San Francisco In his accompanying note to the exhibition “an uneven dozen broken hearts,” underground filmmaker George Kuchar writes of his friend, former student, sometime lover, and collaborator on the 1975 cult favorite Thundercrack!, the lateCurt McDowell: “Curt was curt, cute, controversial, and not celibate.” Kuchar’s pithy remembrance of his BFF nicely doubles as a description of this scrapbook of an exhibition, which collected McDowell’s diaristic drawings, collages and early art school paintings. Margaret Tedesco’s intimate gallery space (which serves off hours as her apartment) couldn’t be a more appropriate venue for an artist who so often, and so nakedly, used his life as source material.
McDowell’s visual art, like his candidly autobiographical and frankly sexual films, pulses with his curiosity to understand his own voracious appetites and obsessions. Like an alchemist hoping base metals will yield gold, McDowell recombined friends, lovers and tricks of all genders and persuasions in pursuit of the philosopher’s stone that could explain how a corn-fed Midwestern boy became a load-loving, rough trade-chasing, nonexclusively homosexual homosexual.
One answer is proposed, rebuslike, in the cluster of Comix-style sketches and drawings that dominated one wall of the narrow entrance hallway. McDowell was as meticulous a record-keeper as he was a draftsman: there are sketches of friends (a who’s who of faces from San Francisco’s creative underground of the ’70s and ’80s), studies for his film posters, portraits on velour and comic panels in which McDowell’s alter egos—Buzzy, an Indiana spring chicken, and Loretta, a Crumb-worthy zaftig, bald save for her Pippi Longstocking pigtails—reenact autobiographical episodes and psychodramas.
Another explanation is proposed in a collage on the opposite wall that McDowell made in 1983, four years before he died of AIDS. In a panorama pieced together from multiple photographs and mounted on poster board, McDowell lies next to himself on his bed—doubly exposed, as it were—coyly flaunting his ass in a pose lifted straight from one of the innumerable porn magazines fanned around him like a peacock’s tail. It reminds me of the famous photo of Pink Floyd surrounded by all their gear—a gaudy, potlatchlike display of the raw materials of artistic production. Yet McDowell seems to be winking at himself as much as he is at us, as if to remind us that smut is a means, not an end.
His two reclining selves echo the photographic studies he made 15 years earlier for what was the exhibition’s centerpiece: a 67-by-60-inch oil painting of the Beatles as naked, autopsied cadavers. Though the Fab Four lie prostrate with their chests cut open, their bodies lean toward each other in tender repose. Painted on the cusp of his turn to filmmaking, McDowell’s Beatles canvas—in all of its unfiltered wish fulfillment—telegraphs the joyfully perverse explorations that were to come, in which, to use one critic’s choice phrasing, “No one is a sex object, but anyone can be a sex subject.”
Photo above: Untitled (the Beatles in autopsy), 1968, oil on canvas, 67 by 60 inches; at 2nd Floor Projects.