Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Paul McCarthy

Paul McCarthy jumps about a dimly lit class room, his body is covered in ketchup, he is wearing a long wig. A medium sized doll is sandwiched between his legs and he appears to be sticking a small plastic Barbie doll up his anus. Many of the audience caught on the video of this performance have their hands to their mouths. No-one is smiling. As McCarthy jumps around the narrow aisles between the rows of chairs, the floor is now covered also in ketchup and he loses his footing and falls back surely hitting his head. Still he gets up and continues jumping about clearly in danger of hurting himself and possibly the audience. Class Fool (1976) is a classic example of the kind of performance that McCarthy became known for in the 70s and early 80s. Dan Cameron sums this up as “the experience of watching a fellow human being descend into the state of provisionally non human invites a sense of the uncanny, wherein the standards for distinguishing between person and thing, or between living and dead, are rendered temporarily inoperable” (2000, p. 60). McCarthy's work is the product of an age when students, intellectuals and artists questioned accepted truths about society; it is rich with art historical influences and socio-political references. In the following essay, I intend to discuss how Minimalism holds an influential grip on McCarthy’s sculpture and how themes from the Viennese Actionists and the Performance Art movement underlie his Performance Art.
Introduced to the concepts of Minimalism during his early university years, aspects of this artistic genre found their way into his work, especially his sculpture. Minimalism is a term used in particular since the 1960s, to describe a style characterized by an impersonal austerity, plain geometric configurations and industrially processed materials (Want, 2007). Donald Judd who, along with Robert Morris was one of the principle artists writing about Minimalism described it in his article Surface Objects (1965) as a new type of art in three dimensions that was neither painting nor sculpture but superseded both of these (Want, 2007). Another important element in a lot of Minimalist work is the scale. Minimalists paintings and sculpture are characterised by a large scale comparable to the size of the human body and in some cases require or invite direct interaction from the viewer to show that they occupy the same space as the viewer's body (Colpitt, 1998).
McCarthy, P. (1968) Dead H [galvanised steel 72 x 18 x 66 inches]. Galerie Hauser & Wirth.

All these characteristics (austerity, geometry, materials, scale and human interaction) can be seen in some of McCarthy's works; Dead H (1968), Dead H Crawl (1968/99) and A Skull with a Tail (1975 – 78). Dead H (1968) is made of galvanised steel and is a six foot high capital H laid on its back so as to be recognisable as an H when viewed from above. The uprights of the H are made from eighteen inch square sections and are not sealed at the top and bottom so a viewer can look straight through them from bottom to the top and the work is installed on the floor in a way that allows the audience to do just that.

Dead H Crawl (1999) is a version of Dead H that is large enough to allow viewers to crawl through the straight tunnels of the uprights. A Skull with a Tail (1978) once again of galvanised steel is painted black and consists of a two foot cube with an appendage that is a hollow, square tube 6 feet long extending from the cube along the floor in a crooked dog leg shape.

McCarthy acknowledges the influence in Skull of Tony Smith's sculpture Die! (1962) which was a seminal Minimalist work in an interview with Stiles: “At the same time it was a cube, a minimal cube, and that were painted black. They were almost direct references to Tony Smith's sculpture.” (1996, p. 459). Cameron draws a parallel between McCarthy and Minimalism in their treatment of the work in relation to the human body: “In his sculptures from the same period, McCarthy developed variations on the minimalist practice of incorporating the human body in ways that undermined the apparently objective rationalism of the geometric vocabulary” (Cameron, 2000, p. 58). Although A Skull with Tail is too small to climb into, Cameron refers to the importance of the viewer's interaction with the the 'tail' and the fact that it represents a tunnel: “By attaching an appendage which is a type of tunnel, the work can be read as degrading the sanctity of the cube, in favour of a culturally loaded interior space which is visually cut off from us.” (Cameron, 2000 p. 58).

Whilst Minimalism has played an influential role in McCarthy’s sculpture, in his Performance Art there are noticeable influences from other performance artists in particular Yves Klein and the Viennese Actionists.

McCarthy, P. (1972) Face Painting – Floor, White Line [still image from video].
As an artistic movement, the roots of twentieth century Performance Art began in the early 1900s when the Futurists performed in theatres and piazzas throughout Italy. Performance Art arose also among Dadaists, and at the Bauhaus school in Germany (source). A significant driver for performance art in the 60s was artists looking for liberation from market forces. This lead to innovations such as circulation of art by mail, Happenings and performances. These "Artists spaces" were thought of as more democratic than galleries (Becker, 1994, p. 56).

Influenced by the German Bauhaus school, Allan Kaprow was one of the instigators of the Happenings and would become a teacher and friend of McCarthy. Kaprow described Happenings as “spatial representations of a multileveled attitude to painting”. (Goldberg, 2007). McCarthy met Kaprow at the San Francisco Art Institute and they remained friends throughout Kaprow's life. McCarthy drew inspiration from Kaprow and well before this time had been introduced to all the major art movements, including Gutai, the radical group of Japanese painters and performers from the 1950's, Destructionist Art, Performance Art and film during his undergraduate studies in Salt Lake City (Rush, 2001).

Performance has been a common element of McCarthy's work throughout his career beginning with early works such as Mountain Bowling (1969) in which he carried a bowling ball to the top of a mountain and bowled it down three times. In the 1970s and 80s he presented solo performances like Class Fool (1976) and Death Ship (1983) and more recently more comprehensive productions such as Santa Chocolate Shop (1997) which featured a cast of 6.

