Paul McCarthy: ‘All for the Gut’

Robert Storr

Paul McCarthy is widely considered to be one of the most influential and ground-breaking contemporary American artists but for some people his visceral work can be hard to stomach.

The artist is known for his gut-wrenching, often hauntingly humorous work in a variety of mediums – from performance, photography, film and video, to sculpture, drawing and painting. McCarthy often mixes high and low culture in his work, seeking to break the boundaries of art by using unorthodox materials such as bodily fluids and food – his end goal to provoke an analysis of our fundamental beliefs about culture and human appetites.

In this HENI Talk, eminent critic Robert Storr surveys McCarthy’s provocative work and makes a case for it to be read in the same vein as grotesque social satirists such as François Rabelais and James Gillray’s oeuvres, which have long become canonical.

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[George W. Bush] So we strive to be a compassionate, decent, hopeful society.

It’s almost impossible not to pay attention to what he does, it’s almost impossible to pay attention to it for a sustained period of time without becoming nauseous.

One of the purposes of doing all of this work was not simply to create an avant-garde scandal. Certainly, he doesn’t mind doing that but that’s not the motive. The motive is to get to a very primal state of imaginative activity. And to get the viewer there as fast as possible.

I think Paul McCarthy is, like many other artists, conscious of his context. I think he is indeed satirising human disposition, human taboos and the world that’s around him. So, the success of people like Paul McCarthy, I think goes entirely along the lines of paths chartered long ago in our culture but blocked in modern times under this kind of idea of ‘good taste’. And Paul just bravely and insouciantly abolishes good taste.

People looking at this kind of work should listen to their guts, should feel their guts. They should not go to their heads; they should not immediately try to correlate it with what they know about art or somehow find a way to accommodate what they know to be good in relation to it. They should go directly to where it hits them. If they’re troubled, if they laugh out loud, if they do anything that is a totally spontaneous reaction to the disturbances that McCarthy and others are trying to create, that’s the place to start.

If you think about the British tradition, Gillray and the caricaturists of the 18th century, did this all the time. You can go down to Cecil Court and buy prints by Gillray which are every bit as obscene, and then some, as a thing that Paul McCarthy shows. I remember looking in a shop where I go quite often and finding one of Napoleon swimming in a swamp. But he’s not just in a swamp, he’s in a swamp full of turds. Now if people can’t handle Paul McCarthy, why can they handle Gillray?

Ketchup is, on the one hand, just simply a banal condiment. It is the icon of normalcy. What Paul does is to take it and use it for what it is: it’s liquid, it’s gooey, its shapeless, resembles bodily fluids. When Paul was making these ketchup pieces it was already in the time of AIDS, so the idea of contamination of blood was a very, very serious matter, a matter of great discomfort for people. Mayonnaise isn’t exactly semen but it’s close. If you have an artist gleefully mixing this stuff up and playing like a child, making the mess that all parents tell children not to make and doing it as an adult, and doing it with these things that are at least metaphorically associated with every taboo you can think of… It becomes something different than just a kind of sloppy clowning. It becomes deeply psychologically disturbing.

[Paul McCarthy, Painter, 1995] Try to understand the emotions. Try to see it my way…

He’s really aware of these connotations and all of the really serious stuff that he’s toying with.

Paul McCarthy comes from Utah, comes from a Mormon environment although he’s not a Mormon himself. And he went to the West Coast as a student. This was at a time in the 60s, where the idea was that the sculptor was no longer the person who made something but who initiated a process. And was even a part of that process.

