Thursday, December 20, 2001

Paul McCarthy

Cultural Soup at Tate Liverpool

Paul McCarthy is probably the most well known performance artist in the world. He is most well known for his use of outrageous and horrific imagery in his more recent performances than for the undeniable influence he has had on modern performance and installation art. This exhibition is a comprehensive retrospective bringing together works from the early 1970's through to the late 1990's, and is one of the largest shows he has ever done.

The first thing I see (before I have even paid to enter the show) is a video of McCarthy smearing a baby doll with mayonnaise and repeating the phrase "the son begets the daddy, and the daddy begets the son" ("Cultural Soup", 1987). Little do I know that this is nothing compared to the surreal Freudian horrors yet to come.

There are four other videos in the exhibition, mixed with sculptures and installations of the sets used in the videos. There are also framed photographs documenting McCarthy's earlier performances, including some fairly shocking images of a staged performance in which McCarthy is smeared in ketchup as he gives birth to a headless doll from an oversized prosthetic vagina. Like many of his works it is deeply disturbing and yet strangely comical.

Then there are the sculptures - a man with a giant rabbit's head and disproportionately large genitals ("Spaghetti Man", 1993), a plastic figure of Pinocchio in bed ("Pinocchio Pipenose Householddilemma", 1994) and an old man trying to copulate with a hole in a barrel ("Alpine Man", 1992). Again, these are quite disturbing, but also very funny. There is a continued usage of deviant sexual practices and childhood imagery, which combined form an obviously unsettling combination.

It becomes impossible not to ask why Paul McCarthy himself is not considered to be insane, particularly when faced with videos of the artist dressed as a boxer, smeared in ketchup, punching himself around the head and masturbating ("Rocky", 1976) and laughing uncontrollably as he draws pictures of genitals and repeatedly asks "what's this?" ("Bossy Burger", 1991). The answer to this question is clear, McCarthy does not desire to perform these so-called deviant acts for pleasure, but for the sake of art. His perceived insanity is what makes his performances so interesting.

There is a piece of work that stands out as the most linear, easily understandable performance in the show and this is the film "Painter" (1995). McCarthy plays the role of a frustrated abstract expressionist who has huge hands and ears and a giant bulbous nose, which exaggerate his awkwardness. He speaks in a squeaky cartoon voice and tries to tell the viewer how to paint ("you mix the red with the blue?"). But every so often he breaks down and starts muttering himself "I can't do this anymore, fuck all painting, fuck all painting". Later on in the performance he argues with his agent about money and tries out self-harm as a way of getting public attention (by hilariously/horrifically chopping his fake hand off). This piece is obviously deriding the somewhat pretentious view that art critics had of the tormented artist, such as Pollock or De Kooning, who are admired for their neuroses as much as they are for their art.

Through the role of the deviant, the madman, and the artist, McCarthy's works reach into the gut of the human psyche and revealed our deepest and darkest desires. Sometimes horrific and often comical, these performances are as disconcerting as they are fascinating.

© The Happy Woman 2001

Paul McCarthy at Tate Liverpool 19 October 2001 - 13 January 2002.

Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool. L3 4BB

T: +44 (0)151 702 7400)

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