I never much cottoned to Paul McCarthy, but Train, Mechanical (2003-2010), part of “Paul McCarthy: Three Sculptures,” which inaugurates the new Los Angeles gallery of New York-based L & M Arts, has made me a reluctant fan. The grotesque sculpture is a robotic double image of George W. Bush copulating with a pig, just the sort of shock-schlock that McCarthy has made his stock in trade. While I generally have no patience for any of his slovenly garbage, this new work may well be a masterpiece of political agitprop: an appalling satire that captures as no other the revulsion and rage engendered worldwide by the long, dark tenure of our 43rd president.
The spectacle consists of a row of motorized, life-sized animatrons of Bush and hogs, their mechanical armatures covered with pink fleshlike resin. The Bush figures’ hips pump as their oversized heads turn from side to side, periodically spinning full circle, “Exorcist”-style, lips parting in orgasmic reverie. The daisy chain continues as the pigs in turn are penetrated in the ear by piglets. The ghastly contraption is set atop a metal frame containing the computerized machine that automates it. No need to belabor a close reading here: the figures, self-absorbed in bestial depravity, represent the utter debasement of statesmanship, democracy, and truth that marked the Bush years.
I am not suggesting that the piece is an aesthetic, intellectual, or spiritual achievement of any distinction. McCarthy’s cartoonish imagery operates with all the nuance of a raised middle finger. And the sculpture’s kinetic action, by robotic standards, is merely adequate. But the tableau rings an emotional chord of unexpectedly powerful resonance even two years after Bush left office. Why? Because while in many ways it represents everything I loathe in contemporary art, it nevertheless slakes an ongoing thirst for public rebuke of the Bush regime. With occasional exceptions, such as Richard Serra’s “Stop Bush” poster depicting a hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib, artists were regrettably feeble in response to the Bush scourge. The likelihood that McCarthy’s sculpture will prompt future art historians to re-examine the political acts that fostered its creation is priceless.
But let’s be clear about the artistic value of McCarthy’s oeuvre. Videos of him and his cohorts slathering one another with Bosco and ketchup have been interpreted as raucous send-ups of Action Painting and transgressions in the mode of the Vienna Actionists, but art history is at best ancillary to what are essentially puerile Dionysian festivals of goo. His gigantic bronzes and inflatable-rubber Santas and Pinocchios adorned with sex toys have been lauded as lampoons of our idiotic culture, but they are idiotic themselves, exercises in warmed over Surrealism that fail to reward prolonged attention. Indeed, McCarthy’s obscene clownery pollutes the art world, posing as critique while feeding the market’s maw. But in Bush the artist has found a subject appropriate to his vulgar form.
In many countries the portrayal of a (former) president astride the rear of a corpulent hog would be criminal. But the U.S. embraces such insults to decorum as long as they sell, and rest assured some wealthy collector can be expected to pay the $5 million dollars that L & M is asking for the unique piece. McCarthy took up the Bush theme while the president was in office, exhibiting static variants of the present sculpture at the SMAK in Ghent in 2007, and two years later at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich. Many of those have been acquired by private and museum collections around the world, including a version in foam that was displayed by French billionaire François Pinault, the owner of Christie’s auction house, in his foundation in Venice during the last Biennale.
The motorization of the image is what’s key here, and the highlight of the 65-year-old McCarthy’s first exhibition in his hometown in a decade. The two other pieces at L & M are colossal clusters of figures based on mid-century German Hummel figurines, kitsch images of children that McCarthy lumps together in deformed masses. They fill a rowboat in the more engaging work, “Ship of Fools, Ship Adrift” (2010), a massive bronze patinated in oily black that, despite its size and ambition, lacks the gravitas and elegance of the great allegories of human folly and perdition, such as Breugel’s Blind Leading the Blind or Goya’s dog. But then, to judge by his portrayals of Bush, McCarthy is not an artist that lets gravitas and elegance get in the way of a bawdy joke.Modern Painters on line on October 7, 2010.
Isn’t this latest McCarthy effort just perfect for the digitarati age we live in? Consumed in a few bytes, taking no more than a nanosecond to digest, and even less to replicate across the global tundra, meat to left, right, center and “independent” philosophies that adorn FaceBook pages? I can only think that artworks about George Bush are really no longer relevant, and indicate nothing more than a nostalgia for an era when that president was front and center every day.
You write that “artists were regrettably feeble in response to the Bush scourge.” If you were looking at major museums and high end galleries, you wouldn’t find much there. And I think it highly unlikely that anyone would unearth the McCarthy work 100 years from now as a telescope to the past in understanding the Bush years. We live full throttle in a time when rewriting the present is an ongoing occupation (with high wages and benefits), and McCarthy’s work will be reduced to the agitprop you believe it to be when such full-on 3-D posters are binned and stored. Warhol’s Vote McGovern poster of Nixon still reigns as a simple, effective political punch. But then again, Nixon was reelected and we’re reminded that few voters look to museums, galleries or artists to help them make up their political minds. When it’s bread and circuses, the bread is eaten fairly quickly and the circus is in town for only a few days.
MATTHEW ROSE/PARIS FRANCE
I think this is an excellent review, although I have not yet seen the actual piece in the gallery. I definitely will see the show. I too have very mixed feelings about Paul McCarthy. He seems to fall into the category of artists like Daumier and Rowlandson rather than Goya or Jonathan Swift. There is an obvious outrage but the actual satire is quite weak. Like much contemporary art there is a kind of clever, tongue-in-cheek commentary, but rarely a profundity that takes it to another level. What seems to be completely missed is what John Lennon said: “Love is real, real is love,
Love is feeling, feeling love,
Love is wanting to be loved.”
JAMES SCOTT LOS ANGELES
Well argued, sir. Seen individually, much of McCarthy’s work is mostly revolting but also humorous. Over time and in aggregate his oeuvre becomes somewhat convincing. Your comments renew my skepticism.
I agree with the work’s success. Whether intended by the artist Paul McCarthy or not, here I find his style and technique add up to an extraordinary punch in the face and the sudden jolt from shock given resonates with reason. As a symbol to our time I find it visually encapsulates a decay and decadence in leadership, the rape of innocence, the acceptance of giddy shows of deceptive play, excessive greed, and incestuous self gratification in a global world that has the potential to rapidly progress toward permanent economic and natural disaster.
Yet with this, the work’s impact also allowed me to breathe a momentary sigh of relief and experience a nostalgic tinge of hope that maybe everything can still be alright…
I think that this sculpture is an idiotic statement of the “I know better” genre, much adopted by opportunists to shock “the other isle” and awe their own ilk.
I actually think that McCarthy’s message will be, unfortunately, eternal for all of us living in Latin america: we shall always be that hog, maybe with a different US president on top, but always on our knees. I think that maybe, McCarthy’s work is not meant to be critical of Bush in particular, but of all the imperial US politics, Bush it’s just an excuse to expose a bigger hoax. But then again, the main victims of this hoax are Americans them selves, it’s only natural that they can’t see it..
Thank you for your insightful comments. McCarthy does appear idiotic, though I suppose he would maintain that the stance is appropriate to his protagonist. Not only idiotic, but uncivilized, repugnant, and so on. Natalia’s interpretation is certainly implicit, whether the hog is seen as Latin America or other areas of the world where the U.S. wields influence. Then again, our influence is not always malign, though Bush seemed fairly consistent in his application of failed foreign policies.