Paul got famous by doing performances. And he also was one of the artists that used videotaping fairly early on to record performance. He did a piece called Bossy Burger. In it he did a satire of a television cooking show. And the cook wears a chef’s hat, he wears a plastic mask of Alfred E. Neuman from MAD magazine, and MAD magazine is a great influence, by the way, on this kind of work that comes mostly from beyond New York. And then, what he has are huge canisters of mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard. His performance consists largely of taking this material and smearing it on pieces of furniture which he has up on the table. And the show lasted for a month or more, so that by the time that show came to an end, those chairs had thoroughly rotted with all their food material on them, and the gallery thoroughly stank. And there was this primary repulsiveness to the whole thing. It was like nothing else. Now, what’s the reason for it? To get past taste, is to get past bad taste because bad taste has been institutionalised too. It’s to get to some kind of primitive experience of the body, and of having the viewer just have to cope with their own simultaneous fascination and desire to avoid.

Paul’s work is not just an American thing. Paul was given an installation opportunity at La Monnaie which is the French mint. It’s where they minted coins once upon a time and now where they make medals and medallions, and all of the commemorative things that the French so love. And he was invited to come and do a show there. So, he created a chocolate factory, where people made – onsite – a chocolate figurine of a Santa Claus figure, that was at the same time a butt plug, which is to say, a dildo, a sexual toy, that you would insert into the anus. Now to make a chocolate butt plug in the shape of Santa Claus, in the French mint, is a kind of amazing gathering together context and content. The greatest scatological humourist of all time was François Rabelais. Rabelais wrote a whole series of parodies on the body, and on the church and on the state. He is the prime example of the critical grotesque. The critical grotesque has always been operating on the principles that under certain conditions of permission you can make fun of cardinals, you can make fun of kings. The high can be brought low. We think we are created in the divine image, but in fact we are created in an animal reality.

And Rabelais’ famous line was ‘tout pour les tripes’, which is to say ‘all for the gut’. Everything is for the gut. So what Paul McCarthy is doing is taking the grotesque of Rabelais and updating it. And making it even more grotesque than maybe Rabelais imagined.

I think the first thing is to have your nerve be hit. And then to notice that it has been hit. And then to move forward into saying “How could this be? How could this ridiculous thing in front of me have gotten to me? That must mean that the ‘to me’ that has gotten to me, is already there. There’s some part of me already predisposed to enjoy this, or to feel it in some way, intensely.”

If you look at Goya, if you look at Gillray – any number of caricaturists of the Baroque, Renaissance, period and any number of caricaturists of the modern era – the fact that we’re affected by them means the potential to be affected by them exists in us already. So, if we deny them, what we’re doing is we’re denying this pre-disposition, this sense of the absurdity of things that we all kind-of already know is true.

It’s one thing to make a small pop object, another thing to make a mammoth gargantuan one, an oppressively large joke. We’re accustomed to heroic, monolithic sculptures, of beautiful figuresque, statuesque people: the beautiful male, the beautiful female, and so on. But what about ugliness raised to the same height and placed in the same public situation? What about being asked to look at, forced to look at, versions of ourselves that we prefer not to think about? Paul has gone into that in a big way.

There’s part of Paul’s work which is also direct political cartooning. For example, the Piccadilly Project that was done in the heart of London, where you had caricatures of the Queen of England, of Osama Bin Laden and of George Bush. And they’re all these kind-of demonic dolls, playing with each other in apocalyptic circumstances. This is political art but not in a sense of a kind of art that preaches, or that even just condemns. Because who’s to say who’s the more villainous: the Queen, Osama Bin Laden, George Bush? From Paul’s work you can’t tell. They’re all figures of power that he has caricatured and brought low. That’s the important thing. It’s about mocking everybody. Mocking the absurdity of our situation, and the low comedy of our behaviour.

I also think – and this is my own view, I don’t think of anything that Paul has said that backs this up – but I think that Paul has sort-of taken advantage of the money that has come to him, to squander it. In other words, I think that the impetus behind a lot of his work is to spend what the art market now brings to artists at his level.

[Paul McCarthy, Painter, 1995] How much money do you owe me now? Why haven’t you paid me the money you owe me?

Of course, one version of what art is, is that art again is a kid playing in his diaper.

