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Creation of 'Snowmen' a Meeting of Two Minds

Art: After years in their separate but related worlds, Paul McCarthy and Benjamin Weissman got together over skiing, which is central to their work.

September 18, 1997|KRISTINE McKENNA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Paul McCarthy and Benjamin Weissman are prominent figures in the L.A. art community, so they've been aware of each other for years. Since the early '70s, McCarthy has staged scatological performances exploring the dankest recesses of the id, which have won him international acclaim. Weissman, a novelist who programmed the reading series at Venice writing workshop Beyond Baroque from 1983-93, has collaborated with McCarthy colleagues Renee Petropoulos, Jim Shaw and Cindy Bernard. Nevertheless, it wasn't until 1992 that their friendship ignited.

"We ran into each other at a point when I had a cast on my hand," Weissman recalls. "Paul asked me what happened, and when I told him I broke it skiing we immediately fell into a long conversation about skiing. As soon as my hand healed, we began skiing together, then in 1994 we traded work, and that began our collaboration."

The fruit of that collaboration, on view through Oct. 4 at Christopher Grimes Gallery, is "Two Snowmen," an exhibition that casts an eye on Nazism, skiing, the Alps and the mammoth, the extinct species of elephant with a long coat and curved tusks. "We're drawn to the mammoth because it's such a big, primal carcass of an animal, and it combines elements of masculine and feminine," McCarthy says.

Appropriately enough, the centerpiece of "Two Snowmen" is a big, primal artwork. Titled "Mammoth Train," it involves wooden shapes linked together like a jigsaw puzzle that are mounted on a 25-foot, 2,000-pound log. Also alluding to the mythical snow creature are "Anal Flap," which comprises two photographs of the hide of the hindquarters of a mammoth found in Siberia in 1910, and "Days of Our Lives," a soft sculpture of two stuffed mammoths.

"Ultimately this show isn't about skiing," points out McCarthy, 52, who recently left the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, which represented him for several years, and will soon begin showing as a solo artist with Patrick Painter Editions.

"Rather, it's about a fictional universe we've created as a result of the fact that we're interested in each other's work. When I read Benjamin's 1994 novel, 'Dear Dead Person,' it struck me as an effective exploration of a territory of fear, and I realized there are similarities in the way we work. We both make drawings with a screwed up, cartoony quality, and we share an interest in the absurd."

"I've always been drawn to the anarchy and sexuality in Paul's work, and though I don't think it's about violence, it has a hidden violence that echoes aspects of my writing," says Weissman, 41.

Although McCarthy says the show isn't about skiing, the sport is important to both artists, who have maintained a cabin at Mammoth for two years. "Paul and I have a mountain calling," says Weissman, who's been represented as a solo artist by Grimes since 1994. "The cold weather, the altitude, the adrenaline rush of going fast, the beauty of the environment. It's a world that just appeals to us, and in the months when it's impossible to ski we really miss it. That's partly what led to this show."

Working at McCarthy's studio in Simi Valley, the artists made hundreds of pieces together before arriving at the work on view. "We made countless drawings together where one of us drew while listening to the other one talk, we made snowflakes out of wood, aluminum and rope, we even hired someone to crochet a giant snowflake," McCarthy says. "None of that work is being exhibited because its purpose was to lead us to this."

The most emotionally charged work in the show is perhaps "5'4," " a photographic homage to artist Wendy Moore, who died in March as a result of a fall down a 300-foot chute she took while skiing with Weissman and McCarthy.

"The repression of death is central to our work, but when we were directly confronted by it with Wendy's death, we discovered it's a confusing thing to make an artwork about," Weissman says. "The photograph in the piece is of an injured Spanish skier at the 1936 Olympics; the colors Wendy wore were orange, purple and green, so we used those colors on the image and intensified them so the piece has a psychedelic edge."

"We knew the importance we were placing on the colors was irrational and that it was really the subject matter we were obsessing on. It's impossible to synthesize death, and there is no resolution, because the person is gone."

Hanging next to "5'4" " is "Pyramid," a collage of found images arranged so as to evoke Edward Steichen's legendary exhibition of the '50s, "The Family of Man."

"Being Jewish, I've always been interested in Nazis and for some reason I associate skiing with Nazism," says Weissman of the content of the piece. "At the base and center of the pyramid are images alluding to skiing and Nazism; at the top is a picture of James Dean. The dominant image is a mass-media photograph, which raises the question: What is fascism today?"

"Even though we're engrossed in it, we're critical of skiing because it's a weird bourgeois activity," McCarthy interjects. "There are class issues around it because it's an expensive sport.

* Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 587-3373.

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