This is how he grew to be unclean

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SAN FRANCISCO -- "It's not clean," says Paul McCarthy.

The L.A. artist is talking about his autobiographical exhibition at the California College of the Arts' Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. He's just filling in some background information while sitting on a bench in the institute's entryway, but the statement strikes a resounding chord.

Although he is explaining the muddled chronology of "Paul McCarthy's Low Life Slow Life: Part I" -- mostly a roundup of works by other artists who influenced him in his formative years -- he could be referring to the process of dredging up his past or the gritty nature of the art on view. He also could be describing his entire body of work.

This is the guy who has done grotesque sendups of Santa Claus, Pinocchio and Heidi; the artist who has slathered himself in slimy foodstuffs during scatological rituals; the one who has constructed a creepy forest where a male manikin copulates with a tree. Today his bad boy image seems ludicrous -- at 62, McCarthy is a soft-spoken eminence of the international art world who taught at UCLA from 1984 to 2003 and whose work was the subject of a major exhibition at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art and New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art in 2000-01. The message and the messenger are two different things, of course. But in the first installment of a two-, maybe three-part project, he seems to have as much curiosity about his artistic roots as a naif who bumps into McCarthy's work in a gallery and wonders, "Where did this guy come from?"

Salt Lake City, as it turns out, but McCarthy doesn't delve into his childhood here. Invited to do a show at the Wattis, he decided to curate an unconventional retrospective, one that would examine artworks, ideas and impulses that shaped him. The first chapter focuses on the 1960s, when he studied art at the University of Utah and the San Francisco Art Institute.

Instead of comparing his early work with that of mentors and colleagues, as might be expected, McCarthy has created a milieu of the provocative themes, unconventional materials and inventive approaches that captured his imagination and fueled his youthful passion. "Unclean" as it is, the show is a rare opportunity to get inside the head of an artist -- in this case, one who evolved from an unruly Action Painter to a performance artist known for ravaging the American dream. "Part 1" also raises questions about what came before and after that period.

"My mother's relatives were Mormon pioneers," McCarthy says. "My father's were Irish Catholic and Mormon. A lot of people focus on that, but I lived in a suburban, rural area. My mother was really liberal and maybe wanted to be an artist. . . . I decided to be an artist quite early. My parents encouraged me. . . . When I went to the University of Utah, there were very progressive artists in Salt Lake, and the university had an experimental film department. I jumped out of a window in the sculpture department in a homage to Yves Klein," he says, referring to the French artist whose 1960 photograph, "Leap Into the Void," was a sensation.

Distributed on a broadsheet created by the artist, the picture depicted Klein diving out of a second story window, as if leaping to eternal freedom. But, as was later revealed, the artwork was a photograph of a photomontage, with the people who caught Klein before he hit the ground removed from the image.

"I hadn't seen the photograph, so I jumped out feet first," McCarthy says. "In the late '60s when I see the image of him diving, I am shocked and I think, 'Oh god, mine is so pathetic.' And then, years later, it comes out that the photograph is a fake. That's what's so great."

McCarthy loves poking fun at himself by telling the story of his misguided leap of faith, but his performance and its aftermath are telling. A risk taker with a wicked sense of humor, he has always thrown himself into his work and has definitely learned to look beneath surface appearances as he exposes the dark underside of entrenched institutions and social conventions.

Themes of repression

Salt LAKE CITY "can be super repressive," McCarthy says. "It's an issue, but what part it plays in my work, I don't know. My work has always been about repression to some degree. It can be seen as a reaction to Salt Lake conservatism. But it's hard for me to pin that down. And the work really changes. It becomes more political, more about sexual repression, probably when I hit L.A. in 1970. . . . There's this tendency to try to pinpoint things in geographical locations. It's more complicated than that."

The exhibition, a personal form of archaeology, is complicated too. There are many art historical connections to be made in McCarthy's selection of drawings, paintings, sculptures and films, along with photographs, books, magazines and other materials from his archive.

But first, in the airy central corridor outside the gallery, there are Al Payne's "Painting Sheds." Dated circa 1976-2005, the two plywood storage sheds -- filled with paintings -- don't fit the exhibition's general time frame, but they memorialize a friendship and professional association that began in the 1960s in San Francisco. McCarthy also sees the pair of weathered buildings as a closed coffin for art that was never exhibited -- and perhaps for the spirit of his friend.