[Paul McCarthy, Painter, 1995] You owe me a real lot of money, why don’t you pay me the money you owe me?

One version of what money is, according to Freud, is that money is a surrogate for faeces. So, supposing a lot of Paul’s work is shitting out the money the art market has delivered to him for doing the things he was doing. I think he does it saying: ‘Okay, fine, if I can have 2 million dollars, what can I do with 2 million dollars? I know, rather than making models of things, I will make them full scale. In making them full scale, I will go to the film industry and buy up bits and pieces of left-over productions and incorporate them in my work, but I’ll also make things that rival the real big things that films use in their productions’.

So, for example, there was a year or two when he and his son, with whom he works, were making pirate movies, sort-of satires of pirate movies. And by this time already Johnny Depp was all over the place with Pirates of the Caribbean. But there’s a long tradition of such pirate movies, and Errol Flynn was one of the heroes. He bought up the model that was used in one of Errol Flynn’s films, and started playing with it. Well, this is already a very big expenditure, a very big prop left over from the grand days of the Hollywood studio production. And he did this in an industrial park on the edge of Los Angeles, so he was almost like a guy now creating 20th Century Fox in its old Hollywood context. And then making satire films, travesties, of the kinds of things that Hollywood used to produce but almost at the scale of the real thing.

So, if you think that there’s 20th Century Fox, and there’s MGM, and now there’s McCarthy.

[Paul McCarthy, Heidi, Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone, 1991-92]

Puppet 1: I have seen them naked at times, when they have stripped off their false ornament. They somehow become more animal.

Puppet 2: All nudes are perfect, there is not one that is not pried from the Lord’s, nature’s, mould…

Many of the things that artists do is to play in public, and to play in an exemplary way that others may think about the things they do, in terms that question what they are. And Paul McCarthy for all the other labels you could attach to him: funk, West Coast, weird, cartoony, whatever it is – he’s primarily a man playing and playing on a grand scale, with concepts that are some of them very serious, and some of them that are truly child’s play.

With thanks to

Dylan Huig

Hauser & Wirth

Paul McCarthy Studio

 

Archive

AP Archive

British Museum

Getty Images

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Morgan Library and Museum

Rijksmuseum

 

Music

9 Lives

Audio Network

 

Paul McCarthy Artworks

All works © Paul McCarthy
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

 

Hollywood Halloween, 1977

Performance, video, photographs

Photos: Karen McCarthy

 

Piccadilly Circus, 2003

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Photos: Ann-Marie Rounkle

 

Hot Dog, 1974

Performance, video, photographs

Photos: Spandau Parks / Karen McCarthy

 

Experimental Dancer, 1975

Performance, video, photographs

Photos: Mike Cram

 

Plaster Your Head and One Arm into a Wall, 1973

Performance, photographs

Photo: Mike Cram / Karen McCarthy

 

Excerpt from performance video Penis Dip Painting, 1974

Black and white video with sound

Duration: 17:50

 

Train, Mechanical, 2003-2010

Steel, platinum silicone, fiberglass, rope, electrical and mechanical components

109 x 223 x 60 inches

 

Excerpts from performance video Piccadilly Circus, 2003

4-channel color video with sound

Duration: 76:50

 

Excerpt from performance video Rocky, 1976

Color video with sound

Duration: 21:30

 

Still from performance video Santa Chocolate Shop, 1997

2-channel color video with sound

Duration 43:00

 

Excerpt from performance video WGG Test / Wild Gone Girls, 2003

Color video with sound

Duration: 5:40

 

Excerpt from performance video Icicle Slobber, 1975

Black and white video with sound

Duration: 1:11

 

Excerpt from performance video Spitting on the Camera Lens, 1974

Black and white video with sound

Duration: 1:00

 

Excerpt from performance video Bossy Burger, 1991

Color video with sound

Duration: 59:08

 

WS White Snow, 2012-13

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Photo: Jeremiah McCarthy

 

