BY Michael Duncan in Features | 05 MAY 93
Featured in
Issue 10

Daddy's Little Helper

Michael Duncan on Paul McCarthy

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BY Michael Duncan in Features | 05 MAY 93

Paul McCarthy has been spinning, spewing, spitting, shitting, pouring and pooping in performances for a good 25 years but only recently have McCarthy's robotic, mechanical tableaux-cum-sculptures been exposed to a world wide audience, unaware of his seminal role as a West Coast performance artist. It was Helter Skelter, the Museum of Contemporary Art's 1991 show, that simplistically labelled one group of Los Angeles artists as 'bad boys' for their fractured view of the ongoing war between bewildered Western culture and shellshocked nature. Within this group of L.A. artists, McCarthy must be considered as some sort of dysfunctional father figure - an ironic one, to say the least, since his own work regularly features woozily crazed leaders, psychotic teachers, and demented daddies who dismember their disobedient babies.

McCarthy's first performances in the late 60s were physical actions like spinning, running, and eating, repeated - sometimes literally - ad nauseam. Process-oriented, they grew out of work by Fluxus, Allan Kaprow, and Yves Klein whose infamous leap McCarthy himself appropriated in Leap (1968). Unlike most performance artists who see their work as an outgrowth of sculpture, McCarthy was trained as a painter and he began to use paint in his body-oriented performances as the medium for a pure, no-holds-barred Abstract Expression. In Painting Face Down (1973), McCarthy lay on a floor applying a bucket of white paint with his face and body to create a thick 30 foot line across the length of a room.

Paintings using his face and penis as brushes led to the use of other liquids as expressive media for performances. Employing ketchup, hand cream and mayonnaise as kinds of masks, McCarthy began creating strange scatological vignettes which reduced bodily processes like eating and shitting to their essence as raw, animalistic acts. As milk and meat joined his performing repertoire, foodstuff took on metaphorical properties, to be read variously as semen, vomit, blood, excrement and communion wine.

Moving from simple body processes to the sexual act in a literally seminal work, Sailor's Meat (1975), McCarthy dressed in shredded women's lingerie and ensconced himself in a skid row Los Angeles hotel. There, on a bare mattress, witnessed only by a small group of onlookers and a video crew, he simultaneously sexually assaulted and was assaulted by a pile of raw meat. McCarthy is able to sanctify his disturbing and disturbed performances by a distanced, trance-like demeanour that is truly uncanny. His actions are more like rituals than theatre pieces; traditional ideas of catharsis don't seem to apply.

The character of, as McCarthy puts it, 'the buffoon power figure who was pretending to be female but is obviously male,' led to performances featuring grotesque authority figures like the Sea Captain, the Teacher, and the Grandfather. These culturally-based personae tapped into both public metaphors and personal history in a way that even McCarthy was not able to sort out. His buffoon characters indulged in absurd, obsessive taboo acts which were surrogate urges of both the audience and McCarthy's unconscious. In Death Ship (1981) McCarthy's tyrant Sea Captain of an 'Aryan Ship of Death' directly implicated the audience in the grim action through rote sing-alongs and crew participation.

As McCarthy's performances began to be videotaped, the record of the performance became more and more important to him, both as an artefact and as a distancing device. McCarthy relished the idea that audiences were not just watching him perform, they were watching him being recorded. In a recent interview he pointed out how this process was commonplace in Los Angeles where you can regularly drive down the street and see a tape or a movie being shot. His work depends on the audience's awareness of its remove from reality. One gallery performance had the audience seated in a front room watching video monitors of a live performance in a rear space.

These ideas fully coalesced in the recent piece Bossy Burger (1992) which was performed strictly for video; no audience besides the cameraman was present. The piece is a mock cooking lesson for making ketchup and baby doll soup, relentlessly taught by a splattered, muttering McCarthy in a chef's hat, Alfred E. Newman mask and clown shoes. For the gallery installation, McCarthy placed the monitor just outside the actual set - a discarded diner from a commercial TV sitcom - with the relics from the performance. Spectators watch the video at the site of the wreckage, the scene of the crime.

