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Collections> Browse Paul McCarthy

Paul McCarthy
Holdings (4)
1 photograph, 2 videotapes/videodiscs, 1 edition prints/proof

Wikipedia About Paul McCarthy

Paul McCarthy (born August 4, 1945), is a contemporary artist who lives and works in Los Angeles, California. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Paul McCarthy, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

To label Paul McCarthy’s forty-odd years of artistic output as “a body of work” would strain the use of the phrase. With its presumptions of a neatly wrapped-up oeuvre, the phrase is hopelessly inappropriate to describe the breadth of forms his practice has taken: a hole in the wall that’s a film, gagging-on-hot dogs performances, giant inflatable sculptures—let alone buffoonery about Osama bin Laden and the Queen of England. Yet the “body of work” metaphor would also be misplaced in suggesting a summary of the more literal corpora that inhabit McCarthy’s world. Here bodies inexorably gush—puking, shitting, bleeding, ejaculating, and giving birth in clownish acts of debauchery and depravity, slapstick sex, and sordid secrets.

McCarthy studied at the University of Utah in the late 1960s, making door-size paintings with black oil, and using rags and his hands as surrogate brushes. Several of the thirteen short films collected as Black and White Tapes (1970–1975/1993)—made while continuing his studies in California—extend a kind of perverse painting practice. In Face Painting—Floor, White Line (1972), for example, the artist drags himself across his studio floor, pouring paint in front of him, while in another tape he petulantly flogs walls with a paint-soaked sheet. Of these films, Ma Bell (1971) is most prescient of what was to come in McCarthy’s guise as a performer. While smothering each page of a Los Angeles telephone directory to make something resembling an oil-and-cotton wool lasagna, he began cackling and muttering, seemingly with no forethought, acting in character for the first time.

McCarthy’s trademark live performances often become well-lubricated, penis-fixated, tragicomic epics—some would last five hours or more—through an increasingly fluent language of costumes, props such as rubber masks and dolls, and foodstuffs like ketchup, mayonnaise, and raw meat. Deranged, improvised, yet repetitive tableaux were tempered with feral desire, castration narratives, and Oedipal trauma. In works such as Meat Cake (1974), Doctor (1978), Monkey Man (1980), and Popeye, Judge and Jury (1983), gender-morphing grotesques that mashed up the human with the nonhuman drew as much on the no-budget teen “slasher” movie as on the ambivalent heritage of the clown. Unlike the real blood-and-guts of the Vienna Actionists—who were concerned with quasi-religious rituals of communion and redemption—McCarthy dredged below the veneer of the “perfect” family and “proper” behavior with a knowingly bankrupt symbolism. In this primordial semiotic universe, “Daddy’s Sauce” was capable of representing both diaper-filling excrement and the taboos of incestuous desire.

McCarthy ceased live work in 1984, feeling that his performances had become too theatrical, too vaudevillian (he had preferred a small, invited audience). Focusing on the way in which history and folktales are framed by theme parks, television, and Hollywood, his vocabulary as a visual artist crystallized into a world in which kinetic mannequins depicted tree fornication and bestiality, and fluffy sculptures sported preposterous penises.

Documents (1995–1999) is a little-known photographic series prompted by an invitation to McCarthy to guest edit an issue of the French magazine Documents sur l’art and shown as part of the 2000 Walker Art Center–organized exhibition Let’s Entertain. Like a visual scrapbook of installation works such as Bavarian Kick (1987), Rear View (1991), Heidi (with Mike Kelley, 1992), Pinocchio Pipenose Householddilemma (1994), and Mechanized Chalet (1999), Documents’ eight panels of photographs abut apparent charm with latent malevolence. The work operates within a culture where the legacy of Nazi terror in World War II Europe can emerge as easily via the camp “Do-Re-Mi” of the movie The Sound of Music as it can in the defense of O.J. Simpson. A shot of a Bavarian castle, which might adorn a chocolate box, is put on the same visual field with one of a waxwork Hitler waving merrily from his car. The fiberglass peaks of Disney’s Magic Kingdom clash with Tirolean postcard views, and giant busts of an aptly Wagnerian Siegfried and tiger-taming Roy encounter snapshots of Albert Speer’s master plans or greet a Mickey mascot.

The status of the photograph as a document, as the unquestioned bearer of truth, becomes desperately muddled in these juxtapositions, which suggest that Disney’s corporatization of childhood is just as tyrannical as Hitler’s repurposing of Teutonic folklore. As the artist has written of this piece: “The initial premise was to investigate Hitler’s Germany; the Paris, France, Exposition of 1900; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Disneyland, Anaheim, California, each location being a particular vision of Utopia and constituting a geographical straight line from East to West.”1 The pitch-perfect, pitch-black tone of Documents seems to elude, just barely, the impression that it has a lesson to teach—it is already too embroiled in conspiracy to parse any blame.

  1. Artist’s statement, circa 2001 (Walker Art Center Archives).

Andrews, Max. “Paul McCarthy.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center


biography Paul McCarthy, Let’s Entertain: Life’s Guilty Pleasures Walker Art Center, 2000

Starting in the early 1970s in Los Angeles, Paul McCarthy gained a reputation for creating grueling, psychologically charged events in which suggestive foodstuffs–including ketchup, mayonnaise, and hot dogs–and intimations of bodily functions played important roles. Largely improvised, his performances and works spare neither the taboo nor the sacred cow, desecrating everything from the family to colonialism to painting. Like other performance artists of his generation, such as Vito Acconci and Chris Burden, McCarthy has tested limits that often seemed as much physical and social as aesthetic. His work explores notions of artifice and spectacle through aberrant behavior that has little obvious political, cultural, or psychological purpose. His transgressions can also act as a tool, however, to provoke viewers to examine the ties between the sacred and the profane, politics and leisure, morality and decadence. Let’s Entertain features several dozen photographs from an ongoing series, Documents (1995-1999), in which the artist photographed seemingly innocent amusement parks and Las Vegas architectural elements and juxtaposes these images with Nazi-era city plans and Nazi memorabilia actively collected but often hidden from public view. In McCarthy’s viewfinder, these elements congeal into an ambiguous, slightly surreal, re-presentation of the heretofore familiar. As we confront these varied, often disturbing, images of Americana, we come face to face with the alienated spectacle of the American dream. He is also represented by the video Fresh Acconci (1995), a collaboration with Mike Kelley.

Paul McCarthy biography from Let’s Entertain: Life’s Guilty Pleasures, Walker Art Center, 2000.