BY Collier Schorr in Reviews | 04 MAR 97
Featured in
Issue 33

Paul McCarthy

BY Collier Schorr in Reviews | 04 MAR 97

Imagine this. You haven't seen a Spielberg movie. You haven't been wowed by a herd of 'raptors or a cow flying through the window. You haven't seen a commercial for Toy Story. Well then, Paul McCarthy's spectacular Westworld slapstick drama of six vignettes would surely astound and amaze you. Past The Water Trough (all works 1995-96), The Teepee, Indian and behind The Corral (all self-explanatory), is The Saloon, where a gunfighter is polishing the metal rod between his legs. Literally. Two dancehall girls (one with a cat's head) bend over, with their big pink arses in the air. A pig-headed bartender looks on, as we do, mildly and momentarily amused. This is a show that moves ­ not you, but itself; a compressed and polished carnival of plastic hide-the-salami. Bodies that are half toy and half robot, made out of stuff like fibreglass, logic controls, pneumatic cylinders and silent air compressors, act out spoofs of Hollywood's grimmest opera ­ The Western.

The Bunkhouse is the second piece one comes across, but since it's the one that really moves ­ across the room on a pair of tracks ­ it would be the trailer if the show were a film. Unlike the thrusting movements of copulation, this motion is affectless. It moves because it can, and its mechanical dance of inches only serves to assert this. The bunkhouse, like all the other objects in the room, looks like a blown-up toy, the kind that is part of one of those inevitably disappointing, too-good-to-be-true sets of 1,000 individual pieces. As you peer into its window, poking its narrative with your subjective gaze, another one-trick cowboy is kitted out with a metal rod. This one dabbles in optic penetration with a naked cowboy who is on his knees in the customary receiving position, offering his eye socket as the bullseye. As the pair goes at it, a man and a woman are fast asleep in the set of beds that rise with every snore. The man's the one pitching a tent under his blanket. The penis, in this show, is like a tic the artist can't seem to medicate into submission; it keeps on popping up.

Conjuring picturesque visions of campfire coffee cuddles and saddle romps, cowboy poetry and livestock lullabies, McCarthy's robotic antics are nowhere near as shocking as, say, his video chef transforming foodstuffs into a metaphor for sexual orgies and gluttony. Rather, they caution us that we have been overfed on camp sex, fake sex and sexless sex. Porn, a mainstay of our time, and all those TV specials explaining how films from Star Wars to 101 Dalmatians were made, have already taught us everything we need to know about mechanical operations.

Sex is worn vinyl in the world. It is hawked every day in artworks that employ genitals and breasts to illustrate anger, lust, alienation, difference, identity, displacement. Sex has been used in the 90s both to replace itself and to substitute its charming radicalisation. While sex, as a subject rather than an object, has been useful in bringing the discussion of Otherness out of the closet and launching many deserved careers, it is used up, whittled down to a toothpick, and McCarthy is only one of a number that have been hacking on it lately. This is not to say that one may not hint around it, suggest it, allude to it, but when artists depend on it to shock, devastate or repulse us, they make the mistake of sentimentalising what has just passed. McCarthy is one of the most influential artists of his generation. The grotesque and the absurd have always been his to ransack, but high-production pastiches of Hollywood tableaux only remind us how little there is that we haven't already seen. How little there is to turn us on.

It is precisely this deficiency that makes Indian the most compelling work of McCarthy's show. Her huge, shiny Pocahontas head is unadorned by costume or scenario, but totes a male head like a papoose. A pair of robotic arms, connected to a visible metal armature, flail and then come to a stuttering halt. This sad and freakish two-headed puppet is alone in a room sans sexual innuendo. Unlike the cowboys, the Indians have been removed from their teepee, which is exhibited in a separate space. While the Indian girl is the picture of Caucasian cartoon loveliness, her male burden is hawk-nosed, a face of protruding bones and angles. In mimicking Hollywood's distribution of white movie star facial features, McCarthy builds a small totem to celluloid representation. Indian is especially potent, because it stands outside the cheapo thrills that the grander works dole out. That she doesn't function properly, up to speed, is really the antidote to the show's other vaudevillian skits. Her poorly played tom-tom, sounding like a battery powered record player on its last juice, plumbs Hollywood's cliché of the Indian. There is no rape of a white hostage girl. The Buffalo Bill star, Chief Sitting Bull, is not smoking a peace pipe. This work, both shameless and affective in the melancholy it projects, is to the works as a flag is to an upcoming roadside theme restaurant.

The strings this show plucks are basic ones: representation and mis-representation, Hollywood fantasy and the desire to overturn convention. But this is no Caligula, because there is no real pleasure. And no Close Encounters because there is no moment of disbelief. And although the project is immense and the production values high, McCarthy seems uninterested in anything other than the spectacle of broad entertainment. The naughtiness for which LA boy artists are renowned is here, but the perfection of execution dilutes its impact. His earlier work continues to disturb, because gross will always be gross ­ it is the one thing we are apt to always turn away from. McCarthy, like so many other (usually male) artists is wooed by what he unravels, falling victim to the illusion of his own achievement.

Collier Schorr is an artist and photographer based in New York, USA.