"Tomato Heads," Paul McCarthy's new exhibition at Rosamund Felsen, represents a departure for Los Angeles' eminence grise of the grotesque. McCarthy is best-known (though hardly well-enough) for the performances, films and videos he has created since the late 1960s. These works are fiercely idiosyncratic: simultaneously revolting and liberating, chaotic and finely calibrated, visceral and ironic.
Bodily fluids, blood, saliva, sperm and vomit, are represented by buckets of ketchup, mounds of raw hamburger and pots of greasy hand creams. In other instances, such fluids appear undisguised--in the process of being excreted, rudely dangling from orifices, or boldly making their way back inside.
Wearing a cheap wig and a gruesomely smiling mask, McCarthy has long personified an impossible-to-romanticize brand of abjection. His work messes with critical commonplaces, despoils philosophical niceties, and makes ketchup-soused mincemeat of neat psychoanalytic scenarios. In "Tomato Heads," however, McCarthy has cleaned up his act--and the results are somewhat disheartening. Within the antiseptic gallery space, McCarthy's newly sanitized perversity is far too comfortable, trading on the cute rather than the uncanny.
This is not to say that there aren't shocks here of a more sanguine sort. The room is dominated by three life-sized, rubbery mannequins, each clothed in a turtleneck sweater--but no pants; and each sporting an enormous, red, tomato head--complete with delicate, green sprout. One figure has two flesh-toned, plastic vaginas for eyes; a prosthetic penis for a nose; and a yellow cube for a mouth. Another has a carrot inserted into its rear end; a blue cube for its genitals; and a hoe speared through its head, making for a decidedly mismatched pair of ears.
Scattered on the floor are additional, interchangeable parts, all made of fiberglass and/or urethane rubber: more carrots, dozens of pink penises and vaginas, disembodied ears and eyes, and knives and forks. Yet despite the plethora of options, one isn't compelled to play with this adult version of Mr. Potato Head. The work is complete unto itself, oddly circumscribed, a statement rather than a challenge.
If we are let off the (meat) hook, McCarthy isn't altogether willing to do the same for himself. The other rooms of the gallery are filled with large, color photographs of masks McCarthy has used in performances from 1976 to 1983. These squashed, sullied, befouled and disintegrating personas--the "Monkey Mask Inside Out," the "Popeye Mask," the "Pig Mask"--stand in sharp contrast to the sweet and spanking new, tomato-headed creatures. It is interesting that at the very moment in which the artist backtracks into unblemished respectability, he sets free his decidedly anti-social ghosts, as if to undermine his own program. Such aggressive waywardness and deliberate illogic are indeed characteristic of McCarthy's art at its very best--and make it impossible to swallow this new work without some regret.
* Rosamund Felsen, 8525 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 652-9172, through May 28. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
* Pantyhose Artistry: For feminist artists seeking to critique gendered stereotypes, clothing has lately proven a seductive--and highly tenacious--metaphor. Tenacity, however, doesn't always connote resilience. Indeed, in too many group shows, we have seen too many nightgowns, brassieres, and evening gowns crumpled, shrunk, shredded and otherwise altered--and in the process, watched something which began as a provocative strategy degenerate into a tiresome mannerism.
At 1529 Wellesley, LouAnne Greenwald infuses the last bits of life into this fatally overstuffed genre. Greenwald makes art out of pantyhose--in shades as subtle as coffee, nude and suntan, or as garish as fuchsia, yellow and pink. With these culturally coded pieces of stretch nylon, she creates rather fantastic things: a gossamer "spider web" hidden in an out-of-the-way corner; a beautiful, multicolored flower, right out of a hosiery department display--except for its phallic stamen; and a Gothic-style arch of stretched, white stockings, whose purity is highly suspect.
Greenwald's trump card is her artistry: Her archway represents a considerable feat of engineering; a pantyhose "pelt" of synthetic skins is marked by a tongue-in-cheek precision. And along the way, she does offer minor epiphanies. An elaborate corner piece of tightly stretched, black stockings, for example, mimics Robert Morris' hanging felt pieces, while revealing the premeditated exactitude of so-called "Anti-Form."
Yet one can't help but feel that Greenwald should be moving in another direction, away from such well-trodden territory and materials, and toward a newer aesthetic. Her work thus far certainly suggests that she possesses the cleverness, the sensitivity, and the sense of direction to do precisely that.