Whitehot Magazine

March 2008, Low Life Slow Life curated by Paul McCarthy @ CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

 Paul McCarthy, Platform, 2007, Mixed media, 60 x 96 x 106 in.
 Courtesy the artist and CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, Photo by Ian Reeves

Low Life Slow Life – a short, invigorating history of influence steeped in loss, death and misconception curated by Paul McCarthy
Through April 12, 2008.

Part one of Paul McCarthy's two part exhibition, a curation of his influences and interests, Paul McCarthy's Low Life Slow Life is on view at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco. This first part includes art work and documentation connected with McCarthy's student years in Salt Lake City (at the University of Utah), in San Francisco (at the San Francisco Art Institute) in the late 1960's, and his time in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s. To Low Life Slow Life's advantage McCarthy has done nothing as simple as just draw together work he had seen and that influenced him; some of the work that appears in the exhibition he had only previously seen in magazines; other works are only represented in photographs; and while still others were completely unknown to McCarthy and are all that could be found of nearly forgotten artists' bodies of work.

 Installation view,Robert Mallary, Little Hans (on crate)
 Paul Cotton, Random House Converter (background)
 Photo by Ian Reeves
 Courtesy CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

Included among the 35 artists listed in the exhibition brochure are Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Al Payne and Bruce Nauman (all associated with the Bay Area). Amidst a number of lesser known artists are internationally recognizable names including: Joseph Beuys, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Marcel Duchamp, Yoko Ono, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Andy Warhol.

For those only superficially acquainted with McCarthy's work – for example, those who may have missed the societal critique and psychological investigation, and only seen the sensational in his recent giant inflatable Santa Claus holding a butt plug – Low Life Slow Life will go far in revealing itself as a subtle and sophisticated exhibition from a subtle and sophisticated mind. In speaking of the exhibition at length in his lecture on February 12, 2008 at CCA, McCarthy opened his remarks with a description of how the process of making lists of artists and information for the exhibition worked. He spoke of how making one list led into the creation of sub-lists which then became new lists themselves and how these lists spiraled in and out of each other and how he ended up physically putting separate lists and separate pieces of paper together to create a large master list before culling from this list an exhibition of manageable size. Or two exhibitions, the second part of Low Life Slow Life will be on view at the Wattis in 2009. In the article that follows all mentions of McCarthy's statements refer back to his remarks at the February 12th lecture.

 Installation view, Paul McCarthy, Pants, in memory of E.C, 2008
 and Replica of Pants Designed by Eldridge Cleaver, 1971/2008,
 Corduroy, zipper, snaps, thread, Dimensions variable, Installation view, Paul McCarthy, Pants, in
 Collection of Paul McCarthy, Los Angeles
 Adam (the late Paul Cotton) medium for Trans-Parent Teachers
 Random House Converter / Trance-Former 5, 1966–eternal present
 Minimal painting-sculpture-performance-installation
 Overall: 60 x 168 x 84 in.
 Thou Art the Subject of the Random House Converter/Trance-Former in the Eternal Present
 Photo by Ian Reeves
 Courtesy CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

A number of threads run through Low Life Slow Life. One thread is the notion of getting it wrong. In 2004 for the Whitney Biennial McCarthy created a 50 foot Henry Moore sculpture that was displayed on the roof of the Whitney Museum. McCarthy says his idea was to use the Museum as a pedestal for a work he had originally conceived when he was fifteen. In researching the origin of this work McCarthy read through Moore's catalogue raisonne. He did not find the work and realized that though his included a very Moore-esque hole, it had just been based on his impression of Moore's work. Not being able to get a Henry Moore sculpture for Low Life Slow Life, McCarthy thought of creating a map of Moores that can be seen in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the end Henry Moore is presented in Low Life Slow Life through the complete set of books that make up his catalogue raisonne - they are stacked on a pedestal.*