The idea of film has always been an important factor in McCarthy's work. He graduated from the University of Southern California's interdisciplinary programme in art and film and has professed a strong interest in Hollywood - especially in the way it transforms reality into artifice and kitsch. He has a collection of stills culled from the film memorabilia stores on Hollywood Boulevard where he also purchased most of the masks used in his performances. In early performances McCarthy stated he would often imitate poses from 'B-soft porns and real cheesy B-movies.' The Grandfather figure in many recent performances (including Heidi...) wears a mask of the old man in Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the scion of the famed cannibal family. McCarthy has stated that he relishes the tourist's idea of Hollywood epitomised in the Hollywood Wax Museum and memorabilia shops, where tourists find 'something outside of the films themselves, a physical thing to take home and own - a souvenir.' His own performance relics mirror this objectification and fetishising process; his battered ketchup-stained dolls and masks have a frightening afterlife as surviving fragments from ritualistic crimes against nature - and culture.

McCarthy has regularly used cartoon figures like Popeye, Olive Oyl, and a rat-like Mickey Mouse to act out scatological primal scenes that are like candid glimpses into the 'toon world's afterhours. He has long been fixated on L.A.'s own Disneyland: 'It's the idea of a Shangri-La, this walled-in, isolated city that is a heaven-on-earth where everything is clean and feels safe.' The theme park's kitsch 'Americana idea of Europe' - its Matterhorn and cute imitation mountain villages - inspired McCarthy's fixation on Bavaria and the 'Swiss Miss' Alps. This setting, complete with edelweiss, lederhosen, and, most importantly, goats, is the perfect stylised location for him to examine the weird, kitsch idea of nature that American society endorses.

The Alpine setting was fully explored in McCarthy's recent videotape and installation in Vienna's Galerie Krinzinger, a collaborative adaptation with Mike Kelley of Johanna Spyri's novel, Heidi. In the novel a citified 'Sick Girl' discovers the recuperative joys of mountain life in the bucolic Alpine cottage of Grandfather and Heidi. Like the Wooster Group's deconstructions of classic theatre texts, McCarthy and Kelley use the novel's narrative framework both as a structure to subvert and expand.

Heidi... keys into familiar concerns of both artists. As a backdrop to the Heidi saga, Kelley performs another of his dialectic juggling acts, sending-up self-proclaimed 'false belief systems' in a Socratic parody starring a puppet Frog and Bee who argue the split between 'Nature' and 'The Law.' Later, wearing braids, Heidi (Kelley), inspired by Grandfather's (McCarthy's) lecture on aesthetics, performs a ridiculous, sanctimonious dance -- an ode to nature -- which not only parodies modern choreography, but the whole idea of using the body as a medium for artistic expression.

Heidi's cast of characters is tailor-made for McCarthy's psycho-sexual deconstruction of family relationships. Grandfather is another of McCarthy's tyrant/teacher figures eager to instruct Heidi and the goatherd Peter in the horny ways of the world. The Sick Girl, a wax dummy wearing a Madonna mask, is literally fragmented and dismembered as she 'recuperates' under Grandfather's skewed guidance. The tape's trouble climaxes when Grandfather quarrels with Heidi about her violation of 'nature' by ornamenting herself with a tattoo. Adolf Loos' essay 'Ornament and Crime' is quoted to argue that ornament is the enemy of civilisation, the sign of erotic impulses which may be natural in the child but are 'degenerate in the adult.' This absurd, sexually charged moral struggle ends with Grandfather's depraved romp through the chalet in pursuit of the doubled, fragmented body parts of Heidi and the Sick Girl. All are prey for the delectation of the demented Grandfather.

