wants to see.” And I said, “That’s for sure!” But I thought about it. We had been to a gay museum in Berlin and saw a show about all the gays who were arrested in 1933. And I realized that that’s what it would be. The concept was these Hitler paintings were taken down at the end of the war and some homosexual found them in some bunker and wrote down all the names of his friends on them. A memorial to the lost homosexual. We opened on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, in 2001. It was one of our best reviewed shows, though not great for sales! Our work has constantly been about homosexuality—about how it feels to be one, to be a child wondering, “Why does this feel so bad?”
How does the temple fit into the McDermott & McGough catalogue raisonné?
The Oscar Wilde Temple is our greatest art piece ever, because it’s not about us. It’s a place where people can go who are locked out of the 1 percent of art buying. People who wanna get married will pay a fee, and that money goes to LGBT homeless youth. Those people are our children. These people are my children. They are the legacy of the Homeric, and we’re going to take care of them.
How did this partnership between you and McDermott start, anyway?
When we met, McDermott was making a painting for his mother and I helped him. So he signed both our names and he turned to me and said, “Now I have you forever.” He did.