A work McCarthy comically "got wrong" was Eldridge Cleaver's penis pouch pants that were featured in an early 1970's ad in Rolling Stone Magazine. McCarthy remembered that these pants were were black and white with one half of the pants being black and the other half (the line of demarcation going right down the center of the pants and the penis pouch) being white. Eldridge's version was indeed black and white, but in his version the outer panels of the pants were black and the inner panels and crotch were white, thus offsetting the black penis shape protruding from the crotch. For Low Life Slow Life McCarthy has had both versions of these pants made, and the original Rolling Stone magazine is displayed opened to Eldridge's ad, in one of the several glass vitrines used to display a variety of publications and ephemera including Yoko Ono's Grapefruit and a copy of Stockhausen's Deutsche Gramophon album Electronic Music. Cleaver's ad reads in part - "Walking Tall...Walking Proud...Walking Softly but Carrying It Big...You'll Be Cock of the Walk with the New Fall Collection from Eldridge de Paris."

 Installation view, Paul McCarthy, Pants, in memory of E.C, 2008
 and Replica of Pants Designed by Eldridge Cleaver, 1971/2008,
 Corduroy, zipper, snaps, thread, Dimensions variable,
 Collection of Paul McCarthy, Los Angeles
 Photo by Ian Reeves
 Courtesy CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

Bob Ross' comment that "There are no mistakes, only happy accidents" may be coming to mind right now and somewhere in this direction seems to lie McCarthy's own evaluation, if not pursuit, of "getting it wrong." A third work in this category is documentation of his remake of a work he created as a student after Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Essentially this work is an air filled plastic tube tied into a knot. As a student McCarthy had wanted to exhibit a dead horse as part of an event where student work was presented on a stage and lit. The dead horse idea was not going over well with the faculty so McCarthy showed instead what he imagined was a version of a Christo and Jeanne-Claude work. In looking to recreate the work in 2008, and on a much larger scale, McCarthy contacted Christo to see about permission. Christo said that he had never made any work like this inflated knot but encouraged McCarthy to go ahead. Thus the work is now labeled with the names of Christo, Jeanne-Claude and McCarthy.

The fragility of legacy – the fragility of the body of an artist's work soon after they have passed away or even while they are still living – is another thread running through Low Life Slow Life. Doyle Strong was an early instructor of Paul McCarthy's in Utah. When McCarthy went to look for his work to put into the exhibition The Candy Shop and Baby Face were the only paintings he could locate. In conversation with the person that knew of them McCarthy was told, in this person's evaluation, that they were pretty bad. McCarthy decided to take them both. Of course, though the works are not the assemblage work McCarthy remembered of Doyle's from the 60's, they are anything but bad. The Candy Shop, 1978 depicts a woman in a candy shop with jars and boxes and piles and stacks of candy filling a table in the foreground. The left side of the canvas is nearly filled to the top with a vertical rack of suckers. Among the sweets on the table is a jar bursting with small American flags. The flags are in close pictorial proximity to the shopping woman's inclined head. The painting is a bit naughty both for its sexual allusions and for its display of excess. In Low Life Slow Life, this excess is mirrored by McCarthy's own work Platform, 2007 opposite. On a board resting on metal drums is a mountain of crap – containers, dried pigments and emulsion, toys, ornamentation, brushes, Christmas trees and so on. McCarthy mentioned that he made this mountainous landscape for his grandson's entertainment, and electric train.

 Installation View, Doyle Strong, The Candy Shop (left), 1978, Oil on canvas, 74 3/4 x 63 3/4 in.
   Baby Face (right), ca. 1960–65, Oil on canvas, 55 5/8 x 41 5/8 in.
 courtesy Mary Elizabeth Dee Shaw Gallery, Weber State University, Ogden, Utah, and CCA Wattis
 Institute for Contemporary Arts, photo by Ian Reeves

