Mayor Giuliani may react with shock to artworks, but it’s rare for those in the art world to be shocked by art. Startled is usually the best we can do. Either we’re the most well-adjusted crowd around, or we’re out of touch. But as I walked through Paul McCarthy’s spotty, bang-up retrospective at the New Museum, I was shocked—not only at how abject and totally sicko his art can be, but at how few people seemed offended by it, and how many appeared mesmerized.
For those of us who have spent years fending off McCarthy’s blitzkrieging blend of sculpture, performance, photography, and Freudian regression; who have wondered whether his messiness mightn’t just be an artsy version of David Letterman throwing tubs of mayonnaise off buildings; and who consider his gross-out mechanical animations little more than dirty Disney, March and April will be cruel months. That’s because McCarthy is all over the place—literally and figuratively.
His retrospective fills the New Museum, and his giant 1991 installation, The Garden—a dystopic animatronic landscape of earth- and tree-fucking weirdos—occupies Deitch Projects (18 Wooster Street, through April 7). Also at Deitch is Saloon #1, his id-wrenching video starring a bottomless bar babe on all fours talking incest. The Box, a full-scale tilted rendition of his studio, can be seen in an uptown office atrium (590 Madison Avenue, at 56th Street, through April 20, sponsored by the Public Art Fund). And if that’s not enough, at Luhring Augustine (531 West 24th Street, through April 7) there’s Santa Chocolate Shop, his contribution to the 1997 Whitney Biennial, a large, tipped-over cottage with video projections of a red-nosed reindeer humping an elf and a demented Santa shitting chocolate into the mouth of a female helper.
These shows reveal—in at times excruciatingly nauseating depth—an artist who has to be considered and learned from, if not exactly embraced. McCarthy’s art is hardcore and hard to take. It’s bitter, monotonous, histrionic, and juvenile. His stories have no moral, his performances barely any structure. There’s little variety or nuance to his art, and his babbling, nincompoop characters are often psychos. In many ways, all his performances are one performance, and this ur-performance can feel limited, hammy, and vicious. Still, McCarthy’s art has a lot to give. Although his expressionism feels dated in these cleaner, more cosmopolitan times, he’s proof there’s a dark side to modernism. A sort of amalgamated reincarnation of Egon Schiele, George Grosz, Ed Kienholz, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, he’s a corrective to art history’s fondness for—in Celine’s acerbic words—”shitless epics.” McCarthy’s art is nothing if not full of shit.
Like Gilbert & George, and unlike a number of equally or more talented conceptualists, McCarthy has found ways to make his work both visceral and visual. Although many of his objects are clunky, and his leftover performance sets often read like evidentiary fragments, his videos abound in a backdoor, Rabelaisian beauty. His color is voluptuous, and his mixture of exaggeration, entertainment, food, and flat-footed irony is consummate. McCarthy is the anti-Walt Whitman of postwar American art—an artist who sings the body horrific, whose schizoid song of himself is as caustic as it is dogged. A paradoxically mild-mannered barbarian, a sort of sad-sack Charles Manson, he makes concrete Whitman’s vow to “speak the password primeval.” While Whitman savored “the scent of these arm-pits, an aroma finer than prayer,” McCarthy desecrates that prayer and cannibalizes himself, his smells, and his bodily fluids. A prickly, uneven artist, McCarthy’s a gargoyle on the cathedral of modernism, a hobgoblin of icky excess. As a nonfan, I don’t like McCarthy any more or less after this recent immersion, but I respect him much more.
Now 55 and looking like the demented geezer he often plays in his videos, McCarthy is an amazingly original American voice who probably wouldn’t have happened at all if he hadn’t happened in Los Angeles. Having settled there in 1969, he displays an unmistakable anti-New York, West Coast skepticism in many early photographs of his late-’60s-early-’70s “actions” (the more genteel term performance wasn’t yet in wide usage). Here, McCarthy jabs at abstract expressionism: He plasters his head in a wall, whips paint-soaked rags around a room, smears himself in excrement, and uses his face as a paintbrush.
By the mid ’70s, he was doing live performances for tiny, embarrassed audiences or executing activities alone in his basement. These performances might feature McCarthy, often dressed in women’s panties or slips, spreading ketchup or saliva all over his otherwise naked body, having sex with his bed, or just beating the crap out of himself. In Tubbing (1974), wearing a wig, he performs a kind of self-rape, jamming sausages into his mouth and ass. All this is pretty scurrilous, probably misogynist, fairly funny, and somewhat hypnotic.
With his themes of bestiality, sodomy, birth, and masturbation in place—but his art still lacking—McCarthy steps things up in the ’80s. He evolves a cast of characters as well as a number of primitive protonarratives. He dons grandfather, sea captain, and Nixon, Reagan, and Carter masks; later, he wears animal getups. However, had he stopped making art in 1989, I suspect, there’d be no New York McCarthy fest, and he most likely would have slipped between the cracks into the realm of the merely kinky. But McCarthy goes for it in the ’90s. His 1991 breakthrough video installation, Bossy Burger, is a lunatic ballet of food and sex enacted on the discarded sitcom set of Family Affair. A powerful and powerfully perverted work, Burger is a porno-kitsch farce/burlesque/psychodrama/cooking show; in it, McCarthy channels the first of many characters from American fantasy life: Alfred E. Neuman.
For me his high point is Painter. In this 1995 one-hour video, he gets depravity, degradation, and vulgarity to sync perfectly with pathos, plot, and character. We see McCarthy, pantless, dressed in a painter’s smock, a bulbous nose, and a blond wig, enacting primal scenes of creativity: painting with huge brushes; dragging around giant tubes marked “Red” and “Shit”; muttering, “I can’t do this”; murmuring, “De Kooning, De Kooning.” He rants at his female dealer, hacks off his fingertip, looks miserable sitting next to art collectors, and stoops as an art critic sniffs his rear. Painter is so uncannily accurate it should be required viewing for every art student.
Using actors—as he does in Painter, Santa, and his so-so collaborations with Mike Kelley, Heidi and Fresh Acconci—is a great idea for McCarthy. It expands his art, gets him beyond narcissism, and allows him to plumb other ids. But after 30 years of shtick, McCarthy’s work still feels stuck in its own devices, paraphernalia, and pseudo-rituals. Judging from the looks of his gigantic public sculpture, The Box, McCarthy thinks so, too. In this huge, upended replica of his studio with more than 3000 objects attached, the artist is in extreme search mode. A whatever-it-takes work, The Box is a grandly self-abnegating bulimic gesture—a total sculptural purging. Its bluntness, bravery, and desperation suggest McCarthy’s search may yet bear fruit.