Trite Paul McCarthy, at the New Museum

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

The cover of
last week’s New Yorker could hardly have summed things up better.
That theater billboard proclaiming its wares at a smiling, streaming audience.
"Lurid!" screams one sign. "Gratuitously Prurient!" yells
another. "A New Low!" promises a third. Veiled commentary on rising
attendance following the recent controversy at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, but
the magazine might just as well have been talking about the current exhibition
at Soho’s New Museum, a retrospective of the work of Paul McCarthy.

The exhibition
mostly features simulations of self-mutilation, castration, defecation, dismemberment,
vomiting, suffocation and bestiality, among other activities. Bluntly amateurish
in presentation, terrifically infantile in content, unendurably rambling and,
worse yet, totally unfunny–something of a shock when one considers the
artist’s undeserved reputation as a funnyman–McCarthy’s 30-year
survey is precisely the kind of event that the art world, in its kneejerk, frivolous
embrace of all things marginal and inchoate, loves to love to love.

Like much political
art of the last two decades, McCarthy’s work trades on the kind of moralizing
that enrages Mississippi preachers and North Carolina senators and leaves certain
paranoid-liberal folks feeling inarticulate if peculiarly self-satisfied. McCarthy,
a latecomer to art world popularity, was smart to avoid the controversy, conservative
backlash and subsequent oblivion that engulfed the culture warriors of the 80s
and 90s. Ensconced in Southern California, his work cultivated underground cult
status during that time, partly in response to his faux-psychotic performances
and videos, partly thanks to his tenure at UCLA’s influential art school.

McCarthy was
inspired early on by the Action Art and Body Art that followed Action Painting–work
that, like Pollock’s, recorded the painter’s encounter with the canvas–and
made known his reaction to Abstract Expressionism’s canonization of creativity
through a series of nonsensical, putatively purgative performances. These included
tossing a bowling ball down a hill (Mountain Bowling, 1969), painting
the floor with his face (Face Painting–Floor, White Line, 1972),
plastering his head and arm into a wall (Plaster Your Head and One Arm into
a Wall
, 1973) and displaying his hairy ass to a video camera (Mooning,

Tied into other
self-abusing shenanigans–like the work of Chris Burden (who had himself
shot in the arm), the actions of Gina Pane (who systematically cut herself with
razor blades) and the performances of Carolee Schneeman (who publicly read from
texts secreted inside her vagina)–McCarthy humbly established himself as
something of a rogue-saint, a "semimystical figure," in the words
of New Museum senior curator Dan Cameron, "compelled to explore meanings
and forms ignored or drastically simplified by society."

McCarthy developed
a repetitive, abject language with which to trot out a tried, politically correct
reversal of Freudian pseudoscience, intimately connected to other kooky period
phenomena like Reichian psychology, primal scream therapy and the asinine, naive
equation of the personal with the political. He located, with blinding originality,
the culture’s core problems in "bourgeois patriarchy" and "social
repression," and embarked on a series of graphic performances meant to
expunge America of its protracted illness by means of a ritualized theatrical

the notion of sublimation–the channeling of instinctual desire from primitive
expression to socially acceptable behavior–as the enemy, McCarthy’s
actions symbolically loosed the Freudian id from the fetters of the ego and
superego. Sweaty, hysterical performances followed, cast supposedly as exorcisms
of a body politic collectively trussed up by "the prohibitory apparatus
of culture." He wishfully reinvented America as a nation of John Wayne
Gacys instead of John Waynes; and projected an equally twisted mirror image
of Jesse Helms country. A male version of Karen Finley (who, like McCarthy,
also covered herself in some foodstuffs and put others up her rectum), the California
artist saw a terminally closeted America where Republicans eyeballed the Second
Amendment, full of "repression, guilt, sex, and shit," where only
a dwindling few invoked the nation’s most sanitized myths.

and video installations with names like "Meatcake" (the artist eats
raw hamburger meat), "Hot Dog" (the artist eats and spews hotdogs)
and "Heinz Ketchup Sauce" (the artist eats and spews Heinz Ketchup
Sauce) made of America’s 1950s Leave It to Beaver cuisine a working
palette for McCarthy’s formless oral activity. Splattering fluids like
mayonnaise and ketchup while covering and violating himself with prepackaged
food, McCarthy sought, at least in stated purpose, not only to expose the psychic
underbelly of America but also to debunk the false idealism built into entertainment

A 1991 performance
and installation, Bossy Burger, still passes in McCarthyite circles for
"breakthrough" material. Placed inside a set constructed from castoffs
of the tv sitcom Family Affair, a white-suited, chef-hatted McCarthy
shows up for the taping of a cooking show wearing an Alfred E. Neuman mask.
He screams and flails violently for hours, covering everything in liquid muck,
enacting a rampant buffoonery that is to real weirdness as a Hari Krishna airport
dance is to Philippine crucifixions. Less postmodern derangement of the
senses than a monitor stuck on a pointless hour of public access cable, McCarthy’s
shtick pales next to both the factual and fictional horrors enacted hourly on
tv, film and computer screens across the world.

So why is Paul
McCarthy so revered within certain art world confines? The following quote goes
a long way to making this clear: "McCarthy shows both the family and the
media as intertwined twin tyrannies in American culture, wreaking their own
particular violence through social conditioning." This astoundingly daft,
myopic statement, written by New Museum director Lisa Phillips for the exhibition
catalog, provides broad access into the kind of dated, rote rationale that sanctions
the work of out-of-touch museums like the New and out-of-date artists like Paul
McCarthy. Thoroughly incorporated into the normative culture McCarthy so abhors
in the form of horror flicks and South Park episodes, shock and trauma
can no longer be, if they ever were, regenerative triggers for a "radical
desublimation." Without it, McCarthy’s work descends into the theatrical
equivalent of poop jokes; just the thing that still fires prudish curators and
critics stuck, like broken records, on tinny, issue-oriented, multiculturalism.

McCarthy," through May 13 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583 Broadway
(betw. Houston & Prince Sts.), 219-1222.