Payne, who died last September, was a Bay Area conceptualist and painter who dropped out of the art world and went to Paris for a while but returned to California. He stored a batch of his oil paintings, mostly pictures of his family, on the grounds of his residence in Bolinas until last fall when he was preparing to move.

"He had to get the sheds off the property," McCarthy says. "They had to be lifted out of the backyard with a crane onto two flatbed trucks. We picked them up and put them on the trucks and shipped them to Oakland. Ten days after we moved them, he died. He had cancer. He probably knew it, but nobody else did."

The art-filled sheds became an artwork when they were moved to Oakland, says McCarthy, who decided to put them in the Wattis exhibition. That meant opening the sealed structures and trucking them and their contents to San Francisco. The sheds were too big to fit into the gallery, as McCarthy would have preferred, so they were rolled into the center of the industrial style building on dollies, then repacked and resealed. The story of their travels is told on video.

The exhibition in the gallery is the result, so far, of a huge research project that will probably continue for five or six years. McCarthy expects to add objects as he finds them, but he already has come up with an eclectic trove of meaningful artworks and documents.

In another admission of youthful gullibility, he pulls out newspaper articles about an Andy Warhol impostor, hired by the real artist to give a series of lectures in Utah and Idaho in 1968. "I went to one of them," McCarthy says. "I remember sitting in the second row and thinking, 'Isn't he taller than that?' He didn't look like Warhol, but it was a Warhol performance and it was really good."

But famous figures such as Warhol and Klein are in the minority in McCarthy's show. And he's quick to point out the fickle nature of art world stardom. Take the late Robert Mallary, an all but forgotten artist who got a lot of attention in the 1960s. McCarthy found his work in Massachusetts, disintegrating in an old building with broken windows.

"This one is called 'Little Hans' and it's made of tuxedos dipped in resin," he says of a crusty, furrowed mass of fabric secured by rope and designed to be suspended from a ceiling. "He was an Abstract Expressionist sculptor, I think the greatest one, more important than John Chamberlain. He made this in 1962. I saw a picture of it in 1963. It was very radical at the time to even make a piece like this."

Another Mallary piece, made of resin-soaked cardboard and dirt, is roughly shaped as a map of the United States. "There's an element of decay of civilization here," McCarthy says, "and the show became about that. Like Al wanting the sheds to be closed, this is a sort of carcass. It makes you think of Rauschenberg's work at the same time, but this is about decay and rot. Mallary expresses trauma. This is apocalyptic."

McCarthy has included a few of his own works, both early and recent, to point out artistic correspondences and echoes. A tree with its branches hacked off and another with needles removed seem to be descendants of Wally Hedrick's "Christmas Tree," made around 1955 and documented in photographs -- or perhaps of a much earlier piece, "O Christmas Tree in German Soil, How Bent Are Thy Branches," a 1934 collage by John Heartfield depicting a bare tree mounted on a swastika. The theme continues in McCarthy's "Platform," a mixed media piece that began in 2007 as a Matterhorn-like setting for his grandchildren's electric train and morphed into a studio garbage dump that sprouts two skeletal trees.

Other works, such as a big round black painting by Hedrick, recall McCarthy's origins as a painter in San Francisco. "I didn't have Wally Hedrick as a teacher, but I was really interested in him," he says. "I was painting black paintings in the '60s and turning paintings black by pouring gasoline on them and setting them on fire. First there were images. Then it got to the point where they were just black."

As he recalls these experiences, the con- versation dips into Vietnam War protests and the evolution of Action Painting into performance.

"It's interesting to me," he says. "The discussion around Pollock and De Kooning was that they were Action Painters. And I think there were artists of the next generation who took that really literally. I took it literally. I began painting through total physical action. I beat paintings with hammers and axes and burned them. . . . I didn't translate it as performance, but I think that was what was happening."

The next segment of the show, covering McCarthy's emergence in Los Angeles as a performance artist, won't be presented at the Wattis until next year. But he is immersed in planning for it, gathering materials and compiling a catalog to be published when the project is complete. "It will get real interesting when the book comes together," he says as he wanders back into memories of the '60s.

That's not, of course, where he dwells. With his work in great demand, McCarthy juggles multiple projects in his Baldwin Hills studio and sends works to exhibitions around the world, including two recent shows in Belgium. In Los Angeles, a screening of multi-channel video taken from "Caribbean Pirates," a collaboration with his son Damon, will be presented at REDCAT on March 17.

---suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com

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