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|The Mechanical Id
by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
|With all the mayhem and corruption in the evening news, it seems unlikely that an artist could stir up much fuss with the odd painting or sculpture. Nevertheless, Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy is willing to give it a try. With robotic figures, stuffed animals, elaborate leftover sets and videos from his messy, Artaudian performances, McCarthy composes sculptural installations that stretch the boundaries of acceptance, let alone good taste. As he once said, "I've always had an interest in repression, guilt, sex and shit."
Naked mannequins topped with giant tomato heads, a bunny-headed boy with a phallus elongated like a noodle, a father instructing his son in more than casual relations with a goat, McCarthy's provocative works have received international acclaim and solo museum shows throughout Europe over the past decade. His first United States survey of 100 pieces from the past 30 years opens Nov. 12, 2000-Jan. 21, 2001, at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and is scheduled to appear at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, which organized the show.
New Museum director Lisa Phillips, who co-curated the show with senior curator Dan Cameron, says, "I think he is very important and has not had the recognition that he deserves." Although she approached many museums about taking the exhibition, McCarthy's loaded subject matter left many shaking their heads. His work, Phillips notes, "summons our primal fears and deals with sexual and societal taboos. It is often misunderstood or denigrated as adolescent misbehavior when it is so much more. But that is how people cope with the psychological intensity of it."
It is fitting that the exhibition should open at MoCA, where McCarthy got his first museum-level break in the 1992 exhibition "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s." MoCA's chief curator Paul Schimmel, who organized that show, says, "Paul's relation to the art world is quite unique in that he for the most part entered into national and international attention in the '90s simultaneously with a generation that was 30 years his junior, like Matthew Barney, Damien Hirst and Jason Rhodes. Those younger artists are looking at performance-based work of the '70s and mining that territory. Paul, however, relates to his own history in the '70s, which informs his work in a very unique way."
McCarthy's performances of the '70s and '80s were notorious events in which the artist simulated castration, childbirth and copulation, often covering himself in sloppy foodstuffs. He began using mechanical figures to execute his lurid performances in his breakthrough installation The Garden, which debuted in "Helter Skelter." McCarthy built a life-sized landscape from tree trunks once used on the set of the TV series Bonanza. Slightly concealed among the trees and bushes are figures of two partially clothed men, mechanically humping a tree and the earth.
Schimmel explains, "The graphic content of the work is its hopelessness. Metaphorically, it's man banging his head against a tree. There are no genitals. It's not erotic in any way. The hard part is confronting the dark, troubled, moral issues it brings up."
The Garden was purchased by New York art advisor and dealer Jeffrey Deitch and widely exhibited in Europe, leading to a surge in McCarthy's popularity there. Ironically, The Garden re-emerged last month in a fashion magazine as the setting for artist Vanessa Beecroft's staged photo of the Deitch stable.
Although many artists would be thrilled by such attention from the mainstream press, McCarthy is dedicated to lampooning consumerism and seems genuinely tortured over the episode. "When I saw it, I almost had a heart attack," he moans. "That was never the intention of the work."
McCarthy and his wife Karen, who has assisted with much of his work over the years, live in an airy, wood-frame house in a suburban neighborhood of Pasadena. A giant pine tree shades the yard and their dog Yogi can often be found sunning himself on the porch. It hardly looks like the crucible of an art that alludes to perverse sexual abuse and messy body functions.
During a recent visit, McCarthy, 55, sits with his coffee at the kitchen table, pouring over a stack of catalogues from his European shows. His gray hair is receding but worn shoulder-length, his blue eyes intense behind boxy tortoiseshell glasses, and he wears a rumpled black Levi shirt, cargo pants chopped at the knees and beige suede slippers.
The phone rings frequently with questions from his son Damon, 27, who is helping to install the show at MoCA. (His daughter Mara, 21, is away at college.) Asked about his post-Freudian concern with body functions, McCarthy chuckles slightly and says, "I certainly seem to be obsessed but I don't really know why. If it comes from memories, they are latent, which means I can't remember them."
The museum exhibition documents McCarthy's 20 years of performance art, including the notorious Bossy Burger. In 1991, McCarthy outfitted himself in a chef's costume and Alfred E. Newman mask and performed a cooking-show parody on a homey set once used for the TV series The Hogan Family. Ketchup and raw hamburger are transformed into a scene from a bloody massacre, captured on video for presentation on a monitor outside the production set, which is now an installation work. Described by Cameron as "a milestone in installation art of the 1990s," it merges McCarthy's "video content with its viewing conditions."