McCarthy's interest in B-movies is evident in the videotape's cheesy dissolves, slow motion, and freeze frame effects typical in low budget horror films. McCarthy pointed to the work's similarity to the genre of American horror films 'where if your car runs out of gas you end up at the farmhouse of a family in the backwoods where they cut you up. And in the Alps if your car breaks down, you end up with Heidi and Grandpop feeding you porridge.' The installation included three bulletin boards filled with postcard references for the video's imagery which make the piece seem the apotheosis of all the body art ever made: represented were works by everyone from Edward Burne-Jones to John Miller, Hans Bellmer to Kiki Smith, Egon Schiele to Gilbert & George. McCarthy and Kelley conceived of the installation as a separate entity from the videotape. Yet like the Bossy Burger set, the Heidi... chalet and sculptural pieces played off the inspired havoc of the associated video.

In his current work, McCarthy effortlessly leaps from genre to genre, from tape to installation to drawing to sculpture. The ink drawings are fragile sketches of imaginary actions and fantasy operations executed with the same raw intensity as a performance. The sculptural installations have a similar conceptual rigour which justifies their form. These pieces grew out of McCarthy's use of mannequins and dolls as participants in his performances. In a series of early 80s performances McCarthy dressed as a football or basketball mascot and afterwards stuffed the big bear or rabbit costume he wore and arranged it in a recognisable pose from the performance, mirroring the idea of wax museum figures commemorating historical events.

These tableau sculptures led to mechanical installations featuring moving robotic figures that obsessively repeat actions similar to those in one of McCarthy's performances. The Garden (1991), a full scale artificial outdoor set takes man's metaphorical love of nature to the limit with one of its two zombie nature lovers mechanically fucking a tree and the other lying face down, fucking the earth. On approaching, both men are obscured by artificial trees and boulders, yet the sound of mechanical motion is evident. The viewer guiltily searches through the overgrowth to catch the culprits in their primal acts. In Cultural Gothic (1993) a robotic father has procured an unsuspecting stuffed goat as a sexual learning tool for his young son. In a programmed series of nods and nudges, the son is coerced into giving it a go. This slowly moving scenario is an object lesson in the paternalistic displacement of power for its own sake.

McCarthy has planned a number of large, kinetic non-figurative works, one of which was realised in Turin's Castello di Rivara, The Bang Bang Room (1992). Coming out of the idea of a Disneyland funhouse, this chaotic room with continuously slamming doors and unpredictable moving walls was a case study of interactive entropy - here, the centre does not hold and the room is all exits. Other projects in this vein include proposals for a 13 foot spinning teacup and a full-scale room whose walls and floor open simultaneously, all folding into each other.

McCarthy's newest work is planned as a series of sculptures centred around the idea of the totem. His symbolic deities are 15 foot fibreglass trees which incorporate giant plush squirrels or rabbits which have been altered with certain key human features: faces, hands, penises. Other giant plush animals are to be creepily piled on each other's shoulders in totem pole fashion. McCarthy points to Michael Graves' notorious, dwarf-infested facade for the Disney Studios building as an example of the way cartoon figures are accepted as cultural totems on an everyday level. Yet McCarthy's eerie sculptures go further, presenting animals that are literally half-human stand-ins for our 'baser instincts'. Perhaps the distinction between animal and human is not one we really want to make.

McCarthy's work has clearly been nurtured by what he calls L.A.'s 'Pollyanna ugliness,' its penchant for kitsch and artifice. Throughout his varied oeuvres, his blunt presentation of mess and perversity is serious and oddly sincere. Obvious ironies gradually fold in on themselves as the viewer moves beyond shock and into contemplation of a baldly presented metaphor. With frightening clarity, McCarthy exposes the 'irreality' of our self-conscious, media-drenched society. Often mistaken for simple-mindedness, the blunt, hard-edge of his work is a committed effort to strip cultural metaphors to the bone, leaving us with a grisly comedy to rival the work of Samuel Beckett.

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