PAUL Mc CARTHY ( 4.8.1945-
Paul McCarthy has incorporated performance elements into his work since the beginning of his career. This practice began in 1966Ü67 when, as a student, he created a series of all-black paintings by charring the canvases with a blow torch. That work led him to concentrate on performances, which began with his performing simple actions such as jumping out of a window in Sudden Leap (1967). In Hot Dog (1974), he started to include the audience in his performances "as a prop in the arena of the action."1 In that work, the audience sat at cafe tables, which McCarthy had arranged in his studio, and could eat the hot dogs (and ketchup and mayonnaise) provided by him while watching McCarthy perform like a stand-up comic. A video camera taped both McCarthy and the spectators as the event unfolded. In subsequent works such as Pig Man (1980) and Death Ship (1981), he also incorporated audience participation by staging volunteers in chairs, as part of the action. In films and videos, he has documented simple actions, such as painting a white line on the floor with his face, and elaborate performances that include several performers. In 1984, McCarthy temporarily stopped performing and concentrated on producing sculptures using mannequins, stuffed animals, and robots.
In 1987, he returned to performing in videos and has, finally, provoked viewers into participating in video installations that resemble stage sets.
Santa Claus, Tokyo, Japan, 1996
The irreverence of that initial gesture of burning the canvas of his painting has continued and magnified as McCarthy uses the grotesque, scatological, and generally tasteless to question the assumptions of American culture's most ingrained beliefs. He has explored patriarchal authority within the family, modernist notions of the purity of art, and the cultural and historical fantasies propagated by Hollywood, always riding the edge between the appropriately critical and politically improper. In the 1995 video Fresh Acconci, for example, McCarthy and his collaborator Mike Kelley restaged several performances originally enacted by Vito Acconci in the 1970s. They substituted attractive, naked, young actresses for the less photogenic Acconci, endowing the scenes with a slightly pornographic air. The production was inspired by the renewed interest in early performance art and youth culture that McCarthy and Kelley had observed in recent art.2 Fresh Acconci uncomfortably raises issues about exploitation and sexism and refers to the seamier, soft-porn side of the film industry.
McCarthy often borrows the costumes, props, and settings of Hollywood to present his own demented version of it. As the most powerful producer and disseminator of popular culture and values, the entertainment industry is a natural target of McCarthy's attentions. The video and installation Bossy Burger (1991) was taped on the unused set of a television sit-com. Painter (1995), also a video and installation, was performed by McCarthy and other players in an environment that mimicked a sit-com set and, in Pinocchio Pipenose Householddilemma (1994), viewers watch a video in which a dysfunctional, costumed family enacts a domestic drama worthy of a soap opera.
McCarthy's most recent efforts are elaborate but obviously artificial stage sets that refer to Disneyesque locations such as the Wild West in Yaa Hoo (1996) and Santa's Theater (working title), included in this exhibition. Of this interest, McCarthy has said, "The references I make to the media and to Disneyland/Hollywood is another subject. It has to do with virtual reality settings. . . . I am not critiquing it, its destructiveness. . . . But it does put people in crisis."
To say that critique does not figure in his approach to his subjects may seem disingenuous; the image that McCarthy presents never offers the official cheery picture. Viewing McCarthy's work brings about a sense of witnessing a private horrorfrom the incestuous activities of Heidi (1992) to the improbable sex in Yaa Hoo, which continues in Santa's Theater. The voyeuristic gaze has been consistent in his work and is a result of McCarthy's early interest in film and his fascination with the view through the lens. He has also traced this tendency to Marcel Duchamp's Etant donnes (1946Ü66). This last major work by Duchamp is a tableau with a nude female mannequin that can only be seen through small holes in the wooden door that shields it from the public. Duchamp's use of mannequins, windows, and reflections also interested McCarthy.
In Santa's Theater, McCarthy employs the obstructed view, windows, and human surrogates in a large-scale environment that resembles a children's movie version of Santa's house in all of its quaintness. In order to enter the house, viewers must wear one of the costumes and masks of Santa Claus, the elves, or reindeer provided by McCarthy. Viewers must thus choose which role they want to, literally, step into. When fully dressed, one can enter Santa's world as one of the players and sit down to watch similarly dressed characters performing on videotape in what appears to be the same house. On tape, McCarthy transforms the wholesome greeting card image of Santa and his helpers into a caricature of violence and excess.
The experience of watching the havoc on video is simultaneously funny and disconcerting, since one may be dressed to resemble the tormentor elf on tape and may be sitting next to someone dressed as the victim. By making viewers stand-ins for the video characters, McCarthy implicates them in the action. He completes the transformation of spectators into performers by luring them into a theatrical space where they can be watched by other viewers perhaps too timid to don disguises. These spectators can view the proceedings of the various fake Santas, elves, and reindeer only through the windows of the theater. As in earlier installations such as The Garden (1991Ü92), McCarthy controls the view of the action by limiting access to it. In The Garden, robotic figures commune with nature in the most intimate way in an artificial garden setting, and McCarthy offers glimpses of their antics through the trees and rocks. In Santa's Theater, McCarthy allows only those who are willing to assume the role of one of the protagonists full passage to the piece.
McCarthy's insistence on the viewer's costumed role-playing first occurred in Pinocchio Pipenose Householddilemma. In that installation, spectators had to wear clown outfits and Pinocchio masks in order to enter a room to watch the violent home video of the Pinocchio family. Santa's Theater expands that tactic as McCarthy offers spectators a variety of roles. The viewers then become performers who watch other actors in similar roles on video while they are watched by other spectators who are outside of the stage set, who in turn watch each other interacting in this ridiculous environment. The voyeuristic gaze bounces from one group of spectators to the next in an absurd performance, which ends only when the costumes come off and all the viewers disperse.
In Santa's Theater, as in all of McCarthy's major works, there is a sense of exposing the secret, shocking reality behind the innocent veneer of our culture's most treasured illusions. The various themes of the work: the commercialization of every aspect of life, the contemporary obsession with an antiseptic fiction rather than the more complex reality, and the violence of American society overlap in a web of interdependent references. By placing us in the center of the action, McCarthy forces us to take responsibility for the absurdities on screen as well as those in our culture. The societal implications of this strategy are not lost on McCarthy, who has said,I was also interested in what happens when you put a frame, a camera window, in front of the performance and the viewer watches it through this window. You change the situation that way. You hide parts of what they could see and you control it. It reflects on culture's use of control.
© 1997 Museum of Contemporary Art.