Paul McCarthy, White Head 2007, 7.50 m installation view Middelheim Museum, Antwerp Belgium
Paul McCarthy: Air Born | Air Borne | Air Pressure at Middelheim Museum, Antwerp, Belgium
by Amy Lin
From May to October this year, Antwerp's Middelheim Museum hosted Paul McCarthy's Inflatables. The ten inflatable pieces were installed throughout the vast grounds of the outdoor sculpture park amongst the permanent works, making this one of the largest exhibition of McCarthy's Inflatables to date.
The Middelheim Museum boasts an impressive collection, including pieces by Calder, Rodin and contemporaries like Muñoz. Most pieces are made of bronze, granite, or other similarly gray materials. While this allows them to weather well and not show much dirt; the work is prone to blending into the park landscape, especially on an overcast day. McCarthy's gigantic sculptures were cheerfully colored like old-school Happy Meal toys and invited a lot of prodding, punching and pushing from park visitors of all ages.
The most noticeable experiences of walking the exhibition were the alternating sensations of surprise and excited expectation at each bend and corner of the park, never knowing if one will come across a giant sex toy or another big pile of shit. McCarthy often uses benign consumer staples like ketchup and mayonnaise as objects representative of violence and sex. Here he has taken a weekend afternoon stroll and warped it into a junior-high Wonderland of dick jokes.
The sculptures themselves are impossible to miss. Towering at heights up to 40 feet, they are made from plastic-fantastic industrial vinyl and are tethered to the ground lest they blow loose and head downtown.
At one entrance, visitors are immediately confronted with the big pink behind of Piggies. The piece consists of two pigs: a female with healthy-looking mauve nipples and a decapitated baby cheerfully perching its front hooves on the mother's neck. Our little group got a kick out of watching a crew of youngsters jumping up and down to hit the nipples; two of them even pretended to suckle at the gigantic teats. Of course, we did a little good-natured slapping of our own once the kids had left; who can resist the invitation to touch an art exhibit?
As we wandered the park, we saw (and joined in) crowds of people gasping in disbelief at the gigantic black butt plug (explain that one to the kids!), giggling like naughty schoolchildren at the huge red Santa Claus with a Buttplug (complete with flesh-colored plug), and racing to the flamboyantly dirty Shit pile (modeled after a real pile of poop left by McCarthy's dog), cameras in hand.
There was a big Caucasian head that bore more than a passing resemblance to President Bush or any other generic white politician or CEO. Aptly named White Head, it lolled around on the ground, emasculated and helpless. There were relics of cheap consumerism: a huge ketchup bottle, a Captain Morgan bottle with an inverted label, and several Newport cigarette boxes slumped in a tiny grove of trees that recalled both discarded mattresses and service workers on their smoke break. There was also a great black piece called Bound to Fail P.M.H.M., Sculpture on Scaffolding, McCarthy's homage to the Henry Moore sculpture his father kept on his desk, taking on the Disney-esque forms of McCarthy's early Inflatables.
McCarthy's work has often sought to dismantle the image of the noble male artist. His Inflatables are industrially-made, portable and puffy; they dwarf the other sculptures, nearly all of which were painstakingly sweated-over, carved, then cast. His imagery is borrowed from supermarket aisles rather than virtuous nudes. They reference Hollywood reality, where murder victims are smeared with ketchup and pirates run rampant. Like the performance pieces from early in his career which incorporated vomiting and smearing himself with mayonnaise and feces, the Inflatables are spectacles that the viewer can't help but find ridiculous. McCarthy places butt plugs, ketchup, booze, talking heads, and kitsch on the same level and erects them as anti-monument monuments that by nature deny any kind of permanence or power. They are billboards for the trash culture that invades every aspect of our lives. Don't fight it, laugh at it.
If you can't get enough, S.M.A.K. in the neighboring city of Gent, Belgium is exhibiting a retrospective of Paul McCarthy's work through February 17, 2008.http://museum.antwerpen.be/Middelheimopenluchtmuseum