Naked kiss: Curt McDowell paints the town

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By Johnny Ray Huston

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Curt McDowell, from Buzzy's Adventures (Zip-A-Tone), ca. 1968-70. Courtesy estate of Curt McDowell

One of the things that I appreciate most about Curt McDowell's art is its shamelessness. It is shameless in a lively, funny, righteous, even virtuous manner that should embarrass prudish American moralists. "An uneven dozen broken hearts," a show of the late filmmaker's paintings and drawings, is a revelatory pleasure because of how directly it conveys McDowell's lust for and love of simple revelry. A scrapbook of photos and drawings attests to McDowell's appetite for asses and fascination with faces, but ultimately, it's a testimonial to a sexuality that shirked labels as it stripped off clothing. A collaged wall of comics and portraits brings one in close contact with McDowell's rich sense of community — one that blurred love and friendship, and mixed family members with figures of imagination.

McDowell’s untamed and uncensored spirit couldn’t be more refreshing today, when pornography (whether commodified or autobiographical) is endlessly subcategorized. But while McDowell’s big heart and healthy libido make for predictable discoveries, his serious talent as a painter comes as a surprise. As a filmmaker, McDowell blazed his own path with short works such as 1971’s self-explanatory yet unexpectedly rich Confessions and 1980’s equally direct Loads. (In 1972’s Ronnie, he merges porn and biographical portraiture with unmatched potency.) His most famous work is the two-and-a-half hour pornographic epic Thundercrack! (1975). It turns out he was just as fierce and skillful with a paintbrush or a set of Magic Markers as he was with a camera.

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One of the show’s centerpieces is Untitled (the Beatles in autopsy), a nearly life-size oil-on-canvas naked and dead portrait of the Fab Four from 1968 that deserves a spot in the rich museum of cryptic Beatles iconography and perhaps even within the hall of pop art classics.

John has his left arm over Paul’s shoulder while a diminutive Ringo, lying on his side, is nestled into Paul in a manner suggestive of a child seeking comfort. George is isolated — he’d be looking off in the other direction from the other three if his eyes were open, but like theirs, his are closed in eternal drowsiness. The languid full-frontal sexuality of the painting is tonally different from the sexual high jinx in McDowell’s movies. Melancholy emanates from the image, as much due to its dark colors as its subject matter. And there’s an eerily prescient element: the late John’s and George’s names are visible on their corpses' ID tags, while Paul’s and Ringo’s remain obscured.

“[Curt’s] beefcake was hot off the streets and the cheesecake was equally tart and titillating,” McDowell’s closest peer George Kuchar writes with quintessential alliterative brio in a note for the show. “All of this was served in a blue plate special that was generously filled with obsessions immune to none.” Anyone who has a heart won’t be immune to “an uneven dozen broken hearts,” another inspiring act of queer revivalism by curator Margaret Tedesco.

CURT MCDOWELL: AN UNEVEN DOZEN BROKEN HEARTS
Through March 29
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