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Paul McCarthy-ism

New Museum of Contemporary Art

February 22 - May 13, 2001

A mad, sexy elf, with an obscene fake nose and knee-high candy cane socks, pours buckets of chocolate syrup into her panties while squatting over a hole bored into the floor of her bare pinewood workshop. A little later, her coworker in a green jester’s outfit, long sticky hair matted to her grinning mask, shoves a plastic funnel into her mouth, dumping into it endless, shiny, shit-brown syrup; she thirstily gulps and gags, syrup drooling everywhere. The relentless, jittery camera tracks the two of them as they crawl up and down, right-side up and upside down through the brightly-lit, splattered shack, zooming in on her sagging, chocolate-soaked panties and the smeared cheeks of her ass. Meanwhile, Santa himself, decked in a filthy red velvet coat, fur-trimmed hat, and a jovial, white, chocolate-encrusted beard, creepy microcamera fitted over his ear, busily mixes and stirs more chocolate, and a man in a reindeer costume with the crotch ripped out crawls across the floor after the elves, dirty penis jiggling. All of this and much more—to a soundtrack that amplifies every slurp of chocolate, every gasp and inarticulate grunt. Welcome to Paul McCarthy’s "Santa Chocolate Shop" (1997). In the installation at Luhring Augustine, which reprises “Santa Chocolate Shop’s” debut at the 1997 Whitney Biennial, the performance video is projected from inside the small, trashed, two-story shack, the instruments of the holiday orgy still on the table and floor. One of McCarthy’s most accomplished pieces, “Santa Chocolate Shop” is a microcosm of the obsessions that have occupied him in one form or another since the 1970s: shit, prepared foods, lust, masturbation, voyeurism, vulgar pop icons, and general degradation. And yet for all that, “Santa Chocolate Shop” has a sickening gorgeousness that comes from the chocolate itself.

Paul McCarthy, Santa Chocolate Shop, February 17, 2001 – April 7, 2001. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

An increasingly important Los Angeles-based artist for the past thirty years, Paul McCarthy, at 55, has only recently received significant attention in New York and abroad. Indeed, younger artists like Mike Kelley, whom McCarthy crucially influenced and with whom he has collaborated on several major projects, is far better known; Kelley received a retrospective at the Whitney in 1993. The catalogued exhibit organized by Dan Cameron and Lisa Phillips at the New Museum of Contemporary Art (the show originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles), along with the concurrent shows at Luhring Augustine, Deitch Projects, and the atrium at 590 Madison Avenue, should go a long way toward changing this situation. There are several reasons why recognition of the significance of McCarthy’s work has been slow in coming. While his art has spanned sculpture, performance, photography, and video, and his influences include conceptual art, process-oriented painting and sculpture, Pop Art, the Vienna actionists, and the Gutai group in Japan, McCarthy’s ruthlessly West Coast sensibility has never comfortably fit the aesthetic and political ideologies that dominate the New York art world. McCarthy’s lurid, visceral performances invite comparison with Carolee Schneemann’s vagina painting performances, Karen Finley’s performances, and Kiki Smith’s abject, shitting women, as well as the photographs of Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, and Gilbert and George. But McCarthy’s work is too compulsive, structureless and irreducible to invite straightforward political reading. Like Bruce Nauman in his dunked-clown videos, McCarthy courts embarrassment, ambivalence, and unease, providing the viewer with nothing to fall back on. Unlike many of his conceptualist contemporaries, however, McCarthy approaches his work in a way that is, I think, profoundly painterly; his pieces have a sticky, queasy, stinking beauty that is difficult for the viewer to embrace.