The Garden, 1991-1992

Wood, fiberglass, steel, electric motors, latex rubber, foam rubber, wigs, clothing, artificial turf. leaves, Pine needles, rocks & trees

22 x 30 x 20 feet

 

WS White Snow Mammoth, 2013

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Photo: Louisa McCarthy

 

Santa Chocolate Shop, 1996-97

Performance, video, photographs, installation

 

Santa With Butt Plug (Inflatable 80′), 2007

Vinyl-coated nylon fabric, fans, rigging

80 x 40 x 40 feet

Photo: Mark Vos

 

Santa With Butt Plug (Inflatable 80′), 2007

Vinyl-coated nylon fabric, fans, rigging

80 x 40 x 40 feet

Photo: Raivo Puusemp

 

Shoe Penis, 2009

Charcoal, oil stick, collage on paper

98 x 93 x 8 inches

 

WS White Snow, 2012-13

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Photo: Damon McCarthy

 

Caribbean Pirates, 2005

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Collaboration with Damon McCarthy

Photos: Sidney Duenas

 

Grand Pop, 1977

Performance, photographs

University of Southern California Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA

 

Daddies Ketchup, 2001

Vinyl-coated nylon fabric, fans, rigging

374 x 126 x 126 inches

Photo: Ann-Marie Rounkle

 

Excerpts from performance video Face Painting- Floor, White Line, 1972

Black and white video with sound

Duration: 6:02

 

Death Ship, 1981

Performance, photographs

Photo: Steve Durland

 

WS White Snow, 2012-13

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Photo: Josh White

 

Excerpts from performance video Pinocchio Pipenose Householddilemma, 1994

Color video with sound

Duration: 43:58

 

Excerpts from performance video Painter, 1995

Color video with sound

Duration: 50:01

 

Excerpt from performance video Whipping a Wall and a Window with Paint ,1974

Black and white video with sound

Duration: 7:06

 

Installation view, Chocolate Factory Monnaie De Paris, 2014

Melting/tempering tanks, 36-head spinner, 225 custom plastic injected molds, chocolate, cocoa butter, windows, plumbing, AC units, 2 refrigerators, linoleum, rubber flooring, wallpaper, tables, baskets, buckets, conveyor belts, packaging,

Dimensions variable

Photo: Marc Domage

 

Installation view, Chocolate Factory Monnaie De Paris, 2014

Melting/tempering tanks, 36-head spinner, 225 custom plastic injected molds, chocolate, cocoa butter, windows, plumbing, AC units, 2 refrigerators, linoleum, rubber flooring, wallpaper, tables, baskets, buckets, conveyor belts, packaging,

Dimensions variable

Photo: Naotaka Hiro

 

Installation view, Chocolate Factory Monnaie De Paris, 2014

Melting/tempering tanks, 36-head spinner, 225 custom plastic injected molds, chocolate, cocoa butter, windows, plumbing, AC units, 2 refrigerators, linoleum, rubber flooring, wallpaper, tables, baskets, buckets, conveyor belts, packaging,

Dimensions variable

Photo: Dylan Huig

 

Chocolate Santa with Butt Plug, 2007

Chocolate

10h x 5.5 x 3 inches

 

Installation view, Chocolate Factory Monnaie De Paris, 2014

Melting/tempering tanks, 36-head spinner, 225 custom plastic injected molds, chocolate, cocoa butter, windows, plumbing, AC units, 2 refrigerators, linoleum, rubber flooring, wallpaper, tables, baskets, buckets, conveyor belts, packaging,

Dimensions variable

Photos: Etienne Pottier

 

WS White Snow, 2012-13

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Photo: Damon McCarthy

 

Pig Man, 1980

Performance, video, photographs

American Art Performance Festival,

Theatre Circo Spazio Zero, Rome, Italy

 

Caribbean Pirates, 2005

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Collaboration with Damon McCarthy

Photo: Ann Marie Rounkle

 

