Paul McCarthy
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, MOCA at The Geffen Contemporary
November 12, 2000 to January 21, 2001
New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
February 22 to May 13, 2001
Review by Michael Newberry


The Paul McCarthy exhibition at L.A. MOCA at The Geffen Contemporary documents three decades of the artist's important works. The media he employs, either separately or in combination, are sculpture, drawing, photography, performance, video, and installation. In many of the works the artist acts as the subject of the performance pieces that are documented by photography or video.

Upon entering the exhibition a sign warns: "Viewer discretion advised. Some material in this exhibition may not be suitable for young viewers." Though the first sweeping impression of the museum and the exhibit seems innocent enough; large scale puppet figures abound, large dollhouse-like sets, scattered monitors projecting cartoon-like characters prancing around, and right in front, a life-sized sculpture group, Cultural Gothic (1992), of dressed suburban father and son, and a goat.

But after taking a closer look at Cultural Gothic, the innocent element dissipates along with your psychological bearings and comfortable viewing space. The Gap-clad boy is motorized and he is humping the goat. The cycle is simple. The boy and the goat look back to the father for approval, the father nods with his hands resting good-naturedly on the boy's shoulders, the boy begins gyrating, then the father nods his concluding approval.

In the Italian movie, L'abero degli soccoli (1974) by Ernanno Olmi, there is a bestiality scene of boys copulating with chickens, which seems funny and strangely innocent. In Cultural Gothic the innocence is replaced with a foreboding. The father's bearing is genuinely supportive as he offers quiet guidance. The boy's earnest looks complement the father's. It is as if they were watching whales offshore or a golfing demonstration. The incongruent aspect of the tidy bestiality undercuts the appearance of the blessed state of familial closeness, forcing us to consider either the normality of bestiality or the evil that lurks behind paternity. Neither of which is easily contemplated.

The shocking element of the piece is not limited to its literal description but is related to our internal iconography, to our wish to share intimate moments with our fathers. With one thrust our core belief of idealized paternity vaporizes into illusion, leaving us with a sincere though psychotic father and a child who will equate bestiality with his father's glowing approbation.

Unaffected photography and video documentation of ephemeral performance pieces has a significant role in this retrospective exhibition. In Sailors Meat (video, 1975) the naked artist is donning a blond wig and he is gyrating against various deli meats with a hotdog inserted into his rectum. In Hot Dog (1974), Cibachrome, he stuffs his mouth with large hotdogs and embellishes the theme by placing his penis in a hot dog bun. In both these pieces he is showing us the frustration associated with sexual desires. The blond wig is symbolic of the sex appeal of the Hollywood bombshell, but the ugliness of the scene obliterates any excitement of our passions. The over-abundance of phallic devices implies that one or once is never enough. Though the ideal of sexual gratification is only implied, by the blond wig and depiction of the need to be fulfilled, he is making the point that the thought of sexual excitement is a fallacy and that the actualization of this wish will only bring debasement of absurd proportions.

Painting, Shit Face, Shit Painting (1974) is a series of black/white photographs that document a performance piece in which the artist had smeared an excrement-like medium (lumpy chocolate or the real thing?) on a white canvas and all over his bearded face. The subject of the performance is about the expressionist mode of creation, that art is something that freely emerges from the guts of the artist. Because of the medium of excrement there are negative overtones about painting. This piece is analogous with Duchamp's Fountain (1917) in the sense that the message coming through is "art is something you piss on." In McCarthy's piece a similar message comes through: "art as well as artists are something you shit on." But there are significant differences between these two pieces. Duchamp had brilliant deftness for harmonizing his nihilistic method with his absurd subject matter, wrecking epistemological devastation on society's conceptions of art and consequently redefining art in history. McCarthy's methodology, though performance art, is narrative and appallingly realistic in the sense that he is really doing these things.

It is interesting to note that the philosopher Kant in The Critique of Judgement (1790) comments that there is a brand of ugliness that is incompatible with the aesthetic stance. "One kind of ugliness alone is incapable of being represented conformably to nature without destroying all aesthetic delight and consequently artistic beauty, namely, that which excites disgust." (Kant, The Critique of Judgement, 1790, Oxford: Clarendon Press, [1964] PP 85-6. Translated by James Creed Meredith) Though there is not much in the way of philosophical support for McCarthy's literal transcriptions in Hot Dog, Sailor's Meat, and Painting, Shit Face, Shit Painting, his later works are dramatically modified to stylized images, and consequently are more philosophically palatable.

Spaghetti Man (1993) is an 8-foot tall fiberglass sculpture of a semi-dressed, doll-like humanoid with a proportionately large furry rabbit head, red tube-like plastic lips, no eyes, and sprouting a 40-foot urethane rubber penis. Spaghetti Man has a strong similarity to the live larger-than-life Mickey and Pluto characters that parade around Disneyland. But our innocent associations are short-circuited because we never expect those characters to have genitalia! The ridiculous proportion of the penis is comical and not the least bit offensive, but it does attach grotesque associations to the over-sized, stuffed toy animal. On deeper reflection a significant theme arises from this piece: the innocence inspired by childhood icons is unsparingly replaced by warped adulthood.

Plaster Your Head and One Arm Into a Wall (1973), a performance, is documented by photos showing the artist literally plastering his head and left arm into one side of a wall, and, seen on the other side, the emergence of the artist's head and hand. The view of the disappearing head conjures up the ancient death sentence practice of walling up prisoners alive. Seeing him actively self-inflict immobilization is compelling. On the other side, you see his head and hand emerge, though the rest of his body is trapped in the wall. Symbolism of enslavement abounds: the mind and hand of creation are free but they are shackled. The body without a mind is forced to be submissive. One hand desires freedom, the other erects walls of incarceration.

The McCarthy aesthetic is rife with fascinating contradictions. His subject matters are romantic, in the sense that the works are thematic and, simultaneously, they are nihilistic, in the sense that the themes represent the tearing down of human values. Similarly, his methods originate with postmodernist tools: literal and psychological perceived space, temporal states, the combination of concrete means and the body as a tool, and historical and psychological connotations. He then uses these tools as a romanticist, or as a tragedian in the sense that he holds up icons of childhood, of painting, of sexuality, and shreds them of meaning until he projects catatonic schizophrenia.

Michael Newberry, aesthetic critic, artist.

Paul McCarthy
Cultural Gothic, 1992-3
Metal, wood, pneumatic cylinder, compressor, programmed controller, burlap w/foam, acrylic and dirt, fiberglass, clothing, wigs, 943/4 x 96x 96 inches.
Courtesy Luhring Augustine Gallery

Spaghetti Man, 1993
Fiberglass, urethane rubber, cloth, fake fur, height: 100 inches.
Courtesy Luhring Augustine Gallery

Hot Dog, 1974
Performance, Pasadena
Video, color photographs.