The New Museum retrospective’s greatest virtue is in bringing together photographs and video documenting McCarthy’s rarely seen early work. In “Mannequin Head and Squirrel” (1967), a mangy stuffed squirrel has been crammed into a gash in the beat-up head of a female mannequin and set on a waterstained cardboard box. “Mannequin Head and Squirrel” suggests the influence of Bruce Conner’s and Robert Rauschenberg’s decayed, gaudy 1950s assemblages, but whereas Conner and Rauschenberg, inspired by Picasso’s collages and junk sculptures, were interested in discarded objects and urban detritus, McCarthy’s sculpture consists of props from a performance in Salt Lake City entitled “Saw/Hammer”: the objects bear the scars of furious abuse. Another early piece, “Silver Painting, Fantasy Island” (1969), consists of a large framed plywood panel on which McCarthy dumped dirt, burned plastic dolls, and sprayed water; the surface is a mess of muddy dirt stains and bubbly gobs of charred plastic. “Silver Painting, Fantasy Island’s” ancestors are Jean Dubuffet’s mineral paintings and Robert Rauschenberg’s dirt and gold paintings. It is also closely related to Gordon Matta-Clark’s fried and melted pieces from around the same time, but McCarthy’s interest is not just with materials and process, or with undermining rarefied Modernist painting: McCarthy is also engaged with low, vulgar commodities, like cheap plastic dolls and dimestore fantasies, and his work is fueled by the brutal effects of performance. In the extant photograph of “Silver Painting, Fantasy Island,” McCarthy is hunched over the messy, flooded piece, torching dolls like a sick adolescent. In the early 1970s, McCarthy began foregrounding performance and a relationship to his loaded materials that is not so much violent as it is regressive. In “Shit Face Painting” (1974), for example, McCarthy slathered his bearded face with runny, lumpy, shit-brown paint and writhed naked over large sheets of canvas, leaving puddles, swirls, prints and tracks. In “Penis Brush Painting, Windshield, Black Paint” (1974), McCarthy dipped his prick into a bucket of house paint and dragged and slapped it over the curved surface of a car windshield. Ironically quoting the famous films of Picasso and Pollock at work, the photographs of “Penis Brush Painting, Windshield, Black Paint” are taken from the opposite side of the glass, so that McCarthy, limp cock drooling black paint, seems caught in a groveling and failed effort to defile the viewer. By comparison, the angst-ridden, self-mutilating performances of the Vienna actionists seem like operatic monuments paying tribute to high modernism. McCarthy’s work is emotionally risky because it is not grand; it is private, exposed, and surprisingly fragile. And it is about failure.

Both “Assortment, The Trunks; Human Object” (1984) and “The Trunks” (1992) consist of battered trunks full of the mutilated ketchup, mayonnaise and lotion-encrusted props from McCarthy’s performances between 1972 and 1984. For “Propo” (1992), McCarthy produced a series of photographs of individual props—a bottle of Daddies Ketchup, a filthy, gouged female doll with a penis dangling in between her legs—done in the candy-colored, overlit style of crude showroom photography. The lonely objects in “Propo” look like they might have been found in an empty, garbage-filled lot behind a trailer home, and are a reminder that McCarthy’s interest in “popular culture” is not with slick design, but with things that have been used, things ruined by longing, fantasy, violence, and failure. The props in “Propo” are neither abstract commodities nor pieces of trash, but objects with troubled histories.

Detail, Paul McCarthy, Santa Chocolate Shop. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Between 1972 and the end of the 1980s, McCarthy undertook a series of performances in small art galleries, performance spaces like Al’s Bar in Los Angeles, and sometimes staged alone in his basement, in which he developed the at-turns comic, savagely infantile, and oddly moving style he has come to be known for. Many of the videos of these performances are on view in the New Museum exhibition. In “Tubbing,” (1975) McCarthy wears a platinum-blonde wig, baby-blue eyeshadow, and lipstick. Naked in a full bathtub, he lathers himself with thick dollops of skin cream, guzzles Daddies Ketchup, and with mock-feminine gestures that resemble those of the drag queens in Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures,” proceeds to suck off and sodomize himself with a nasty log of raw sausage, at one point binding the sausage between his legs and castrating himself. “Tubbing,” like the closely-related “Sailor’s Meat” (1975), enacts the violent contradictions internal to a pulp Hollywood conception of femininity and beauty by jamming together cheap beauty products, processed foods, and rape, all of it self-imposed on a body that does not seem to have any gender at all; the result is a tub full of blood-and-vomit-colored pink gunk which suggests sick fringe porno, torture scenes, and the byproducts of children run amuck. In “Contemporary Cure-All” (1979), McCarthy, wearing a ghoulish horror-film mask, is pinned to a table by assistants with nylons pulled over their heads, has a plastic vagina strapped between his legs, and gives birth to dolls and dildos, ketchup and skin cream splattered everywhere. Similarly, in “Baby Boy, Baby Magic” (1982), McCarthy, dressed in a nightshirt with a featureless papier-mâché mask over his head, rocks back on a table and rips a baby doll from between his legs. As in “Tubbing” and “Sailor’s Meat,” “Contemporary Cure-All” and “Baby Boy, Baby Magic" mash together incommensurate elements: Halloween masks, food, hand lotion, toys, sex, birth, and castration. In “Family Tyranny” (1987), Mike Kelley cowers beneath a table, muttering, “Daddy, daddy, daddy,” while McCarthy, shirtless and in a pair of shorts, grinds a mayonnaise concoction with the fat end of a baseball bat. Eventually he jams a funnel into a Styrofoam head and force-feeds it the gooey white liquid, mumbling that, “you can do this to your son,” as though offering a lesson in both cooking and abuse.

