The McCarthy Era

It’s difficult to take the premise of the currentPaul McCarthy retrospective at MOCA Geffen -- that McCarthy is a virtually unknown artist and that this show is rescuing him from obscurity -- too seriously. This might have played in 1990, when McCarthy was still a fringe cult figure of L.A. performance art, but after 1992‘s high-profile ”Helter Skelter“ show, with McCarthy’s shrub-fucking animatronic installation, The Garden, and his subsequent move into sculptural work and collaborative performances with Mike Kelley, he has been essentially an L.A. art star in commercial exile in Europe. The pitch is partly explained by the fact that the show was assembled by the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York (where it travels next year) and is addressed largely toward converting the New York art world that has admittedly given McCarthy short shrift. While the blatancy of this campaigning makes the usual claims of indifference toward New York‘s opinion of L.A. smell like so much sour grapes, there’s an appropriately nauseating dysfunctionality to the whole dynamic that plays well into McCarthy‘s creepy, hilarious work.

As the exhibit shows, McCarthy came into his own as an artist when he moved on from his accomplished early formalconceptual routines -- sometimes overly reminiscent of Baldessari, Nauman, et al. -- and started exploring, with a distinctively theatrical and narrative bent, uneasy domestic psychology. For the first half of his career, McCarthy’s work consisted of performances and the videos and photographs that resulted from them, here arranged in large framed grids. By the mid-‘70s, McCarthy had stumbled onto a Rudolf-Schwarzkogler1-lost-in-the-supermarket shtick involving elaborate juxtapositions of the artist’s erogenous zones with hot dogs, sausage, raw hamburger, ketchup, mustard, mayo and a variety of other household items. McCarthy soon realized the expediency of staging his performances for selective audiences, and the documentation of the work took on greater importance. At the same time, his narrative vocabulary expanded with the use of cartoonish latex masks and a repertoire of pop-cultural props. Becoming ever more extreme in his use of psychosexual material and gross-out fraternity-initiation cuisine, McCarthy developed a reputation as something like the Krafft-Ebing of prop comedy. By the late ‘80s, he had begun constructing both elaborate sets for his performances and the mechanized sculptural tableaux that garnered him tremendous notoriety in the following decade. In addition to the tree-fucking, dirt-fucking, goat-fucking, barrel-fucking, eye-fucking Pasolini theme-park robotics, McCarthy had become established enough in the wake of ”Helter Skelter“ to find a steady market for relatively conventional sculptures, such as the blind bunny-headed man with the 50-foot penis (Spaghetti Man, 1993) that adorns MOCA’s promotional banner.

The usual take on McCarthy‘s work is that it is shocking and transgressive, and those who aren’t entirely repulsed or offended often take refuge in the idea that the work possesses a redeeming social critique underlying the ambiguity of the artist‘s incestuous and condiment-lubricated violence. And while the work certainly bears up to this interpretation, it is at once more immediate and more complex than such euphemisms would indicate. One key to the work’s power -- generally overlooked in favor of the more sensational narrative content -- is its formal strength. From his foolish undergraduate attempt in Salt Lake City to re-create second-story man Yves Klein‘s photographically fabricated Leap Into the Void (1960; McCarthy’s re-creation, 1968) to his self-constructing Mechanized Chalet (1999), McCarthy‘s work has masterfully explored the quandary of the artistic gesture, racking up an encyclopedic inventory of attempts to thwart, transcend or automatize the intentionality of performing a creative act. Part of what makes the performance videos so compelling is the hypnotic outsider choreography of McCarthy’s movements -- falling somewhere between repetition-compulsion disorder and Samuel Beckett‘s late video work. But, as with much of the supposedly shocking content in McCarthy’s work, the tabloid impact is not the most lasting one; the rocking, pacing, humping and stroking actions that make up McCarthy‘s performances and motorized sculptures are utterly familiar to parents and primate ethologists, and McCarthy finally owes as much to the up-and-down-and-back-and-forth structuralism of artist-filmmaker Michael Snow as to the gooshy expressionism of the Viennese Aktionists.