Similar to his search for Doyle's work, McCarthy looked for paintings of Mike Henderson's from the time they were both at the San Francisco Art Institute. McCarthy says he was looking for Henderson's paintings of large heads – with such a mention McCarthy's numerous projects incorporating large heads immediately come to mind. For example, Pot Head, Blockhead and the recent McCarthy exhibition Head Shop/Shop Head. Henderson's head paintings were not found. According to an episode of the Bay Area public television program Spark many of Henderson's pre-1985 works were destroyed in a fire of that year. So the 1968 works McCarthy did acquire were Nonviolence and Castration. Both works depict aggressive violence perpetrated by men in uniform, one wearing an armband with a swastika. McCarthy didn't mention it, but given that most art schools were segregated in 1968 and the San Francisco Art Institute was one of the few that was not, it seems worth mentioning that Henderson is African American. The canvas of the painting Castration is damaged on the right side and about a fifth of it is missing, revealing the stretcher bars. As oddly appropriate as this kind of damage seems given the works subject and title, the damage is not part of the artist's intention and is the result of other circumstaces. As one would expect of an artist as open as he his to mishap, McCarthy mentioned that the damage didn't bother him. Henderson's pre-1985 work has a particular place when considering the notion of lost legacy. This lost legacy is tied not to the artist's demise but his changing interests. Henderson's post-1985 work is mostly abstraction – compositions of colour, form and mark-making, related more to Henderson's thoughts about music (he is also a professional musician) than politics.

McCarthy saw Robert Mallary's work Little Hans in an art magazine during the 60s. The actual work itself he had never seen. In looking for Mallary's work for this exhibition McCarthy went to his still intact studio in Massachusetts some ten years after the artist's death. There lying covered in dust was the sculpture: a torn and restructured tuxedo dipped in resin, he had seen in the magazine. Also piled there on the floor were numerous other abandoned and neglected works.

 Installation view, Robert Mallary, Little Hans (foreground), 1962, Tuxedo, rope, and polyester
 resin, 90 x 84 in. Courtesy Mitchell Algus Gallery, New York and CCA Wattis Institute for
 Contemporary Arts,
 Mike Henderson, Nonviolence (left background) 1968, Oil on canvas, 72 x 120 in.
  Castration (right background), 1968 Oil on canvas, 72 x 120 in. in background
 Photo by Ian Reeves
 Courtesy the artist, Haines Gallery, San Francisco and CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

 Robert Mallary, Untitled, ca. 1960, Cardboard, gravel, and polyester resin, 90 x 84 in.
 Courtesy Mitchell Algus Gallery, New York and CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts
 Photo by Ian Reeves

Bay Area artist Al Payne's work holds a special place in the exhibition in a number of ways. First, Payne probably has more paintings in the exhibition than all the other artists combined. Yet, none are on view. In recent years Payne had lived in Bolinas, CA (a coastal community 30 miles north of San Francisco), and had worked on series of paintings centered on this locale. Payne had kept the paintings in two large wooden sheds on the property where he lived in Balinas. Because Payne had to move around the time Low Life Slow Life was being put together, he and McCarthy decided to move the sheds off the property all together and put them into storage before showing them in the exhibition. A film, on view in the exhibition, documents the hoisting of the sheds onto a flat bed truck and their removal. The idea was then to show the windowless sheds sealed with plywood with the paintings inside as Payne had sealed them prior to their removal. This storage method, then, is how the works are shown. The sheds together are more than 30 feet long and have been placed in CCA's large, airy main hall just past the school's main entrance. McCarthy ended his lecture of February 12th talking about Payne's work and how ten days after moving the work Payne had died of cancer. Payne had not shared that he was severely ill.

Obviously Payne's installation functions at once as art and as a poignant memorial. But Low Life Slow Life approaches a discussion of death in ways beyond the memorialization of natural, human tragedy. Thanatos runs through as a theme – the death drive is set in opposition to the pleasure principle.

