“Let’s Talk About Paul”. The gross, the witty and the strange in the art of Paul McCarthy.

Posted on February 4, 2012

0


*This article was written at the beginning of December 2011 on the occasion of Paul McCarthy’s work being on show at that time at Hauser & Wirth London. The show has now ended, although the Ship Adrift, Ship of Fools piece can still be seen in St. James Park till February 15th, 2012. The only thing that connects the forthcoming article and the exhibition is the artist himself, i.e. Paul McCarthy, therefore even without having seen the show the written piece still makes sense.*

CAUTION: explicit language

Deconstructed bodies, perversion, abuse, politics and sarcasm, blood, sperm…. The list is far from complete. I know this must be a very gruesome way to start an article: with a sentence that could potentially stop anyone from the further reading of it. But if that first sentence didn’t put you off – just let me warn you, there’s more to come. The reaction of disgust and repulsiveness is usually the first thing that happens to the viewer when he or she sees a Paul McCarthy piece: they simply turn away in aversion. Well, what can I say, McCarthy does love himself some grossness. But, believe me, it is far from being the only thing he is interested in.

The artist.

Born in 1945 in Utah, McCarthy is among the pioneers of performance, video-art and happenings (he collaborated with and was influenced by Allan Kaprow, an artists who coined the term). And in the case of McCarthy – from the very start of his career all of these involved quite explicit imagery. From his own naked body smeared in different liquids, to dolls engaging in an orgy, or a mechanical man having a sexual intercourse with a tree trunk, to giant sculptures of dwarfs holding phallic symbols, – all these find a place in McCarthy’s work. In a forward to an interview with the artist in BOMB Magazine, Benjamin Weissman writes: “Paul managed to remain an artist of true perversion, dedicated to fucking with viewer sensibility and at the same time achieving a broad mainstream appeal. A rare accomplishment.”[1] True indeed.

Paul McCarthy, image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth

Paul McCarthy, image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth

Paul McCarthy graduated with a BFA in painting from the University of Utah and, because he was very interested in making videos, went on to study film and video at the university of Southern California. Talking about that period of time in Paul McCarthy: Destruction of a Body, a video-interview with Jörg & Ralf Raino Jung, he describes it as a hard time for someone interested in video: the school was so Hollywood-oriented and focused on film industry, that they didn’t even have equipment to offer for those who wanted to make videos and not films[2]. But that didn’t stop McCarthy.

Using borrowed equipment he starts making videos featuring himself engaging in weird (from the point of view of an average person) activities: he uses his own body as a paintbrush (Black and White tapes, 1972, Sauce, 1974), a reference to abstract expressionist reign in American art in 1950-60s. It is, after all, “action-painting” – just not with a paintbrush as Pollock did it.

Tomato head (Green), fiberglass, urethane, rubber, metal, plastic, fabric and painted metal base, 1994-

Tomato head (Green), fiberglass, urethane, rubber, metal, plastic, fabric and painted metal base, 1994-

His art and interest do not stop on video. His body of work incorporates sculpture, installations, happenings, – all of which set to explore identity and change, society and its effect on a single person. Comments of consumerism, politics and capitalism are all over his pieces, and the question of abuse – be it family abuse, political abuse or social issues – is central to many of his pieces. A signature element to his works is their explicitness; he loves violence, nakedness and bodily fluids. But all of this revolting imagery, just like Benjamin Weissman remarked, didn’t stop McCarthy from being commercially successful, critically acclaimed and loved by the audience: his CV boasts exhibitions at Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, 2008), Moderna Museet (Stockholm, 2006), a retrospective at Tate Modern (London, 2003), and many more solo and group shows through out his career. To add to that, he is represented by Houser & Wirth, one of the most successful commercial galleries working in London, New York and Zürich. Recently, in November 2011, his work Tomato Head (Green) (1994) sold at Christie’s New York for a total of $4,562,500 (£2,828,750/€3,285,000). This is a pretty impressive sum and taking into account that the bidding started with $500,000 shows that if the collectors and buyers are willing to go this far to acquire his work – he is definitely making his way into the cannon.