Piggies, 2007

Vinyl-coated nylon fabric, fans, rigging

507 x 960 x 1023 inches

Photo: Neils Donckers

 

Piggies, 2007

Vinyl-coated nylon fabric, fans, rigging

507 x 960 x 1023 inches

Photo: Karin Seinsoth

 

Complex Pile, 2007

Vinyl-coated nylon fabric, fans, rigging

620 x 1318 x 622 inches

Photo: Neils Donckers

 

White Head, Bush Head, 2007

Vinyl-coated nylon fabric, fans, rigging

299 x 360 inches

Photo: Neils Donckers

 

White Head, Bush Head , 2007

Vinyl-coated nylon fabric, fans, rigging

299 x 360 inches

Photo: Karin Seinsoth

 

Bound to Fail – PM HM Sculpture on a Pedestal, 2003-2004

Vinyl-coated nylon fabric, fans, scaffolding, rigging

600 x 420 x 300 inches

 

Bound to Fail – PM HM Sculpture on a Pedestal, 2003-2004

Vinyl-coated nylon fabric, fans, scaffolding, rigging

600 x 420 x 300 inches

Photo: Neils Donckers

 

Complex Pile, 2007

Vinyl-coated nylon fabric, fans, rigging

620 x 1318 x 622 inches

Photo courtesy of Hauser & Wirth

 

Tree (Inflatable), 2014

Green vinyl, fan

960 x 540 x 540 inches

Photo: Amy Baumann

 

Sod and Sodie Sock Comp. O.S.O., 1998

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Collaboration with Mike Kelley

Photos: Angelika Hausenblas

 

Excerpts from performance video Heidi, Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone, 1991-1992

Color video with sound

Duration: 62:39

Collaboration with Mike Kelley

 

Heidi, Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone, 1991-92

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Collaboration with Mike Kelley

 

WS White Snow, 2012-13

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Photo: Damon McCarthy

 

Caribbean Pirates, 2005

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Collaboration with Damon McCarthy

Photo: Ann-Marie Rounkle

 

Rebel Dabble Babble, 2011-2012

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Photo: Josh White

 

Gray Ghost, 1936/2001

Found object

175 x 84 x 252 inches

Collaboration with Damon McCarthy

Photo: Paul McCarthy

 

Gray Ghost, 1936/2001

Found object

175 x 84 x 252 inches

Collaboration with Damon McCarthy

 

Caribbean Pirates, 2005

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Collaboration with Damon McCarthy

Photo: Sid Duenas

 

Houseboat Party, 2005

Performance, video, photographs, installation

Collaboration with Damon McCarthy

Photos: Sid Duenas

 

Excerpts from performance video Experimental Dancer, Edit #2, 1975

Color video with sound

Duration: 23:08

 

Excerpt from performance video Class Fool, 1976

Color video with sound

Duration: 40:06

 

Excerpt from performance video Spinning, short version, 1970

Black and white video with sound

Duration: 2:01

 

Portrait of Paul McCarthy

Photo: Mara McCarthy

 

Additional Archive

Hiroshima Bomb Dropped

Sherman Grinberg Library / Getty Images

 

An atomic mushroom clouds spreads over the Pacific Ocean

Hearst Newsreel / Getty Images

 

President George W. Bush lays out his 2006 priorities in his fifth State of the Union address

AP Archive

 

Atomic bomb named ‘Gilda’, first bomb in US Operation Crossroads

Sherman Grinberg Library / Getty Images

 

Atomic weapon test Baker, Operation Crossroads

Internet Archive- Footage / Getty Images

 

Queen Elizabeth II attends remembrance service

AP Archive

 

The Gout

James Gillray, 1799

British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Petit souper, a la Parisienne; -or- a family of sans-culotts refreshing, after the fatigues of the day

James Gillray, 1792

British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

The monster going to take his afternoons luncheon

James Gillray, 1790

British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Billy playing Johnny a dirty Trick

