Ted Loos for The New York Times, 6 September
Oscar Wilde’s immense talent, inimitably foppish style and personal tribulations as a gay man make him a natural subject for the artistic duo known as McDermott & McGough.
David McDermott and Peter McGough rose to art-world fame in the 1980s as boyfriends. They made subversive queer-themed paintings, and their photographs — created in antique styles, with painstaking precision — depicted them as dandies of a bygone era. That work won them several Whitney Biennial appearances and financial success.
But it all fell apart in the 1990s — they split up as a couple and lost their homes in a tax-related debacle. Mr. McGough nearly died of complications from AIDS. Mr. McDermott renounced his United States citizenship and exiled himself to Ireland, where he remains, facing health issues of his own.
Their new project, the “Oscar Wilde Temple,” may be an attempt to solidify the third-act comeback that Wilde, who died penniless in Paris at 46, in 1900, never got.
The temple, which takes over the Russell Chapel at the Church of the Village on 13th Street from Sept. 11 to Dec. 2, will be an Aesthetic Movement–style shrine with paintings, sculptures and rows of chairs for worshipers amid faux-painted columns meant to resemble crumbling stone.
It will be available for weddings and other ceremonies, with proceeds going to the youth and family programs at the church’s neighbor across the street, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. The center collaborated on the project with the Church of the Village, and it was organized by the independent curator Alison Gingeras.
In his Bushwick studio last month, Mr. McGough, 59, excitedly showed off the temple components. “I always loved Oscar Wilde because he was a complete fop,” he said. “He’s the deity of the religion.”
Mr. McGough — robustly healthy these days and dressed in a natty cream-colored suit on a humid afternoon — was surrounded by eight gold-and-blue “Reading Gaol” paintings, named for the prison where Wilde did hard labor after being convicted of sodomy and “gross indecency.” They depict Wilde undergoing the Stations of the Cross, complete with gilded halo, in the style of a Victorian police gazette. In front of Mr. McGough was a smooth, four-foot-tall wooden sculpture of Wilde, the show’s centerpiece.
Also on view will be six “martyr paintings” depicting more recently persecuted figures including Brandon Teena, Harvey Milk and Alan Turing, and a side chapel dedicated to AIDS, with devotional candles and a mystical-looking painting called “Advent Infinite Divine Spirit.” The pulpit is an overturned soapbox.
The two artists have been talking about such a project for more than 20 years. “The idea has evolved and changed,” Mr. McDermott, 65, wrote in an email from Dublin. He added that for him, summoning Wilde represented a return to “civilization” after a 100-year decline.
Despite their ups and downs, the former couple still collaborate, and have shuttled back and forth among Ireland, England (where they are setting up a studio) and New York, where they are represented by the Chelsea gallery Cheim & Read.
Though Mr. McGough was the more hands-on partner for the temple — Mr. McDermott has had trouble getting permission to reenter the United States, and he was not going to attend the temple opening — they consider it a McDermott & McGough just like their previous works.
They found a savvy advocate for the project in Ms. Gingeras, who has held positions at the Guggenheim Museum and François Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi in Venice.
“I’ve had a longstanding fascination from afar with these artists,” Ms. Gingeras said. “They are so out there, I wanted to know more.”
Mr. McGough met Ms. Gingeras at a party, and soon after they were off and running, with an assist from the movie producer Dorothy Berwin, a supporter of the community center and one of the underwriters of the project. The “Oscar Wilde Temple” will travel to London’s Studio Voltaire in the fall of 2018.
Ms. Gingeras also curated a retrospective show of their work, “McDermott & McGough: I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going,” on view at Dallas Contemporary from Sept. 29 to Dec. 17.
Though the Church of the Village has never attempted an art show on this scale, the lead pastor there, the Rev. Jeff Wells, said the temple was a natural fit because of the church’s significant L.G.B.T. membership.
“We thought it was a terrific idea to honor Oscar Wilde and other martyrs of the liberation movement,” Mr. Wells said. “Plus, it’s not bad publicity for the church.”
Glennda Testone, the executive director of the community center, said that art was a keystone there, back to the first “Center Show” in 1989 and the Keith Haring–decorated second-floor bathroom.
“The thing that resonated with us is that Wilde was unapologetic about who he was,” Ms. Testone said. “Our youth today are just so fierce. They say, ‘This is who I am and I’m going to fight.’”
As he prepared the project, Mr. McGough, who is writing his memoirs for Random House, was fairly open to reminiscing about his stormy decades with Mr. McDermott.
When the artists first encountered each other, around 1980, “I thought David was the most interesting person that I had ever met,” said Mr. McGough, whose strength was as a maker, particularly in paint. But he attributed much of their success to Mr. McDermott’s commitment to the concept of a “time experiment” that essentially turned their lives into performance art.
In his email, Mr. McDermott said that he had spent the last three years on “the most extensive time experiment of my life,” converting a 30-room Irish country house to reflect the evolution of decorative styles over previous centuries — and to make sure any forward movement of the clock is suspended.
Although Mr. McGough noted that they moved from “skyrocketing to fame” to “losing everything” (their trials included a “Bosie” who came between them, he said, referring to Wilde’s young lover), their careers are stable now.
Ms. Gingeras shared her own perspective. “I hope,” she said, “this is a revindication for them.”
Oscar Wilde Temple
September 11 - December 2
at the Church of the Village, 201 West 13th Street, Manhattan