PAUL McCARTHY cont.>

When asked about this contradiction between his private and public persona, McCarthy admits he finds the label "shock artist" confusing. "I can't say my pieces were ever directed at trying to shock an audience," he says, taking a seat at a large table covered in art books, power tools, and munchies. "At the time that I was making [those early works], I felt I was trying to deal with certain issues and that it was somehow a kind of language to discuss something. It was never a desire to shock in the sense of shock as entertainment. If anything, I was trying to make pieces that were potent rather than shocking, or trying to make pieces that would cause a reaction or do something real."

Which they did. Today McCarthy's work -- including videos, large-scale sculptures and installation pieces -- sells in the five-to-six-figures range and can be found in a number of key contemporary museums around the world. Many argue that he's the most important artist of his generation. As Dan Cameron, senior curator of New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art, states in his essay "The Mirror Stage," "it is impossible to overstate the achievement of [McCarthy] in the past 30 years, or to name another artist more persuasive in articulating the brutality and dehumanization that underlie the social equilibrium on this country."

Considering Cameron's opinion, it's no surprise that the New Museum is exhibiting retrospective of McCarthy's work and an installation of "The Box," his most personal work to date. "The Box" is a full-scale, exact replica of his studio in Pasadena, complete with hundreds of personal objects and references. "The idea of a box is interesting," he says. "When I was in school I built this large, hollow, letter H and laid it on the floor. I later called it "Dead H" -- H for human -- because I began to see it as a metaphor for the architecture of the body. Then I did another piece that was a black cube, which was also hollow, suggesting the hollowness of minimalism, and then added this tail to it like a hallway, or entrance way. It was called "Skull With Tail," because I saw it as a head that you wanted to look into but couldn't. Since then I've made a bunch of pieces incorporating boxes, or rooms, containing actions or images. Sometimes they're sets that I've built for my performances and sometimes they're just rooms by themselves. But what's interesting to me is when I project the piece outwards from the actual place where the action took place. That way the box becomes a kind of projection box and the image that was made on the inside of this box is now on the outside looking in. And then there's the box that the entire piece is situated in, the box of the museum, and the box of representations that encompass that -- the box of perception or consciousness -- which is really the box of the mind."

McCarthy continually explores the notion of architectural space in his work. His installations, which often include the sets built for his performances, are investigations of spatial perception itself. In 1970, early in his career, he began looking at space as a malleable, sculptural form, with a series of photographs called "Inverted Hallways." These were images of empty rooms and hallways which McCarthy flipped upside down to transform the ceiling into the floor, and vice versa. (He also mounted light fixtures on the floor to make the optical illusion that much more frustrating).

 

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