James Gillray, 1796

British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Tha apples and the horse-turds; -or-Buonaparte among the golden pippins

James Gillray, 1800

British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Welcome to Utah Sign

storiestold / Getty Images

 

The gold statue Moroni atop the LDS Salt Lake Temple

Stock Footage, Inc. / Getty Images

 

Aerial Utah Salt Lake City

Guillaume749 / Getty Images

 

Golden Gate Bridge 1972

pronto8000 / Getty Images

 

Canted time lapse traffic on Golden Gate Bridge

Mr. Time Lapse / Getty Images

 

Beverly Hills Palm Trees

LPETTET / Getty Images

 

Driving Under Palm Trees

simonkr / Getty Images

 

The Monnaie de Paris unveils a new exhibition called ‘Chocolate Factory’ by U.S artist Paul McCarthy

AP Archive

 

McCarthy exhibits chocolate versions of his sex toy sculpture

AFPTV / Getty Images

 

Rabelais (deuxième planche)

Print made by Félix Bracquemond, 1868

British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Rabelais présente Gargantua

Gravure de Gustave Doré

Frontispice de l’édition de 1854

Public Domain Mark 1.0

 

Illustration of the Prologue that appears in book 1

of Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais

Published in The Works of Rabelais, translated by Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty

and Peter Antony Motteux, 1894

 

Les Songes Drolatiques de Pantagruel ou sont contenues plusieurs figures de l’invention de maitre François Rabelais

François Desprez, 1565

Published by Richard Breton

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

(CC0 1.0)

 

Schetsboekblad met een studie van een reus, kleine figuren en drie schetsen van gezichten voor een illustratie uit François Rabelais’ Gargantua en Pantagruel

Henk Henriët, c.1936 – c.1940

Rijksmuseum

(CC0 1.0)

 

Gargantua

Gustave Doré

Public Domain Mark 1.0

 

Sketch of Two Grotesque Faces with Gaping Mouths

Gustave Doré

The Morgan Library and Museum

Purchased in 2000

2000.52:2

 

‘Grandgousier’ staand, schreeuwend

Henk Henriët, 1939

Uit een reeks illustraties bij F. Rabelais, Gargantua en Pantagruel

Rijksmuseum

(CC0 1.0)

 

Gargantua (with baby)

Gustave Doré

Public Domain Mark 1.0

 

The Disasters of War (Los Desastres de la Guerra)

  1. 37, Esto es peor (This is worse), Harris.157
  2. 39, Grande hazana! Con muertos! (A heroic feat! With dead men!)

Goya (Francisco de Goya y Lucientes), 1810–20, published 1863

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

(CC0 1.0)

 

“More Pigs Than Teats”,–or–the New Litter of Hungry Grunters, Sucking John-Bull’s-Old-Sow to Death

James Gillray, 1806

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

(CC0 1.0)

 

The Pigs Possessed:–or–the Broad Bottom’d Litter Running Headlong into Ye Sea of Perdition

James Gillray, 1807

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

(CC0 1.0)

 

Giant balloon dog welcomes visitors at Frieze art fair

AP Archive

 

Paul McCarthy titled “Complex Pile” in Hong Kong

LAURENT FIEVET / Getty Images

 

‘Tree’ By Paul McCarthy – Monumental Artwork at Place Vendome In Paris

Chesnot / Getty Images

 

Giant Inflatable ‘Tree’ By Paul McCarthy Damaged at Place Vendome In Paris

Chesnot / Getty Images

 

Errol Flynn in Captain Blood

John Springer Collection / Getty Images

 

20th Century Fox Logo

20th Century Fox / Getty Images

 

Interior of MGM Studios

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Paul McCarthy’, Hauser & Wirth

Harmony Korine, ‘Paul McCarthy has plenty of shock left in him’, Interview Magazine, 19 June 2019

Mark Rappolt, ‘Paul McCarthy’, ArtReview, September 2015

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