Compellingly Sold by the Gross


Peering into the world according to artist Paul McCarthy, a viewer is likely to conclude that Santa’s bright red nose is caused less by Jack Frost than by Jack Daniel’s; that Heidi’s gruff but kindly grandfather gets rather too kindly during those cold nights in the Swiss Alps; and that poor old Geppetto suffered from more than simple loneliness when he made the peculiar decision to whittle a surrogate son from a block of wood. McCarthy’s fairy tales are--well, grim.

Which is, of course, the way all good fairy tales were before the Age of Disney. The propensity of mass culture to sweeten the psychologically disturbing pie for the purpose of maximizing audience share does not apply to art, whether folk or fine. McCarthy’s art takes full advantage of the difference.

At its best, the result is work that can leave you staring slack-jawed, skittering emotionally between embarrassment and wonder, pathos and nausea, hilarity and despair. The uncanny experience is like being smashed in the solar plexus by what seems to be nothing but an adolescent dirty joke.

But it’s much more than that. At the Museum of Contemporary Art’s warehouse space in Little Tokyo, an engrossing survey of McCarthy’s drawings, performances, sculptures, videos and installations spanning the past 32 years opened Sunday. It’s a terrific show, not to be missed. Organized by New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, where it travels in February, and accompanied by an excellent catalog, the survey goes a long way toward elucidating an important body of work produced in Los Angeles that so far has been known only erratically.


The MOCA show is built around six elaborate recent installations that incorporate video and mechanical props, beginning with the demented 1991 cooking demonstration “Bossy Burger” and including the harrowing tableau of paradise defiled, “The Garden,” which finally catapulted McCarthy to international celebrity when it was shown in MOCA’s 1992 extravaganza, “Helter Skelter.”

Before the past decade, however, most of McCarthy’s memorable work took the ephemeral form of performance art. (He also made photographs and films.) The performance work is known today through photographs, videotapes, artifacts and other documentation. Some two dozen cogent examples have been brought together in the show, and they demonstrate a path of continuity in McCarthy’s art. The track is narrow but deep, and the artist has forged a shifting array of consistently inventive means with which to probe it.


The earliest work is a violently creepy sculptural object, which features a taxidermy squirrel jammed into a hole in a battered mannequin’s head. (The object was left over from a 1967 performance in Salt Lake City, McCarthy’s birthplace.) Resting on its side, the sculpture is displayed on a pedestal composed of a stained and soiled cardboard box. It elicits a bizarre recollection of the classic sculptures of sleeping heads by Brancusi, elegantly positioned on refined blocks of carved stone. Here, though, the peaceful muse of Eros has been shattered by unspeakable nightmares.

Trained as a painter, McCarthy entered a 1970s art scene in which painting was widely considered to be on the wane. Painting represented orthodoxy and convention. After McCarthy moved to L.A., home of a newly emerging art world where the tradition of painting was not strong, he focused on performance art.

Yet, the photographs and videos in the exhibition show that painting remained central to McCarthy’s performance work. In one, he used his face, head and shoulders as a “brush” with which to paint a smeared line around the interior walls of a ramshackle room. In another, he lay on his stomach on the floor, pushing a paint can with his head and dragging his body through the line of white paint that sloshed out. A third shows him violently whipping a wall with a heavy paint-soaked blanket, while in a fourth he does the same to big glass windows.

These performances explode conventions of American Abstract Expressionism, from the so-called action painting of Jackson Pollock to the fragmented color fields of Barnett Newman. A visceral rawness marks McCarthy’s re-imagined versions. The means he employed were unusual, but the ambitions are familiar. He was laboring to reestablish connections to the roiling energy of primitive aims, which artists from Goya to Guston had directed to the culturally higher impulse of painting.

This isn’t Pollock gracefully dripping streams of paint onto glass as he did for a famous film by Hans Namuth, but a wild assault on big windowpanes--which could spell disaster. As shown in a photograph of another work, when McCarthy closed the vertical gap between a pair of swinging doors using blobs of cotton held in place by strips of tape, it’s as if the visual rupture formed by the stripe down a Newman “zip” painting had been made three-dimensional, then bandaged in a hospital emergency room.


Other artists in Europe and Japan were also responding to Abstract Expressionism in unusual ways, but McCarthy’s work seems distinctly American. It may have to do with the American phenomenon of mass culture. Living and working in Los Angeles, he was at ground zero for that.

McCarthy’s performances became steadily more elaborate and baroque, while the introduction of costumes, masks, props and sets gave them the crazed aura of local public access TV shows. Paint was replaced by ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and other gooey foodstuffs, which were used in scatological rituals of consumption and disgorging. McCarthy’s own body became the canvas.

The primitive psychodramas that tear at human existence don’t disappear because of pristine technological progress; they’re just sublimated in a different way, according to the new characteristics of mass culture. McCarthy unravels the thin veneer of today’s brand of socialized conformity to put those awful impulses on startling display.

“Bossy Burger” was the breakout work. On a fragment of stage set salvaged from the popular television sitcom “Family Affair,” he videotaped a private performance in which, wearing a white apron and toque and a rubber mask of Alfred E. Neuman, Mad magazine’s fictional hero of disaffected adolescence, he conducted a cooking demonstration that quickly degenerated into unrestrained chaos, violence and edible lust. For exhibition, the theatrically lit stage set is displayed strewn with the vile residue of the deranged event, and it looks like the scene of an unspeakable crime. Over to one side, a video monitor replays the past action, which is funny, pathetic, familiar and horrible--and almost inexplicably moving.


That’s what’s so disconcerting about McCarthy’s best installations. Swift responses of “Ew, gross!” are surreptitiously overtaken by quiet empathy.

It doesn’t always work. His 1994 “Tomato Head” sculptures, in which a human-size variation on the children’s toy Mr. Potato Head stands in for the absent performer, feel chilly and remote.

The big dolls and their sleek plug-in accessories aren’t as acutely observed as the mannequins of gruesomely narcissistic fathers and sons in “The Garden,” which is constructed on a scavenged set of huge redwood trees from the old TV series “Bonanza,” and in “Cultural Gothic,” with its post-Rauschenberg stuffed goat. In these indelible sculptures, monstrously disfigured urges of the male libido are rendered with the precision of a cuckoo clock.

The show could benefit from additional drawings, which McCarthy often scribbles with black marker pens. The strongest are characterized by a blunt, fragmented energy that eventually frustrates coherence. You strain to see, then find odd relief in not being able to.


But these are small complaints in an important show that’s certainly welcome. McCarthy’s art is not for children, nor for adults who choose to act like children. Frequently it offends, but never in a shallow or cavalier way. One hallmark of maturity is the ability to take offense. McCarthy’s poignant art represents a necessary, mature willingness to recognize the difference between human truth and moral vanity.

* MOCA at the Geffen Contemporary, 152 N. Central Ave., (213) 626-6222, through Jan. 21. Closed Mondays.