The practice of Paul McCarthy comes full circle via its current retrospective at Hauser and Wirth's London and New York galleries. Here the passage of McCarthy lies in all of its detritus, animation and potential dark irreverence. The work on show in London glitters with McCarthy's post-modern humour, a-drift in a sea of self-imposed lunacy. The work which is often described as 'uncomfortable viewing' remains the difficult substance of confrontation, acting out, irresponsibility and exposure; McCarthy - l'enfant terrible of a United States west-coast surreal.
The show in total covers three sites; 2 main gallery spaces and an outdoor sculpture which can be found at St. James's Square just down from Hauser and Wirth’s Piccadilly residence. The main collateral of the show is McCarthy's real-to-life sculpture and painting work, the mainstays being those works which ensnare the viewer into a homely self-understanding of McCarthy's vision.
Presiding in Piccadilly is the multimedia piece The King (2006 – 2011). Here McCarthy recapitulates his life's work by confronting us with a life-sized model of himself. For the artist whose practice has spanned over 4 decades this show unravels the next step of an artillery of performance, sculpture, paint, sketch and animatronic work that recognises a constant stream of sublime consciousness. McCarthy has built a reputation that asks for the viewer to more often than not strain or prick with discomfort. Suggestively McCarthy uses these specific moments to toy with methods of expectation, artist-responsibility, morale code and more sophisticatedly, the relationship between viewer and artists as a polarised narrative of trust.
The King (2006 – 2011) seeks for the awkward by positioning the viewer as worshipper at the alter of a bloated, disfigured McCarthy. Here the artist sits bare and naked, stomach, limbs and genitals protruding from this bearded real-to-life replica adorned by a blonde wig surrounded by his painterly detritus. Behind the king and wall-to-wall within this tomb lie airbrushed pieces of art projecting a forced and unrelenting critique of the shameful performance of celebrity. These airbrushed images question our relationship between the manufactured image as staged and the inappropriate trust we give to the stream of celebrity coverage engrained as matter-of-fact mass media. The position of McCarthy's disfigured model as high priest over-seeing the chaos could almost be mistaken as McCarthy getting soft and referential in his old age had the work Cut Up King (2011) positioned in the basement not existed as a monument to the artists constant need for self-aggrandised flagellation.
This show becomes a model or representation of McCarthy's ability to push the envelope on the autonomy of the artist. Increasingly throughout the show the work assembles an argument positioning McCarthy as witness or at best subject as opposed to choreographer or director. This reality could be the ability McCarthy has laid down to disguise not just his own appearance but the vacuum of the work against his identity as an artist. This disorientation is never more relevant than through the subtle zoetrope MadHouse Jr (2011) which eases the viewer into a sense of discomfort and tranquility. A small cube centred in the room spins at a steady then fast pace projecting the cube's door-less interior onto the room's wall. This, accompanied by the presence of the cube's electronic wall-mounted control panel suggestively conjures up a false sense of security: that the viewer is at once privy to the inner working whilst remaining outside of the cube's manic dance. McCarthy's interest into the mechanics of production at its most obvious has penetrated some of his most adventurous sculptural work to-date. Leaving the viewer personally entwined within the wires, valves, pumps and innards of the beast possessing the knowledge of its creation results in causality and remorse. Forced into the condition of controller or manipulator as opposed to a mere witness, McCarthy at once removes responsibility and hands you the reigns of subjectivity. Madhouse Jr (2011) and accompanying sketches almost lulls the viewer into a harmonious conclusion that McCarthy has finally withdrawn from the constabulary of the grotesque.
If this was a thought then the superficial and very much initial impression garnered from the works Pig Island (2003 – 2010) and subsequent Train, Mechanical (2003 – 2009), happily manage to dispel any rumours that McCarthy was moving away from the conceptual spectacle. Both placed side-by-side in next-door spaces on Saville Row. Train, Mechanical (2003 – 2009) features two deconstructed larger than life animatronic George W Bush figures humping wincing pigs who in turn hump a further pigs ear. This caricature of repetition standing high above our eye-line, plinthed on a metallic base allows for McCarthy's check-mate of representation. Both repulsive and seductive, the work pulls the viewer closer and closer in a bid to see its every detail and mechanism. Once there, the viewer becomes conductor as the eyes hone in and follow your every move. The openness of the work is two-fold, the viewer again privy to its design and construction, which allows for a saddening sense of sympathy towards the pathetic plight of the whole mis en scene.
Affording the viewer such a crossroad in their tie to the work is outlined more so through Pig Island (2003 – 2010), here the large room stands as monument to the processes employed by McCarthy in the quest for his ideal. Ruined casts and models slip and slide against empty and rotting junk food cups and containers, paint pots, trophies, bins and furniture which surrounded the artists throughout his labour lies for all to witness. The effect is one of apathy and distance (classic McCarthy alienation), imposed by the blue carpet or 'sea' against a genuine sad streak of sorrow and remorse of an alchemist unable to turn lead into gold, petrified by the demands and unrelenting condition of contemporary culture. The challenge McCarthy evokes is that of the beauty to be found in the awkward condition of life outside of what we know as 'real'. The mad painter, the fool, the dwarf, George W, the scientist; any number of his many guises - McCarthy's 'pursuit' of the western norm has enabled his work to flourish as not one which allows for the acceptance of contemporary culture but slings a noose around its neck in a bid to damage it before it damages us any further.
The King, The Island, The Train, The House, The Ship
16 November 2011 – 14 January 2012 (Paul McCarthy’s outdoor sculpture ‘Ship Adrift, Ship of Fools’ will be on view until 15 February at St James’s Square. The garden at St James’s square will be closed on all public holidays and will also be closed from 26th - 30th December.)
Hauser & Wirth London, Savile Row, Piccadilly and St James’s Square
Sophie Risner is a freelance art writer and critic living in London. "I am less art critic and more art writer - I find the idea of critiquing art through writing difficult in a purely formalist fashion. I often lean towards the difficulty of language as a way into the inherent difficulty of art. Embracing all aspects which observe and inspire artist practice as a way to create a more fruitful and less didactic approach."view all articles from this author