The art.

It is hard to classify McCarthy as an artists working in a specific filed. As I already mentioned before, he works with different media, incorporating elements of each into the other and transgressing the boundaries between ‘pure’ techniques. In this part we will be talking mostly about his videos, simply because to my mind they bring together elements from all the other media that he is working with, as well as are a place were many of his other pieces have their beginning in. For example, in his video Piccadilly Circus (2002), shot in a space of an old bank on Piccadilly, London, which later became one of Hauser & Wirth’s spaces, contains strong references to painting (smeared food pieces over a white sheet seen on the floor), sculpture (all the characters are wearing masks, an element that very often appears in his sculpture-like installation pieces), happening (all the actions are spontaneous). In the video piece itself, McCarthy dressed his actors up in oversized foam rubber heads of the Queen, George Bush, Ben Laden and others. All of these engage in an orgy of food and paint, cut each other’s masks with a huge knife and appear to perform some kind of weird ritualistic dance. Funny thing – what distinguished the characters are only their costumes and head wear: they all seem to have very similar, if not the same, faces. In this piece we find several reoccurring elements characteristic of McCarthy’s work: food as a substitute to bodily fluids, masking and taking on different identities, controversy as too the subject and the characters engaged, abuse. All of these come up in his pieces in a different period of time and having appeared – stick around creating certain continuity, a narrative connecting the pieces.

Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, "Heidi", 1994. video still
Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, “Heidi”, 1994. video still

The line of abuse goes through many of McCarthy’s works, be it child abuse, sexual abuse or even political or social. For example Heidi (1992) and Family Tyranny (1987) explore the theme of child abuse, and in the case of Heidi – the hidden possibility of sexual harassment (a blond little girl in a remote house the Alps together with her grandpa, ketchup, chocolate, a hint to torture….). Most people will probably say that this is referring to McCarthy’s own experience as a child, but according to the artists himself he has no personal recollection of abuse during his early days. At the same time a piece like Piccadilly Circus (which is closely looked at in one of my previous entries), in which McCarthy places an orgy-like activity engaging some of the most controversial figures in contemporary politics into a space of a bank, figures that better than anyone else represent capitalism and its repercussions as well as are very strong political symbols in themselves, shows that McCarthy’s pieces are not only about exposing and shocking, they also serve as a very strong commentary on society and politics, done, at the same time, in a very sarcastic way.

Another narrative connecting most of his works is the use of explicit images and food. Of course, it might have been shocking in the 70s, when his video Sauce (1974) showed naked McCarthy crawling on what seems to appear as a table, covered in ketchup, his body entirely naked and exposed to the camera. And although today no one can surprise us with a naked body, this video still gives the viewer a feeling of uneasiness and repulsiveness. Frankly speaking – it grosses you out. The use of such substances as chocolate, mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise, which is a reoccurring motif in his works taking its beginning from his earliest pieces and refers to shit, blood and sperm respectively, has become one of his signature elements and has since been taken up by many artists of post-McCarthy generations. ‘Bodily fluids’, unlike in real life, are not hidden in McCarthy’s work. On the contrary, they are everywhere, smeared, mixed all over the set, on the camera, on the costumes.

Rocky, 1976 Video (colour) still, image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth
Rocky, 1976 Video (colour) still, image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth

Speaking of costumes – McCarthy is interested in adopting different identities, by either dressing up and wearing masks, or acting out different roles. In his earliest performances/videos McCarthy uses his own persona as an actor for the films without completely covering it. For example in Ma Bell (1971), the viewer can’t see the artist’s face but only hears him acting out a mad person, with the camera shot showing the artist’s hands and the action performed (pouring gasoline, four and cotton onto the page of a telephone-book). In another video from a bit later – Rocky (1976), the frame shows McCarthy wearing a mask and boxer gloves (obviously referring to the movie with the same title) and beating himself up with the blows getting harder and harder as the movie progresses and ketchup being smudged all over his body to imitate blood. McCarthy then gradually goes into concealing his body completely, like in the Pinocchio Pipenose Household Dilemma (1994) where the artist (is it really him?) is wearing a costume of the Disney cartoon character, or in Painter (1995) where McCarthy is wearing exaggerate make-up and clothes and sarcastically acting out an abstract expressionist artist while in a weird environment filled with giant tubes of paint. McCarthy slowly goes from revealing to concealing himself, and later – completely disappears from his pieces: in the 90s he start making Hollywood like parody movies, with very low budget and a very strong comment on the whole entertainment industry that Hollywood has created. Among these are Saloon (1995), his look on the tradition of Western movies, or Houseboat Party (2005), a sneak peak into a world of rich and famous where there’s been too many drinks and drugs, something went wrong, someone got killed and swim-suit clad models are dividing the body. Body parts and blood everywhere, with pop music as a soundtrack to the pleasant act of butchering. Classic McCarthy.

Complicated Pile, 2007 Inflatable sculpture, image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth

Complicated Pile, 2007 Inflatable sculpture, image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth

Now, as I said earlier, although most works discussed above are video-pieces/ performances, it would be a mistake to think of McCarthy as strictly a video artist. It is true, though, that video seems to be a kind of a hub from which every other of his pieces evolve from. For example, his fascination with costumes and inflated dolls, which we see in Pinocchio, later finds its way into a series of inflated sculptures resembling cartoon characters (with sexual references, of course). His Air Pressure installation from 2009 in Utrecht featured, among others, a dwarf holding a ‘butt-plug’, a pig with its front legs bent to reveal its behind, and a pile of shit. All of the above were of giant size, inflated and shiny: an obvious pop-art/Jeff Koons/ consumer society gimmick.

Installation view, 'Pig Island', Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Milan, Italy, 2010, image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth

Installation view, 'Pig Island', Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Milan, Italy, 2010, image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth

He also recently became interested in using mechanics and silicone in his works. His sculptures can now move (like The Train, currently on show at Hauser & Wirth London) and the body parts seen in his installations are even more gnarly. With the use of mechanics he can bring the ‘action’ from the video (even though it might be a monotonous one) into 3-dimentionality and put it into a gallery space: The Garden (1992) is precisely such an installation where among the trees one finds a mechanical man, erm…, having a sexual intercourse with a tree while a younger looking man is lying, presumably dead, on the ground next to him. All creates a feeling of something being wrong, of some horrible event that too place before the viewer’s arrival, very similar to the feeling created in pieces like The Houseboat Party. On the other hand, if this scene is suggesting some environmental comment it is still doing it in a very McCarthy-like way.

Painter, 1995 Colour video with sound, still. Image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth

Painter, 1995 Colour video with sound, still. Image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth

Paul McCarthy’s pieces are impossible to miss. Some like them, some don’t, some find them amusing and most – turn away. But what does it mean to make such art today? Is anyone really shocked by anything? Apparently – yes, and most of McCarthy’s pieces do prove that. Be it video, sculpture, installation or anything else – he finds a way to touch the viewer’s gross side. But is it because he is so ‘badass’ or because we actually recognize a part of ourselves in what we see that we react in such a way?

The pieces we discussed, and this is by far not a full list of his works and a very personal selection, do show what McCarthy’s main goals and means are. It is, though, highly recommended to dig deeper and look out for more, and not only in the case of McCarthy. Because behind any appearance, as gnarly or as pretty it might seem, there can be something else. And it takes guts (literally) to discover it.


[1] Benjamin Weissman and Paul McCarthy. “Paul McCarthy”, BOMB, No. 84 (Summer, 2003), pp. 32-37

[2] Paul McCarthy: Destruction of a Body (Documentary, 2001) http://www.ubu.com/film/mccarthy_destruction.html [accessed 03 November 2011]