Paul McCarthy

by Jonathan Griffin

Paul McCarthy Loses his Shit

‘An inflatable dog turd the size of a house has blown away from a modern art exhibition in a Swiss museum before bringing down an electricity line and smashing a greenhouse window.’ The Telegraph, London, 12th August 2008

What the reporter mentions only later in his article is that Complex Shit, a sculpture by Paul McCarthy, eventually came to rest in the playground of a nearby children’s home. For over four decades, the Los Angeles-based artist has been cavorting in the psychological sandpit of infantilism, scatology, chaos and debasement. The calamity that befell Complex Shit could not have been more poignant.

It was a strange moment. The media’s gleeful broadcast of the story resulted in Complex Shit being discussed over breakfast tables and watercoolers around the globe. Just three months later, after protracted political and civic wrangling, another publicly commissioned sculpture by McCarthy was brought out from behind Rotterdam’s Boijmans van Beuningen Museum into a busy central square, its originally intended location. The 20-foot-high bronze depicted Santa Claus holding a bell in one hand and a butt plug in the other.

Whether he liked it or not, McCarthy was infiltrating pop culture – a world that had hitherto been the object of his fierce critique. Today, McCarthy’s vernacular – not just his subject matter or visual language, but his anarchic tone, and his taste for queasy excesses and ridiculous profanity – is in danger of becoming a ubiquitous part of our daily lives. The industries of television, cinema, fashion and even music have absorbed McCarthy’s vision, and he’s become influential – godfather to an aesthetic genre that doesn’t yet have a name.


When I ask him, at one of his two vast studios (perhaps better to call them ‘facilities’), how he feels about having become a patriarch, he pauses for a long minute before answering. ‘Well,’ he says carefully, ‘there’s a concern about the position I find myself in.’ But does he regret making ever more ambitiously scaled art, or being part of a significant network of artists, or having raised two children who believe in the importance of art? (He often collaborates with Damon, his son, and his daughter Mara runs a gallery.) Certainly not.

McCarthy had always kicked against the self-serving logic of Modernist artistic patriarchy, which held that each generation succeeds the last in order to progress towards some fuzzy utopian future. As a young artist, full of countercultural ideals and fresh out of art school, he lampooned the dominant movements of mid-20th Century art. In 1970, McCarthy made his own parodic version of a Minimalist cube, a stack of glass panes sandwiched together with ketchup. It smelt disgusting. Many of his early performances, such as the self-explanatorily titled Penis Brush Painting, Windshield, Black Paint or Whipping a Wall with Paint (both from 1974) satirised the macho heroism – and submerged violence – of Abstract Expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning.

Over the course of that decade, and into the 1980s, McCarthy’s performances (which he usually video-taped) became more and more complex and stylised, involving costumes, props and elaborate sets. Eventually, he stopped performing for audiences altogether, and instead employed professional film crews to film the action. Videos such as Painter (1986) and Family Tyranny (1987), were both staged on disused television sets.

The violence became increasingly outlandish. In Family Tyranny, McCarthy grinds a funnel full of wet plaster into the spherical face of a crude mannekin, as if demonstrating a recipe on daytime TV. He talks us through the process: ‘Do it slowly. Let him feel it; let him get used to it. They’ll remember it. Don’t worry about that, they’ll remember it, they’ll use it.’ Mike Kelley, an artist nine years McCarthy’s junior and a longtime collaborator, plays the son, and ends up scampering around on all fours in his attempts to evade his father’s cruel and unusual punishments.

McCarthy’s objections to artistic patriarchy correlated with his doubts over the health and sanity of the nuclear American family. As McCarthy saw it, the violence and trauma of submission, repression, dependence and resentment bubbled beneath the surface of even the most civilised white-bread set-up. It was his job, through his art, to puncture that surface and let it gush out in horrifying and comedic spurts. In recent years, directors such as David Lynch, Todd Solondz, Ang Lee and Sam Mendes have explored similar territory, but in the 1970s it was a highly sensitive subject. It still is – which is why films such as The Ice Storm and Happiness are so painful to watch.

Trouble Upstairs

‘Keeping it together’ is one of the unspoken responsibilites of the adult American male. The importance of maintaining a cool, calm and collected exterior even extends to aesthetics: the tight hard skin of the ideal masculine body is contrasted with the soft curves of the female; men wear tailored suits while women express their femininity through floaty and ethereal fabrics. So much for gender studies 101. But these stereotypes might not seem now so clunky and outmoded if it wasn’t for figures such as McCarthy who brought gender theory into the mainstream.

He made it his mission to inflame taboos and transgress boundaries wherever he found them. The curator Ralph Rugoff (currently of London’s Hayward Gallery) has observed that ‘contagion and pollution’ are McCarthy’s modus operandi, whether that involves applying foodstuffs to his groin, or sullying childhood icons (Heidi, Pinnochio, Captain Hook and others) with distinctly adult urges. Outside and inside are confused; ketchup looks like blood, mayonnaise like pus or sperm and chocolate sauce like runny shit. All flow freely around many of McCarthy’s sets. He came to see physical boundaries – such as walls, or clothing – as natural metaphors for social and ideological ones. In performances that take place on sets, for instance, the characters usually attempt to escape, to break down the walls or squeeze out of windows. They fail, of course. In Bunker Basement (2003), a large-scale installation and video performance, McCarthy (wearing a George W. Bush mask) roams the set with an electric saw, occasionally cutting orifices in walls and inserting parts of his body into them. Usually his penis.

