Whitehot Magazine

November 2008, Paul McCarthy @ The Whitney Museum

 Paul McCarthy, Bang Bang Room, (1992), Wood, steel, electric motors,
 linoleum, wallpaper, dimensions variable
 courtesy Whitney Museum, NY

Paul McCarthy: Central Symmetrical Rotation Movement
Three Installations, Two Films – at the Whitney Museum of American Art
Through October 12, 2008

In a recent exhibition at the Whitney, a rarely seen side of American artist Paul McCarthy was put on display. McCarthy is well known for his highly transgressive films and an almost childlike sense of vulgarity, but a lot of the elements that commonly define his aesthetic were absent from this show, and instead, he gave the viewer a chance to understand his complex symbolic system through the abstractions of environments and how he reinterpreted them to concentrate on disorienting the viewer.

The show itself was a chronicle of some of his earliest work from the late 1960s on thorough the 1990s, and some aspects in this show were only realized for the first time. Spinning Room (2008) is the first installation element that truly confronts the viewer the second you walk into the massive exhibition space of the Whitney. Images of the viewer are projected onto rotating screens, which are then surrounded by four mirrored walls, which constantly changes the images based on the rotation of the projectors. To say it elicits a feeling of confusion and chaos is a vast understatement; its more akin to an amusement park ride that disorients by making you stand still. McCarthy first conceived of this project of in 1971, but was unable to see it fully realized until this exhibition. Technology makes a concept like this all the more visceral and McCarthy uses these ideas against the viewer to create an environment that almost relishes in the organic intensity of feeling discombobulated while never actually moving. These are concepts that are common in his more well known films, but the interactivity of the live environment adds an entirely new layer to the immediacy of the experience.

 Paul McCarthy, Mad House, 2008,
 courtesy Whitney Museum, NY

 Paul McCarthy, Mad House, 2008, courtesy Whitney Museum, NY

In Bang Bang Room (1992), McCarthy again plays funhouse practitioner in the synthesized environment of a simple four-walled enclosure that randomly bursts and collapses upon itself through the sequential opening and closing of all its walls and doors. The room would begin moving on a platform and slowly all of its walls would open up as the doors begin to slam shut from the momentum of the platform’s motor. The day I was there it was also interesting to see many young children absolutely fascinated by this contraption, and you could tell they had been longing to slam doors in their own homes in a similar fashion. McCarthy takes the idea of a conventional four-walled structure and literally, turns it upon itself, as to evoke the perpetual chaos that exists whenever a construction project is attempted. He’s showing us the structure as a paradox of its intended function; the walls end up inviting us inside just as much as they’re repelling us from entering, which I think is true of many more cookie-cutter abodes than people would want to admit. The constant slamming of the doors is also a cultural harbinger of sorts that usually signifies either an intense confrontation, or the inadvertent exit from one environment to another. With this mechanized sculpture he gives the viewer a very neutral mold from which to conjure a plethora of complex cultural symbols.

The other mechanized sculpture on display also echoes very similar ideas concerning the destabilization of environments and how that affects our perception. Mad House (2008) is a very basic four-walled room that simply spins on its axis eventually reaching very intense speeds. Mad House is almost an even more abstracted version of the other installation elements present in the show; it’s literally just a spinning room, but through this neutrality of content, McCarthy can evoke an entire world of cultural manifestations. He’s taken the malaise of the suburban landscape and placed it in a perpetual state of chaos that makes the final product seem both recognizable and altogether incongruent. We’re beyond familiar with the basic form of the structure, but McCarthy uses that comfortable relationship against us by evoking a pure state of disarray that one usually never associates with the most basic of architecture.

Besides the three main structural components of the show, some of McCarthy’s older video work was also on display. Wall Whip (1974) is a video in which McCarthy uses his entire body to physically throw paint onto a blank wall and a window that faces both onlookers and passing traffic. You can definitely see the progression in McCarthy’s video aesthetic from looking at examples like this of his earlier work. The physicality of the art process is a massive aspect of much of his content, and this video is a real concrete example that blurs the line between final product and the method used to attain it, which McCarthy has been instrumental in perpetuating. By the end of the video, McCarthy is covered in as much paint as any of his surfaces, which again echoes the concept of obscuring the line between artist, materials and the actual process that evokes the variables.

 Paul McCarthy, Mad House, 2008, courtesy Whitney Museum, NY

 Paul McCarthy, Spinning Room, (1971/2008), Aluminum, wood, Servo motors,
 vinyl rear projection screens, video projectors, electric motor, sensors,
 electrical components, show control, video equipment, courtesy Whitney Museum, NY

This idea is also well represented in another video on display, Ma Bell (1971). The entire video is comprised of McCarthy taking a standard copy of the Yellow Pages and effectively painting over all of the phone numbers, which leaves the book lacking the very function it was intended for. This video is very reminiscent of the aesthetic McCarthy developed later in his career in his more well known videos such as Painter (1995) and Heidi (1992). In Ma Bell, McCarthy’s performance becomes the focal point and other props and mediums are simply swallowed into his overall palette. There’s no separation between McCarthy as the artist and McCarthy as performer; the physicality of the event are echoed through his very lo-fi, almost trashy aesthetic, and the final product becomes a seamless blend of these diverse elements.

McCarthy has a certain way of informing the art process by becoming part of it, which leads the viewer to believe that acting as a voyeur is just as important to the overall experience as McCarthy’s conception of the video itself. He immerses the viewer in world that he’s already immersed in, which very often engages the viewer, who ends up becoming just as compulsory as the events taking place. In many of his video pieces, McCarthy himself becomes the actual medium, which gives the viewer the idea that his actions exist in a symbolic space that extends far beyond the beginning and end of a video; if a human is utilized in the same way a paintbrush or videotape is, then where does the physicality of the art product begin, and where does McCarthy as a human end? If anything, he seems more interested in the merger of the artist, the medium and the environment, which only seeks to confuse and disorient the viewer by fully integrating all facets until one is indiscernible from the next. By the time the viewer has even engaged in his final product, it only does a disservice to try to extrapolate the distinct origins of his complex symbolic system. A Paul McCarthy object, whether it’s a video or a fully immersive environment, is best gauged upon the concept that an artist’s process and persona are very often indistinguishable from what they end up presenting to the public at large. McCarthy performs as if him being videotaped is merely a coincidence; the actual performance itself becomes both the final product and the process by which it’s attained, leaving both elements in a symbiotic and confrontational amalgam, which has become McCarthy’s calling card in an art world where the audience’s confusion is very often amplified by the very practice of trying to understand the exact variables and where they lie in the equation. McCarthy confuses, but in his confusion lies the only true order that can really begin to define his work.

Adam Michael

Adam Michael is a young artist and freelance writer from New Jersey and is currently in talks to show at galleries in New York and San Francisco.  He's also directed music videos for indie hip-hop artist Davis Ramos and heavy metal band Torrential Downpour, and has released 7 DVDs over the past 4 years of what he calls "Video Collages" under his performance art moniker Popular Culture Shaman, which is also a line of T-Shirts with over a hundred designs.


view all articles from this author