McCarthy’s performances take place in claustrophobic spaces like bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens, doctors’ offices, and television stage sets, and his personae are trapped in clichéd fantasies whose boundaries have dissolved. There is no distinction between sausage and penises, blood and ketchup, mayonnaise and semen, babies and dolls. In her introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Lisa Phillips, following other critics, claims that McCarthy uses consumer and entertainment industry icons in order to show “how these sanitized images intersect with the dark underside of American life, where child abuse, insanity, rape and pornography lurk.” But thinking of McCarthy’s performances as revelations of social ills cleans them up, sanitizes them into easily-grasped moral categories. McCarthy’s performances are disorienting, embarrassing, and uncomfortable precisely because they refute simple hierarchies between good and bad, vulgar and refined, gross and beautiful.

Beginning in the 1990s, McCarthy moved away from raw performance toward film, video, and architecturally complex installations which often include either projected videos or mechanized figures. The two most compelling pieces from this period currently on view at the New Museum are the installation “Bossy Burger” (1991) and the hour-long video, “Painter” (1995). “Bossy Burger” takes place in the cast-off sets of the 1970s television show, “Family Affair,” which have been mucked up with now-spoiled milk, ketchup, mayonnaise, and ground beef; the entire first floor of the New Museum reeks of decaying food. Videos of McCarthy’s performance play on monitors on either side of a jutting wall. The sets themselves are unsettling, because while their interiors are painted and furnished, their exteriors are bare, giving one the sense that there is no way either in or out of their truncated spaces. In the performance, McCarthy arrives donning a parodic Alfred E. Neuman mask, a chef’s hat and apron, and a pair of long clown’s shoes. Mumbling and chortling as usual, McCarthy seems to be conducting a show on how to cook, but of course things rapidly degenerate. Ketchup is poured, stirred, and flung at random. All kinds of eccentric instruments are brought into the process, including a pair of pliers and a length of hose. The couch ends up on the table. At one point, McCarthy humps the wall, then wriggles under the couch and humps the table. Whereas “Contemporary Cure-All” and “Doctor” are full of horror-film violence, “Bossy Burger” revels in anarchy. What is sinister about “Bossy Burger" is more subtle: trapped in a wacky, kitsch TV interior from which there is no way out, the basic rules of cooking have evaporated, as has the difference between cooking and fucking, beautiful red substances and repulsive mess. Like “Santa Chocolate Shop,” “Bossy Burger” suggests some kind of production, some sort of making, but finally one has the sense that there are neither rules for making, nor any end-product.

In "Painter," McCarthy, decked out in a blonde wig, a bulbous drinker’s nose, and giant latex hands, staggers around a small, wood-paneled studio with an immense paint brush, yammering things like, “I can’t do it, I can’t do it,” and, “de Kooning, de Kooning, de Kooning.” He punctures the sides of gigantesque tubes of paint (one is labeled “Shit”), mixes the paint, then slashes and hacks big crude Expressionist swaths onto canvases with crazy electric blue and orange grounds. During the course of the video, he meanders between adjoining rooms ranting against his dealer, sitting in on an absurd conversation with pretentious, bulbous-nosed scholars, has a sycophantic collector sniff his asshole, and chops off his own fingers with a cleaver. “Painter” is a hilarious satire of inflated Abstract Expressionists and the art world in general, but it is not only that. When McCarthy obsessively mixes his gallons of shit-brown paint, loads up his brush, and, grunting and waving, goes to his canvas, he is pointing towards something important: that paint is the same as shit and dirt—just unruly filth that flows and stains. That finally, the hopeless drive to make art is drunken, humiliated, violent, sexual and infantile, perhaps tragic as well.