 Installation View, Al Payne, Painting Sheds, ca. 1976-2005,
 Oil on canvas inside wood sheds, 396 x 108 x 102 in.
 Courtesy the Estate of Al Payne and CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts
 Photo by Ian Reeves
Without stretching the point too much, the way Christmas trees appear in Low Life Slow Life is a good place to start a discussion of Thanatos. The Christmas tree as an evergreen and a symbol of life is not McCarthy's focus. McCarthy is particularly interested in dead, needleless trees. He had remembered that Wally Hedrick had had a needleless tree and was searching for an image of this tree for the exhibition. McCarthy spoke of looking through a book on Jay DeFeo and looking again at a well known image of two windows in DeFeo's studio, the wall beneath the right window had been cut away so that, famously, DeFeo's large, heavy painting The Rose could be removed from her upper level San Francisco apartment, and in front of the left window stood a needleless Christmas tree. This image is included in the exhibition. As DeFeo and Hedrick were romantic partners McCarthy mused that this tree could have been Hedrick's tree or perhaps it was DeFeo's. The other window, the cut one, ties into the removal of the Doyle work as well, because the removal DeFeo's work was filmed by Bruce Conner, much in the same way McCarthy and Naotaka Hiro filmed the removal of Doyle's sheds.

Keeping to the topic of Thanatos, McCarthy goes further than just depictions and re-representations of dead trees. McCarthy sawed the limbs off of a tree to create the work Wally Beuys on display in Low Life Slow Life. The work refers to these two artists' Christmas tree works and, as McCarthy pointed out, ties the West Coast conceptual work of Wally Hedrick to a European tradition as exemplified by Joseph Beuys' work. McCarthy's copy of Hedrick's needleless tree Needles stands next to Wally Beuys. McCarthy in removing the limbs of the tree, as does Beuys in cutting up a tree, makes the move towards death active rather than passive.

 Installation view, Wally Hedrick, Peace (background), 1953, Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in.
 Collection of Keyser/Elder, San Francisco
 Naotaka Hiro Al Payne Sheds (foreground), 2007-8, DVD, colour, sound, 48:37 min.
 Collection of Paul McCarthy, Los Angeles
 Photo by Ian Reeves
 Courtesy CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts
Two dead Christmas trees are part of the aforementioned McCarthy piece Platform. Here one of the trees is dead with needles attached. Another has been, by accident according to McCarthy's claim, burned. Again death can be seen as being hastened ahead of natural schedule. So, other than to being mired down in a discussion of psychology, what does an active move towards death refer to? To put it front and center the connection is to war.

In Low Life Slow Life other Christmas trees appear in photos and are formed by tree-shaped arrangements of photos, but the first image in the exhibition the tie of the violated Christmas tree to war and the politics of violence overt. This image is a reproduction of John Heartfield's collage O Christmas Tree in German Soil, How Bent Are Thy Branches, 1934. Here a Christmas tree with bent limbs stands on a swastika stand.

 Installation view, Paul McCarthy, Needles, 2007, Tree and stand, 54 x 58 x 96 in.,
 and Wally Beuys (foreground), 1980, Tree and stand 34 x 27 x 86 in.
 Platform (background), 2007, Mixed media, 60 x 96 x 106 in.
 Courtesy the artist and CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts
 Photo by Ian Reeves

 Installation view, Wall Hedrick, Rondo/Rhondo, Irac (background) 1970–2003, Oil on canvas,
 134 1/2 x 134 1/2 in.
 Courtesy the Estate of Wally Hedrick and CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts
 Tetsumi Kudo, Monument of Metamorphosis (foreground), 1969, Paint on fiberglass on board
 10 x 10 in., Private collection, New York, Photo by Ian Reeves
 Courtesy CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art

Other works in the exhibition bring the discussion of war to the fore. Two anti war paintings by Wally Hedrick are included. One is a large, solid black tondo called Rondo/Rhondo, Irac and it is dated 1970–2003. McCarthy points out that this painting has been repainted and retitled as it addresses multiple wars – the Vietnam war and the Iraq war. McCarthy also makes the point that Hedrick's painting Peace, where the word peace appears over a depiction of the American flag, is not a "hippie" painting but predates "hippie" peace graphics, and is actually an anti-war painting from the Korean war era.