Why is the spectacle of grown-ups pretending to be kids so disturbing? Perhaps because the behaviour seems to point towards some hideous trauma from the subject’s actual childhood. Despite his insistence that his own upbringing was relatively normal, McCarthy consistently enters a heavy-breathing, grunting persona in his performances that evokes a young child playing alone when he thinks no one can see.

Childishness can be political too. Bunker Basement casts the former US president as a pre-verbal infant, larking around in grotesquely sexualised games with the Queen Mother and Osama Bin Laden. McCarthy’s message might not be as heavy handed as at first it appears; in fact, as critic Robert Storr has suggested, the actual message is the lack of message. The characters are simply following their basest, most primal instincts, which is pretty much what they do in public: politics, he says, is enacted in ‘an amoral state of nature, which no mask of decorum can hide or contain’.

Selling Out

In the 1990s, McCarthy grew disillusioned with the live performance art scene, and began to make sculptures in fibreglass or bronze, and later cast rubber, wax or clay. ‘I call them statues,’ he says, ‘which I know is kind of lame.’ To some, this seemed like a cynically commercial move; there was, and remains, a limited market for video, not to mention full-scale installations encrusted with dried ketchup and Hershey’s syrup. Those sceptics were quickly proved wrong. He soon rejected smooth and refined sculptures such as Tomato Heads (1994), preferring instead to gouge hideous deformities into the soft wax or clay forms left over when the bronzes had been cast. These he likes to combine with drippy resin, paint and piles of garbage.

McCarthy has also confounded his critics by ploughing his profits back into ever grander and more extravagant projects. Santa’s Chocolate Factory (2007) was a fully functioning production facility in Maccarone Gallery, New York, which churned out thousands of chocolate figurines of Santa Claus holding a butt plug, on sale for $100 a piece. A few hundred were bought, and the rest are now going stale in storage. According to the artist, the enterprise lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, which was more or less his intention. His inflatable sculptures, more experiments in extremes of scale than in public art, he calls ‘event sculptures’ – they’re expensive to make, but they’re far from permanent.

He currently employs some 40 studio assistants who specialize in casting, set-building, video and, increasingly, engineering and animatronics. He began experimenting with the latter in the 1980s. One of his recent works, earmarked for inclusion in his exhibition at London’s Hauser & Wirth gallery this autumn, is a motorized silicone statue of twin George W. Bushes sodomizing pigs. (‘I have these conversations with myself,’ he admits. ‘Dude, you can’t do that, it’s too blatant, stay away. But as soon as I starting thinking that I can’t, that’s when it becomes interesting.’)

Bad Children

These days, it is easy to identify a ‘school of McCarthy’ in contemporary art, from veteran figures such as Mike Kelley, the late Jason Rhoades and Jake and Dinos Chapman ­– all of whom have collaborated with McCarthy – through mid-career provocateurs like the German artist Jonathan Meese or the anarchic Austrian group Gelitin, all the way down to upstart youngsters such as New Yorkers Dan Colen, Nate Lowman and Ryan Trecartin. The school is co-ed, but only just; Sarah Lucas and Rachel Harrison are among the handful of female artists who have adapted McCarthy’s concerns to their own ends.

But it’s more interesting, to me at least, to trace McCarthy’s influence out into other, more populist spheres of culture. This, after all, is where ideas are introduced into daily currency, where minds are changed and where McCarthy’s insights might be put to use. The world of fashion, for example, consistently incorporates ideas from contemporary art in order to reinvigorate the ways we live. In Walter van Beirendonck’s autumn-winter 2011 collection, the designer cuts the sleeves and sides of men’s shirts and sweatshirts to make garments that look like ponchos. The repressed (and repressive) male silhouette is opened into something more feminine and responsive to the wearer’s mood. Just as McCarthy sees cutting into a wall as ‘a political act’, so too is cutting into a formal item of clothing. It allows what is ordinarily kept hidden to emerge onto the surface, like the hand shapes that van Beirendonck sews onto sweathshirts over the wearer’s heart. (McCarthy did something similar with Pants, in memory of E.C, 2008, when he made trousers that had a special pouch for the penis.)

When most people think of popular culture, however, they think of cinema and TV, where humiliation and debasement is a cornerstone of contemporary entertainment. Perhaps the most shining instance of the dissemination of McCarthy’s work is in the escapades of the Jackass crew, the bunch of skaters and clowns whose MTV videos led to three movies with the studio Paramount. Jackass exemplifies so many McCarthyite tropes: while these young white men are all heros of sorts, they openly revel in their puerility and apparent inadequacy for adult life. Bodily fluids emerge with upsetting frequency. Domestic family life is the foundation of a running gag in which Bam Margera terrorises his mother and his overweight father, turning his suburban family home into an anarchic approximation of one of McCarthy’s sets.

Men who are afraid to grow up have become staples for empathetic roles in film and television. If the comedic figure of the gentle, boyish man was ushered in by Tom Hanks in 1988’s Big, it has reached its apogee in the blubbering manchild of Will Ferrell and the other slobbish, directionless men who populate the films of Judd Apatow. Few men, it seems, feel that they can live up to the standards of their fathers’ generation, but neither do they want to.

If McCarthy’s exploits sound like the actions of an avant gardist, we might remember that the avant garde depends on the promise of future emancipation and enlightenment. McCarthy makes no such guarantees. Instead, he seems to be proposing a productive regression, rather than progression. And that’s what makes him truly an artist for our times.

First published: Wonderland, issue 24, September 2011