In her clogged, virtually unreadable catalog essay, Amelia Jones writes that by “smearing himself with ketchup/blood, McCarthy desublimates masculinity, as if symbolically returning to the shamed sublimated, repressed male subject to a shameless, Edenic state of lust.” By reducing McCarthy’s work to cathartic expulsions of the repressed, Jones reintroduces the comforting moral categories McCarthy seeks to circumvent. The ketchup, chocolate and mayonnaise do not symbolize anything, although they are lots of things. And in McCarthy’s slippery dialectic, which has no real beginning and no foreseeable end, there is no place for an “Edenic state”: we have always been inside that television stage set, lust and trauma and giddy pleasure have always reigned. Most importantly, Jones and other psychoanalytic critics miss the fact that McCarthy’s work, like Beckett’s in a way, is about the impossible striving of the imagination.

The retrospective at the New Museum suffers from several weaknesses. McCarthy’s sculptures, like “Spaghetti Man” (1993) and “Tomato Heads” (1995), lack the grotesque power of his best performances and installations, and since virtually all of the early work comes in the form of documentation, one constantly feels the emotional distance between the original event and the photograph or video. In addition, the cramped, low-ceilinged space at the New Museum precludes McCarthy’s larger installations, and means that a piece as important as his collaboration with Mike Kelley, “Heidi, Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone” (1992) gets squeezed into the back of the cluttered first-floor gallery, and is difficult to focus on. Fortunately, this is partially compensated for by the installation of “Santa Chocolate Shop” at Luhring Augustine, and “The Garden” (1992) in Deitch Projects’ vast space on Wooster Street. “The Garden” is, I think, one of McCarthy’s darkest and most devastating works. It consists of a section of a kind of city-beautiful style public park, with pine trunks, big gray boulders, artificial turf covered with pine needles, and even little trails, set on a raised platform. Barely concealed inside the park are two figures fashioned from fiberglass and latex, a father and son. Ashen and ravaged, pants hanging around his ankles, the father methodically humps a tree, his grimacing face banging against the trunk. The son is face down upon the ground, pants around his knees, screwing the turf in synch with his father. From some angles, one can see the father’s metal pipe-shaft cock penetrating out the other end of the tree. The figures in “The Garden” are at once realistic and far more monstrous than the masks McCarthy wears in his earlier performances; the clammy gray latex flesh bunches and sags, and the seams are clearly visible, like long scars. The only sound is the whir of the engines and the rhythmic hydraulic pump of the shafts. In the preparatory sketches, which are also on view at Deitch Projects, McCarthy scrawls notes to himself like, “Loss of soul,” and “senseless motion.” “The Garden” is a kind of monumental follow up to “Cultural Gothic” (1992), in which an upstanding-looking dad appears to be instructing his son on how to bugger a goat. But what is desolate about “The Garden” is not the familial perversion, not even that father nor son has any hope of orgasm; it is that they have been emptied of either desire or interiority, and are therefore more debased and dehumanized than the crazed workers in “Santa Chocolate Shop.” Unlike the bathroom in “Tubbing” or the television stage set in “Bossy Burger,” “The Garden” is clean, public, and utterly terminal.

If “Assortment, The Trunks; Human Object” and “The Trunks” pointed towards a new phase in McCarthy’s work, “The Box” (1999), displayed in the 590 Madison Avenue atrium, is an even more definitive self-abnegation and clearing. “The Box” is a replica of McCarthy’s Los Angeles studio, tilted over on its side and filled with some 3000 objects: tables, shelves, chairs, video editing equipment, tools, works in progress, a sewing machine, a refrigerator, art supplies—in short, everything. Now a successful artist (“The Box” is already part of the Hauser & Wirth in Switzerland) with a full studio and assistants, McCarthy’s impulses are remarkably consistent: to expel things, to tip them over onto the ground, to push them toward the chaotic, the vulgar and excremental, towards what Robert Smithson termed the entropic. “The Box” has a canny grasp on the way an artist’s studio can become no different from a factory or television studio, with their orderly production schedules. Here, as elsewhere, McCarthy is an artist of unmasking.

McCarthy’s other recent gallery shows:

Deitch Projects (2/23-4/07)

Luhring Augustine (February 2001)


Daniel Baird


The Brooklyn Rail


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