The first number of works the viewer encounters in the exhibition, that follow after Heartfield's anti-Nazi collage, are photographs of works and events shown butted together in a line on a wall, and the vitrines filled with publications and ephemera. The juxtaposition of diverse images lined-up on the wall sets the tone for the exhibition. A rock wall called Pete's rock, near McCarthy's Utah home, where the artist rock climbed as a young man is the first image. He spoke of rock climbing as the way he first came into contact with "bohemians." Climbers would travel from New York to Utah and California in their pursuit of climbs. The next image is one of the indelible political images of the 20th Century. It is Malcolm W. Browne's 1963 photograph Buddhist monk kneels in prayer before the smoldering body of Quang Duc, the monk who set fire to himself and burned to death in protest against the South Vietnamese government’s religious policies. In this line-up of images is also a picture of Yoko Ono's 1965 performance Cut Piece where audience members came on stage and cut off her clothes. Another image, from Artnews magazine, December 1966, shows Tony Smith's 72 3/8 x 72 3/8 x 72 3/8 inch steel cube work Die, 1962.

 Materials from the archive of Paul McCarthy, Los Angeles
 Photo by Ian Reeves
 Courtesy CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

Thanatos aside, Low Life Slow Life is also filled with humor and life: Utah newspapers document the discovery that the Andy Warhol traveling the West on a speaking tour in the 60s was a stand-in sent out by the real Warhol; an image is included of Bob Arentz, a friend of McCarthy's in his student days whose idea of concrete poetry was to participate in various actions – one of which was trying to bury a tractor on school grounds with its own shovel; images of the fakery behind Yves Klein's famous Leap into the Void (which was anything but) are displayed and reflect McCarthy's own, uninformed, actual leap out of a window after Klein's; and the question raised by the fact that Marcel Duchamp's bicycle forks in the remakes of his famous work Bicycle Wheel (stool, upside down forks, wheel) are curved in later versions of the piece. Like McCarthy's original lists, the exhibition opens endless routes of inquiry. Also, if you have the chance to hear him speak don't miss it – his comments and expressions of interests (for example, the difference between Yoko Ono's concept art and others' conceptual art; the importance of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s mirror works; or the influence of Saburo Murakami with a work like Breaking through Many Paper Screens,1955) thoughtfully provoke.

Reminiscent of the above mentioned Murakami work is a large work, a structure of multiple thresholds, at the end of the second room of Low Life Slow Life. This work in its very labeling, stands in defiance of death – it is an affirmation of the pleasure principle and a drawing back from Thanatos. The work is attributed to "Adam (the late Paul Cotton) medium for Trans-Parent Teachers" and is called Random House Converter / Trance-Former 5 and is dated "1966–eternal present." If there were ever a realm outside of death it would have to be the "eternal present." The text associated with the work reads "Thou Art the Subject of the Random House Converter/Trance-Former in the Eternal Present." On the opening night of Low Life Slow Life a man who calls himself Naked Satyr (on tribe.net) performed within the sculpture, mostly greeting people while naked, and if anyone were qualified to remind us of the life force it might as well be this clansman of Dionysus.

 Installation view, Adam (the late Paul Cotton), medium for Trans-Parent Teachers
 Random House Converter / Trance-Former 5, 1966–eternal present
 Minimal painting-sculpture-performance-installation, Overall: 60 x 168 x 84 in.
 Thou Art the Subject of the Random House Converter/Trance-Former in the Eternal Present
 Photo by Ian Reeves
 Courtesy CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

Expanding further the exhibition is a film series with films by Stan Brakhage, Bruce Nauman, Bruce Conner, Yayoi Kusama, Yoko Ono, Stan VanDerBeek and Andy Warhol.

*To locate one of the most visible Moore's in San Francisco the bronze work Large Four Piece Reclining Figure of 1973 sits outside the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall on Van Ness Avenue.


Erik Bakke



Erik Bakke is the Editor of aftershockmagazine.com and
an artist (erikbakke.com). He lives in San Francisco.

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