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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.

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.

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