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It's Not Shocking to Him

Still, Paul McCarthy's work isn't for the squeamish. That may be why he hasn't had a U.S. show until now.

November 05, 2000|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

What with mayhem and corruption being regular fodder for the evening news, one might not think an artist could stir up much of a fuss with the odd painting or sculpture. Nonetheless, Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy is willing to give it a try.

Using robotic figures, stuffed animals, discarded sets from defunct TV series and videos of his own provocative performances, McCarthy composes sculptural installations that stretch all the boundaries. There are depictions of what used to be called private parts in these works; there are all-American condiments like ketchup and chocolate sauce that stand in for bodily fluids; there are enactments of murder, abuse and dysfunction, and all manner of really not-ready-for-prime-time material.

Some of it is darkly humorous--a video of a performance that parodies TV cooking shows, with McCarthy as chef in an Alfred E. Neuman mask, and which ultimately turns into a grisly, ketchup-coated, hamburger-flinging "massacre."

Some of it is wildly distasteful--the bucolic story of "Heidi," reenacted on videotape, as an NC-17 horror story, with McCarthy as a perverted version of the grandfather character, artist Mike Kelley (McCarthy's frequent collaborator) playing Heidi, and a wax dummy in a Madonna mask as Heidi's crippled friend. Dysfunctional domesticity is played out in McCarthy's installation of a Swiss chalet melded with a re-creation of Modernist architect Adolf Loos' American Bar in Vienna.

All of the work is disturbing. As McCarthy once said, "I've always had an interest in repression, guilt, sex. . . ."

His subject matter has not made him popular on the U.S. museum circuit. While his installations have received international acclaim and solo museum shows throughout Europe in the past decade, he has never had a major U.S. exhibition. Until now. His first U.S. survey, featuring 100 pieces from the past 30 years, opens Nov. 12 at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, in the Geffen Contemporary. It then travels to the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, which organized the show.

The New Museum's director, Lisa Phillips, who co-curated the show with senior curator Dan Cameron, is adamant in defending McCarthy's art work. The show will carry an advisory for the squeamish, but that doesn't diminish its importance.

"It is visceral and confrontational," Phillips admits. "It summons our primal fears and deals with sexual and societal taboos. It is loaded material, which I think is its strength. It is often misunderstood or denigrated as adolescent misbehavior when it is so much more."

Paul Schimmel, chief curator at MOCA, agrees. "The hard part [of McCarthy's work]," he says, "is confronting the dark, troubled moral issues it brings up."

It's probably fitting that MOCA should be the opening venue for McCarthy's new show. In 1992, it was also the site of his first breakthrough. His installation "The Garden" debuted at "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s," MOCA's 1992 show that brought international attention to the edgy art of Kelley, Raymond Pettibon, Nancy Rubins and other L.A. artists. McCarthy's piece seemed nearly bucolic by comparison--a life-size landscape constructed from tree trunks once used on the set of the TV series "Bonanza." Yet slightly concealed among the trees, bushes and rocks, two partially clothed mechanical male figures bump their hips suggestively against a tree and the ground.

Schimmel, who was curator of that groundbreaking and much respected exhibition, explains, "The graphic content of the work is the hopelessness. Metaphorically, it's man banging his head against the tree. There are no genitals on view. It's not erotic in any way."

As for McCarthy, he knows the work is difficult, but he concentrates on what he says it's about: the dark side of contemporary culture, the end of innocence in a world consumed by entertainment values and materialism.

"I think of the work as a critique of society. I realize that to some people, the work may have to do with it being shocking. But to me, the intention is not to shock. At the same time, it does ride a certain edge, a certain kind of confrontation. It's not so easy to dismiss."

McCarthy seems mildly bemused by whatever mainstream acceptance he's found, and sometimes he's downright concerned by it.

Consider the latest incarnation of "The Garden."

The piece, now in the hands of New York art advisor and dealer Jeffrey Deitch, reemerged publicly last month in a fashion magazine as the setting for a staged photo of art world luminaries in black clothes. Although many artists would be thrilled by such attention, McCarthy sounds genuinely tortured when he describes his reaction.

"When I saw it, I almost had a heart attack," he moans. "That was never the intention of the work."

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