After all, shit and piss and sex and violence aren’t really bad things; it‘s just that a lot of people learn to agree they’re bad. Most of American society seems to cling to some Victorian concept of art as the epitome of a human evolution that leaves the contingencies of the body behind, freeing us to contemplate the Sublime, with the pubic hair airbrushed out. Even among those who have superficially accepted the way-out ideas of Freud and Darwin, there‘s a deeply armored queasiness and shame about excretions and loss of control that all the academic discourse and coffeehouse chitchat in the world doesn’t even dent. But just because McCarthy violates this emperor‘s-new-clothes taboo doesn’t mean that his work is generated by -- or is even commenting on -- such puritan hang-ups. Time and again, while viewing the outrageously gooey sexualized slapstick of McCarthy‘s performance videos, I found myself thinking that most kids I know would be delighted by them, find them outrageously funny and generous in their conspiratorial mischievousness. It’s apparent, too, that there is a progression in McCarthy‘s output that mirrors his own experiences as a father. The foreboding air of early work like Class Fool (1976) -- where the ketchup-smeared, dolly-groined artist hops naked and mute across a slippery gallery floor, frequently crashing into chairs and spectators -- gives way to the practiced cooing and vertiginous cartoon Freudianism of Bossy Burger and Heidi, shot through with bizarre tenderness and extravagant humor. Certainly most first-time viewers won’t feel comfortable enough to engage with McCarthy‘s work on its own level. Much of the art world doesn’t either.

A case in point is Heidi 2, an ostensible sequel to McCarthy and Mike Kelley‘s installationvideo of 1992, made by young New York artists Sue de Beer and Laura Parnes, on view at LACE. A two-screen video projection with a sort-of installation of foam chairs, Heidi 2: The Unauthorized Sequel has its moments. There is the splendid puke sequence, the inspired casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as Peter, the amusing postproduction subtitle commentary by a computer-animated frog and bunny, and the powerful climactic self-caesarean Teletubbification that Heidi Jr. blithely undergoes. But the whole package is sloppy and inferior. What dialogue there is, is stilted and uninspired. The frog and bunny particularly pale next to their sock-puppet models from the original (scripted, I suspect, by the always acerbic Kelley). There are a surprising number of boring undergrad-video-class lags in action for such a short work, and a shallow and formulaic reversal of gender concerns that doesn’t credit the complexity of its source. In spite of a priori claims to the contrary, the parts that work do so only as homage or parody of the original, and then only in a winking, self-conscious way. Finally, the absence of McCarthy and Kelley‘s formal strengths and powerful and coherent psychological impetus makes Heidi 2’s technical shortcomings truly grating. Apart from the high points already lifted, there‘s only a slight and unconvincing frisson of au courant authorial indeterminacy to suggest that Heidi 2 is anything but a cheap, sensationalist (albeit successful) attempt to break into the art world by stealing the superficial vocabulary of someone else’s work and saying, ”Aren‘t we postmodern?“

From the Los Angeles perspective, the Paul McCarthy museum retrospective is a chance to see work by yet another local hero who never shows locally -- McCarthy’s last real Los Angeles gallery show was in 1994, when his polygenital Tomato Heads were seen at Rosamund Felsen Gallery. Since then, it‘s been occasional scraps of photodocumentation, or editions. The concurrent show at Patrick Painter Inc. gallery is typical: Alpine post cards and Heidi Fleiss magazine covers blown up to collectible size, desultorily if humorously modified by the artist, and hung out to dry. Much better, though less in keeping with expectations of outrageousness, are the suite of Santa Claus drawings in the backroom; McCarthy’s disconcertingly gifted draftsmanship peppers the MOCA show as well. (Unfortunately, the Painter show closes at the end of the day on Wednesday, November 22, but if you make it out to Bergamot Station, check out the utterly convincing photographic work of one of McCarthy‘s cited influences -- softcore-movie auteur Russ Meyer, whose show at Mark Moore Gallery accompanies the long-awaited publication of his three-volume autobiography, A Clean Breast.)

In spite of the fact that many of the MOCA installations are incomplete -- the set from the hilarious Painter (1995) video was trashed en route to the Venice Bienalle, the owners of the Pinochio Pipenose Householddilemma (1994) set declined to loan the audience-participation costumes included originally, and even Spaghetti Man almost didn’t make it because of severe molting -- this is the best and only chance those of us not among the jet set have of seeing the real work of, yes, ”one of the most important and influential American artists working today.“ Even if he finally makes it big in New York.

1 A Viennese performance artist whom Robert Hughes reported to have cut off his penis and jumped to his death for art‘s sake, but in fact had only made photos using models simulating various mutilations (as seen in MOCA’s ”Out of Actions“) and committed suicide for personal reasons.

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