In another installation, titled Heidi: Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone, McCarthy worked with his frequent collaborator artist Mike Kelley to deconstruct Johanna Spyn's novel Heidi, with Kelley playing the Alpine lass and McCarthy playing her perverted grandfather. Dysfunctional domesticity is played out in an installation that melds a Swiss chalet with a copy of architect Adolf Loos' modernist American Bar in Vienna.
"There is this thing about consumption, consumerism and the use of a fantasy figure to permeates our culture as a conditioner," he says. "I point that out through the use of these characters, such as Heidi, figures which are fabrications that don't exist but are related to some sort of child conditioning. They are all about the culturalization of innocence."
McCarthy returns to the subject in his current exhibition of blown-up film stills and magazine covers conflating Heidi Fleiss, the Beverly Hills Madam, with Heidi in braids. Titled Heidi File, it is on view though Nov. 28 at the Patrick Painter Gallery in Santa Monica.
Art critic Carlo McCormick observes, "There was something intangibly L.A. about [McCarthy's pieces], a way of using the hidden tropes and agendas of the mass entertainment industry as the basic vernacular for the sickest kind of art making…. Innocence in essence is this artist's screen upon which to project the darkest depths of our cultural and personal perversity."
McCarthy concurs, "Parody and mimicry of Hollywood styles, especially B-movies, horror and porn films, are certainly part of it. It's part bad joke and part deconstruction of the media."
Hints of sexual perversity, repression and abuse are so prevalent in McCarthy's work that one can hardly help asking about his personal history. "I've thought about how much of my work deals with my history or how I grew up," he adds. "I think I grew up in a family that is not abusive. In fact, it was fairly liberal."
The artist was raised in Salt Lake City where his father worked in a grocery store while his "artistic and liberal" mother was a homemaker who encouraged McCarthy in his art. Raised in the Mormon faith and culture, McCarthy insists, "I don't think it was different from any other small community in America. Was it sexually repressed? Probably not much more than other towns in America in the '50s."
"I kept the issue of the Mormon Church out of my art because it was too much a way of pinpointing (my background) as opposed to what I think about issues of conditioning and consumerism in America."
Schimmel, who knows McCarthy well, speculates, "In a funny way, because he has such a whole life with great family pleasures and a strong sense of community, he is in a position to explore areas of the darker parts of the human psyche that in a way someone less stable and normal would be unable to do."
McCarthy studied art in high school and continued at a small agricultural college, then the University of Utah, which turned out to be a hotbed of progressive ideas. In the mid-'60s, he studied experimental filmmaking and began his first performances. Even his painting was process-oriented, as he applied black paint to canvas with his hands and then set the painting on fire.
McCarthy married Karen around that time and moved to San Francisco, where he transferred to the San Francisco Art Institute. After completing his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree there in 1969, he moved to Los Angeles to study film at the University of Southern California. Working in the interdisciplinary art and film program, he graduated with a master's degree in fine arts in 1973.
In the early '70s, his performances took place as repetitive actions, without a specific audience, and already involved the manipulation of viscous materials -- for instance, dipping a blanket in paint and motor oil and spinning around a room slapping paint against the walls and windows. In other performances, he used his penis and his face to make paintings.
McCarthy began wearing costumes and masks while using food to act out repulsive behavior. In the 1975 Sailor's Meat, he dressed in woman's lingerie and simulated sexual assaults with a pile of raw beef on a bare mattress in a skid row hotel. By the '80s, as performance art evolved towards cabaret, McCarthy began looking for surrogates to stage his exhausting dramas.
"The idea of replacing myself with a mechanized object began to interest me," he recalls. In 1984, he turned his attention to teaching performance and video at UCLA and joined the Rosamund Felsen Gallery. "What changed was the fact that I was able to afford to make the work, as pieces started to sell," he recalls. His ambition was first realized with The Garden, which spawned other sculptural manifestations of his long-held concerns.
"Much of my work is about the initiation from innocence to culture," he explains. "It's generational, meaning that blame cannot be specific. It's passed down. Where does the perception or action come from? It becomes you. You are it. Culturalized into absurdity. I'm in it, too."
Paul McCarthy, Nov. 12, 2000-Jan. 21, 2001, at the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Geffen Contemporary, 152 N. Central Avenue, Los Angeles, Ca.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.
Sponsored by AXA Nordstern Art Insurance Corporation.