An Artist Who Looks Primates in the Eye

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AT least 10 years ago, during a summer stay on a Maine island, Carol McMahon did a series of paintings on paper of small beach stones. Many tide-tumbled cobbles appeared on one sheet like a squadron in loose formation. These were loving portraits of stones. There was pocking and scoring, smooth gray granite with white veins, ovoid pink granite with flecks of quartz, and so on, implying infinite variety. The paintings were designed and unified by a close scrutiny of differences.

In the intervening years, McMahon produced a series of large, gestural, pastel drawings of anthropomorphized trees. The limbs fitted into the trunks like bones into sockets. These expressive and mysterious trees seemed capable of flailing their limbs.

Lately, McMahon has turned her attention from mineral and vegetable to animal. Her recent portraits, probing and specific, include a variety of vertebrates such as simians, humans, canines, and felines.

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Presently, at the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, Mass., McMahon's primates are holding forth. Mostly in black and white, these human and simian faces suggest newspaper photographs. While "reportage" wins out over aesthetic elegance and flattery, characterizations are strong. Each creature is rendered with equanimity. There are no favorites.

In the recent exhibition "The Body Politic," which was at Levinson Kane Gallery in Boston through November, presidents Reagan and Bush flanked an amiable orangutan. And sharing a long, horizontal canvas, the wives of the recent presidential and vice presidential candidates smiled with unflinching optimism in living color.

McMahon's piece, "Family Ties," will be on display at the Art Complex Museum through Jan. 24. It is a huge grid of heads in black and white, each 30 inches high by 22 wide. It dominates the wall. It could be an oversized sheet of the United States Postal Service's latest offering in commemorative stamps of familiar primates or perhaps a display of fugitives on the post office wall. In any case, it doesn't do to see these portraits singly. They must commingle.

As Carol McMahon said in a statement for the museum: "Most of my portraits of people and animals look you in the eye and will not, as in real life, look away. They engage the viewer, provoke comparisons and questions, and, I hope, amuse.

BY seeing how similar we look not only to anonymous primates, but to well-known figures we have idolized or hated, I am able to put human beings in perspective, to understand and forgive us for not being divine. It gives me satisfaction to put man back in nature as only one creature among many (my own garden of Eden) rather than dominating the whole earth."

In format, this grid of heads, unrelentingly observed, recalls the series of pebble portraits of 10 years ago. While the earlier work was quiet and lyrical, the new work is aggressive and confrontational.

But this confrontation is astonishing and engaging. It elicits an immediate awareness of one's membership in this family of primates.

It's a humbling experience and deliciously funny.

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