One of the concepts that McCarthy adopted from earlier performance art was using the body to create paintings in which the action of painting is more important than the product. Artists such as Yves Klein explored this idea in Anthropometries of the Blue Period (1960) in which he had nude models covered in blue paint writhing on canvas. (Goldberg). Parallels can be seen in McCarthy's Face Painting – Floor, White Line (1972) where he tipped a bucket of white paint on its side and inched his way along the floor face down to produce a smeared white line along the floor. McCarthy later performed Penis Brush Painting (1974) in which he dipped his penis in paint and used it to cover a piece of glass. This was the first of many works that would feature the male sexual organ in a lead role.

Another group of performance artists influencial on McCarthy was the Viennese Actionists. Obvious parallels can be drawn with the fact that both make performances that feature lewd acts and bodily fluids although McCarthy is at pains to point out that he is not driven by the same traumas as the Viennese actionists and while the actionists use real blood, McCarthy uses ketchup and to him “it really is about the ketchup” (Rush, 2001).

Beyond their cosmetic similarities, both McCarthy and the Viennese Actionists share a desire to use performance to therapeutic ends. Otto Muehl was one of the founders of this group and said that the artist has the responsibility to change himself and society as well.’ In this he was reiterating one of the central tenets of Aktionismus, that art should have a cathartic, curative function within society. His aim in such works as SS and Jewish Star Aktion (1971) was a form of social therapy through an act of self-abasement for the Nazi period, a liberating reinterpretation of the self and society (Wilson, 2007).

Engaging in a cathartic process was also one of McCarthy's reasons for adopting performance: “[Performance] allows me to intuitively act out unconscious and conscious dilemmas in a character.” (Stiles 1996, p. 455). These performances in which McCarthy takes on a character began with Ma Bell (1971). The artist usually begins by donning a mask or covering his face with something and removing some or all of his clothes. Also crucial as mentioned earlier is the use of fluids such as ketchup, chocolate and mayonnaise to represent bodily fluids. Chanting primitive words such as “mommy” and “fuck” he performs repetitive actions: “there's this aspect of getting into something repetitive, going with that repetition to the point of discovery, and then sort of letting go in that space” (Stiles, 1976, p. 452).

After 1983 McCarthy moved away from live performances and instead recorded performance on video which became part of installations such as Bossy Burger (1991), he also used mechanised sculptures to perform in his works in place of a person as in The Garden (1992), a forest scene which on close inspection has a mechanised man rubbing his groin up against a tree with his pants down.

While McCarthy's work is highly original and distinctive it is clear that he draws on a range of artistic influences. I have provided examples which demonstrate that the geometric shapes, the materials, the scale and the opportunities for human interaction or the consideration of possibilities of human interaction were important elements that McCarthy brought into his work from Minimalism. McCarthy later went on to develop and evolve these elements. The cube became a recurring theme throughout his later works with new layers of meaning added on, while the relationship between the space of the art work and the space of the body can also be seen as a central concern of much of his work. As performance had been a popular choice for artists who wanted to challenge the establishments of society and the art world since the beginning of the twentieth century , McCarthy had many predecessors to draw on and in this arena I have shown that while he didn't always stick to the live aspect of performance art, he shared a desire to challenge the conventions of what constitutes art and took inspiration from artists local and international both for his bloody aesthetic and his aims of going beyond existing painting modes and surfacing of societal dilemmas.

Becker, C (Ed.) (1994) The Subversive Imagination – Artists, Society & Social Responsibility. London, Great Britain: Routledge
Cameron, Dan. (2000) The Mirror Stage. In Phillips, L (Ed.). (2000) Paul McCarthy [Exhibition Catalogue]. New York, NY: Hatje Cantz Publishers.
Goldberg, R. (2007) Performance Art. Retrieved from http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t118/e2016 (May 22, 2011).
Colpitt, Frances (1998). Minimalism. Retrieved from http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t234/e0356 (May 31, 2011).
McCarthy, P. (1968) Dead H [image]. In Hauser & Wirth. Retrieved from http://www.hauserwirth.com/artists/20/paul-mccarthy/images-clips/90/
McCarthy, P. (1972) Face Painting – Floor, White Line [image]. In Hauser & Wirth. Retrieved from from http://www.hauserwirth.com/artists/20/paul-mccarthy/images-clips/88/
Phillips L. (2000) Paul McCarthy's Theater of the Body. In Phillips, L (Ed.). (2000) Paul McCarthy [Exhibition Catalogue]. New Meseum of Contemporary Art, NY: Hatje Cantz Publishers.
Rush, Michael (2001). "A veteran foe of fakery with a cattle-prod style." Retrieved from http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/ovic/NewsDetailsPage/NewsDetailsWindow?displayGroupName=News&disableHighlighting=false&prodId=OVIC&action=e&windowstate=normal&catId=&documentId=GALE%7CA70781160&mode=view&userGroupName=per_k12&jsid=4023d6923d3b8bf1e2124ac5c112bed2.
Stiles, K. (1996). Paul McCarthy. In Press Play – Contemporary Artists in Conversation. (2005). New York, NY: Phaidon Press Limited.
Want, Christopher (2007). Minimalism. Retrieved from http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T058397 (May 30, 2011)
Wilson, Andrew (2007). Muehl, Otto. Retrieved from http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T060137 (June 1, 2011).